1814 to 1815 might seem so distant from our manners and lifestyles, yet, while reading Jane Austen’s Emma, I felt as if I were living right in the middle of it. How can one not be carried away by the sole thought of Austen’s words of love, compassion, sensibility, human nature, righteousness. A mature and brilliant commedy of manners, completed when she was 40 years old, Emma (together with Pesuassion) was published posthumously, preceded by Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1815). Jane Austen’s “free indirect speech”, in which the characters’ inner thoughts are spoken aloud (however, the author remains omniscient) perfected the art of telling a story, giving more depth and harmony to the plot. It kind of catches oneself lingering in the lives (and the brains) she so well describes. Emma was not an easy read. With so many characters and lives happening at the same time, one is caught wondering who that character was or who married the other. Nevertheless, when you think you are wandering in the fields of Highbury, Austen takes you by the hand and brings you back to where you should go, letting you know who is in charge of the story and, thankfully, arriving to the “finis” safe and sound.
“But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!”
“That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly — so satisfied — so smiling — so prosing — so undistinguishing and unfastidious — and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. But between us, I am convinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried.”
“But still, you will be an old maid! and that’s so dreadful!”
“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross.