Of all Austen’s novels, Emma is perhaps the most entirely engaging, the book in which her dexterity of thought is at its most truly dexterous and her contradictory energies most thoroughly enlivening, her strong satiric impulse to emphasize the chaos of life being perfectly balanced with her novelistic impulse to pattern, to scheme and to tidy. George Henry Lewes, writing in 1852 and naming her “the greatest artist that has ever written”, understood Austen’s limits – “she has risked no failures by attempting to delineate that which she has not seen” – but correctly adjudged “Her world is a perfect orb, and vital”, and no book of Austen’s is more perfectly orb-like than Emma. It represents the yin-yang of the Austen universe.
With Emma busy projecting her fancies and fantasies onto others, even more disastrously than Catherine in Northanger Abbey, this is the novel in which Austen comes closest to a rounded presentation not only of human society but also of human consciousness. There are certainly no spasms of rapture and self-revelation of the kind one finds in, say, show-boating Charlotte Brontë, which is exactly why Brontë thought Austen “insensible” and “incomplete” (though surely G. K. Chesterton was correct, that Austen is, in fact, “stronger, sharper and shrewder”). “Anything like warmth or enthusiasm”, Brontë complained,
anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstrations the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outré or extravagant . . . . The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood . . . . What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death – this Miss Austen ignores.
Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. And wrong again. There is very little throbbing or blood rushing in Austen, but this hardly means that the passions are unknown to her, as is best displayed in Emma in the famous passage in which Emma reflects on Mr Elton’s marriage proposal:
The hair was curled, and the maid sent away, and Emma sat down to think and be miserable. – It was a wretched business indeed! – Such an overthrow of every thing she had been wishing for! – Such a development of every thing most unwelcome! – Such a blow for Harriet! – that was the worst of all. Every part of it brought pain and humiliation, of some sort or other; but, compared with the evil to Harriet, all was light; and she would gladly have submitted to feel yet more mistaken – more in error – more disgraced by mis-judgment, than she actually was, could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself.
Emma here and elsewhere is most entirely herself, and the stormy sisterhood: “what she was, must be uncertain; but who she was, might be found out”.