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From Emma (Jane Austen)

Published onFeb 12, 2024
From Emma (Jane Austen)



Emma was Austen’s fourth novel, written very quickly (in comparison to her other works) between January 1814 and March 1815. It is a bildungsroman (i.e. it shows a character’s education and development). The eponymous heroine, who Austen predicted ‘no one but myself will much like’, is the most affluent of Austen’s protagonists, which is perhaps why she is harder to like; the novel’s humour derives from her well-intentioned but clumsy match-making, and Emma undergoes a painful process of maturation. Like Pride and Prejudice, it involves the search for happy marriages and the clash of manners, class, and social status in Georgian England. The extract below comes from Chapter XV; Emma has tried to marry off the ambitious young vicar Mr Elton to her friend Harriet Smith, who has no money and no connections, being an illegitimate daughter whose parentage is unknown until late in the novel. After her father, her married sister Isabella and Isabella’s husband thoughtlessly leave Emma and Mr Elton to take a carriage together alone, Emma’s attempts backfire, and Mr Elton proposes to her instead.

From Chapter XV

Isabella stept in after her father; John Knightley, forgetting that he did not belong to their party, stept in after his wife very naturally; so that Emma found, on being escorted and followed into the second carriage by Mr. Elton, that the door was to be lawfully shut on them,1 and that they were to have a tête-à-tête2 drive. It would not have been the awkwardness of a moment, it would have been rather a pleasure, previous to the suspicions of this very day; she could have talked to him of Harriet, and the three-quarters of a mile would have seemed but one. But now, she would rather it had not happened. She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr. Weston’s good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense.

To restrain him as much as might be, by her own manners, she was immediately preparing to speak with exquisite3 calmness and gravity of the weather and the night; but scarcely had she begun, scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate4 and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up5—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her:6 availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted7 as soon as possible. It really was so. Without scruple—without apology—without much apparent diffidence, Mr. Elton, the lover of Harriet, was professing himself her lover. She tried to stop him; but vainly; he would go on, and say it all. Angry as she was, the thought of the moment made her resolve to restrain herself when she did speak. She felt that half this folly must be drunkenness, and therefore could hope that it might belong only to the passing hour. Accordingly, with a mixture of the serious and the playful, which she hoped would best suit his half and half state,8 she replied,

“I am very much astonished, Mr. Elton. This to me! you forget yourself—you take me for my friend—any message to Miss Smith I shall be happy to deliver; but no more of this to me, if you please.”

“Miss Smith!—message to Miss Smith!—What could she possibly mean!”—And he repeated her words with such assurance of accent, such boastful pretence of amazement, that she could not help replying with quickness,

“Mr. Elton, this is the most extraordinary conduct! and I can account for it only in one way; you are not yourself, or you could not speak either to me, or of Harriet, in such a manner. Command yourself enough to say no more, and I will endeavour to forget it.”

But Mr. Elton had only drunk wine enough to elevate his spirits, not at all to confuse his intellects. He perfectly knew his own meaning; and having warmly protested against her suspicion as most injurious,9 and slightly touched upon his respect for Miss Smith as her friend,—but acknowledging his wonder that Miss Smith should be mentioned at all,—he resumed the subject of his own passion, and was very urgent for a favourable answer.

As she thought less of his inebriety, she thought more of his inconstancy and presumption; and with fewer struggles for politeness, replied,

“It is impossible for me to doubt any longer. You have made yourself too clear. Mr. Elton, my astonishment is much beyond any thing I can express. After such behaviour, as I have witnessed during the last month, to Miss Smith—such attentions as I have been in the daily habit of observing—to be addressing me in this manner—this is an unsteadiness of character, indeed, which I had not supposed possible! Believe me, sir, I am far, very far, from gratified in being the object of such professions.”

“Good Heaven!” cried Mr. Elton, “what can be the meaning of this?—Miss Smith!—I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence—never paid her any attentions, but as your friend: never cared whether she were dead or alive, but as your friend. If she has fancied otherwise, her own wishes have misled her, and I am very sorry—extremely sorry—But, Miss Smith, indeed!—Oh! Miss Woodhouse! who can think of Miss Smith, when Miss Woodhouse is near! No, upon my honour, there is no unsteadiness of character. I have thought only of you. I protest against having paid the smallest attention to any one else. Every thing that I have said or done, for many weeks past, has been with the sole view of marking my adoration of yourself. You cannot really, seriously, doubt it. No!—(in an accent10 meant to be insinuating11)—I am sure you have seen and understood me.”

It would be impossible to say what Emma felt, on hearing this—which of all her unpleasant sensations was uppermost. She was too completely overpowered to be immediately able to reply: and two moments of silence being ample encouragement for Mr. Elton’s sanguine state of mind, he tried to take her hand again, as he joyously exclaimed—

“Charming Miss Woodhouse! allow me to interpret this interesting[1]silence. It confesses that you have long understood me.”

Footnotes by Emily Bell

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