I have picked up Emma again. I do this frequently, opening it to favourite scenes when I do not feel like rereading it in its entirety. A chapter before bed one day, another completely different one the next night and I am well set for another few Emma-less weeks. It is rare that a month goes by without me making at least one foray into its pages. I do not need to be reminded of what comes before or after to delight in the Weston’s Christmas party, to be both horrified and amused by Mrs Elton, or to blush with and for Emma over her behaviour at Box Hill.
Part of the delight of reading Speaking Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern recently was that they share my high opinion of Emma; I finally found a book about Austen that lavishes enough praise and attention on my favourite book to satisfy even me. They find enjoyment in contemplating the fates of their favourite characters and, goodness knows, like G.B. Stern I have spent enough (and probably will spend many more) nights lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, worrying about how poor, dear, exasperating Mr Woodhouse handled his daughter’s marriage:
I was lying awake and worrying over my personal life and affairs, when a semi-conscious longing arose to worry my mind instead, over something which need not worry me at all. Which sent me pondering on the life of Emma and Mr Knightley when they were married and lived, according to plan, with Mr Woodhouse at Hartfield. How did it work out, especially for Mr Knightley? (I wish he may not sink into “poor Knightley” at once.) How much did he linger at Donwell regretting that he could not live there with his young wife, master in his own home like other men? How soon came the first row, when Knightley forgot the respect due to his father-in-law? And on whose side was Emma then? Did Mr Woodhouse continue to insist on “wholesome” meals and “reasonable” hours? Was it gruel, gruel everywhere and not a drop to drink? Did he fuss in and out of season over possible damp airs in the warm evenings when husband and wife lingered where the sitting-room fire could not oppress them? – “but it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”
No careless joy for them without loving reproaches and timid warnings of disaster. And who sat with Mr Woodhouse and soothed his fears, while his beloved daughter was bearing her first child (that knock-out for little Henry as Donwell’s heir)? Was that, too, to be demanded of Mr Knightley in the name of duty?
Oh, Miss Austen, it was not a good solution; it was a bad solution, an unhappy ending could we see beyond the last pages of the book. There was no solution here for the most ingenious novelist except a gentle painless death-in-his-sleep for dear old Mr Woodhouse.
…So there I lay, and worried over them.
I love Mr Woodhouse, Emma and Mr Knightley as I love no other characters in literature. To me, Emma will always be a perfect book and there are few reading pleasures as great as revisiting it.