Re-reading Box Hill: reading the practice of reading everyday life

Box Hill and the Limits of Realism

George Levine, Rutgers University

  1. Perhaps the most difficult thing for a modern reader of Emma to do is to take it straight, to accept Mr. Knightley as the moral authority the story seems to make him and to agree that Emma should indeed marry him. How can we take without either a shudder or a laugh the abject refusal of Emma—that "imaginist," self-indulgent, independent, charmingly creative and snobbish heroine—to call Knightley "George" after they are betrothed: "I never can call you any thing but Mr. Knightley" (III.xvii, 420). Moreover, taking Knightley at face value means, it would seem, taking at face value the idea that after all has been worked out, Emma has left for her "Nothing, but that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in the future." What a banal, reductive and limiting "moral" for a novel so extraordinarily rich in nuanced dancing around doubleness of meaning, around the virtual inaccessibility of a stable and verifiable truth of the matter, around the edgy if muted excitement of female independence and imaginative play!

  2. Recent criticism has delighted in the novel's preoccupation with puzzles, with the extraordinary variety of evasions, diversions, deceptions, and verbal play that mark social behavior on every page and almost every bit of dialogue. Much of the extraordinary pleasure of the book derives from the fact that even the most trivial comment is likely to imply some complexity of possibility that cannot be reduced to the bourgeois lessons of self-discipline: taming the imagination and learning humility. Even the very first paragraphs of the novel, written in the apparently authoritative, precise, judgmental voice of the Jane Austen narrator, will not quite hold still. So in what might pass as a directly expository mode, we are told "with what self-denying, generous friendship" Emma "had always wished and promoted the match" between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston (I.i, 4). But this turns out to be an early instance of Emma's "imaginism"—these are Emma's perceptions, and Knightley will challenge them only a few pages later, indicating authoritatively that Emma had in fact done nothing but make a "lucky guess" (10). And this little ambivalence opens into the whole sequence of mistaken actions and guesses about potential marriages that marks the rest of the novel's narrative and edges out into its moral crisis on Box Hill, where Frank blatantly flirts with Emma, enjoying the deception while Jane looks on, secretly wounded, secretly engaged, and Knightley, always surreptitiously in love with Emma, watches severely—and jealously. Nothing in Emma is exactly what it seems, it seems. Everything means something other or more than what is said, either for the reader or for the characters engaged in conversation. The anchor of judgment of all these instabilities would seem to be Knightley himself.

  3. Not that his own self-interest doesn't open his authoritative judgments to the same sort of questioning appropriate for all the others. He himself confesses, for example, that his early unfavorable judgment of Frank might have been influenced by his feeling for Emma. As with many scenes, the dramatic presentation of Knightley's critique profits from rereading, for it sounds utterly reasonable, and even Emma shares Knightley's views though she perversely encourages his critique and argues against it. Nevertheless, Knightley got it right, and virtually always gets it right. He knows that Elton won't think about Harriet Smith, believes, along with his brother, that Emma is the more likely object of Elton's attentions, knows that Robert Martin is the man for Harriet (and his view of Martin marks him as far less snobbish and far more perceptive than Emma), knows that Frank Churchill could have visited his father—Mr. Weston—if he had wanted to do so, recognizes that there is something going on in the relation between Frank and Jane Fairfax. Knightley advises Emma appropriately on every important issue, and, of course, at the moral climax of the novel, fairly reprimands Emma after her insult of Miss Bates during the Box Hill picnic. Knightley is almost always watching, and his observations have the quality of the realist novelist's: they turn nuances into significant actions, a grain of sand into a world.

  4. The catalogue of Knightley's accuracies could go on, but it should be read along with the dignity of his insistent demand for directness (and his necessary reticence about his feelings for Emma), with his openness and clarity in all relationships, with his refusal to be bullied by Mrs. Elton (in the matter of preparation for strawberry picking at Donwell Abbey, for example), with his rescue of Harriet from the indignities of the Eltons' behavior at the ball. The novel confirms Knightley's unquestioned superiority to all others when, in the penultimate chapter, Emma sees Frank Churchill once more and notes how "she had never been more sensible of Mr. Knightley's high superiority of character. The happiness of this most happy day, received its completion, in the animated contemplation of his worth which this comparison produced" (437). And at last, with the marriage of Emma and Knightley, this novel of evasions and complications concludes with the assurance that "the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union" (III.xix, 440).

  5. All of which is to argue that Emma offers itself as a novel that is, through its various detours and duplicities, what it claims to be, and this, for skeptical modern readers, is rather hard to take. Although the word "realistic" would, in application to Jane Austen's novels, have a touch of the anachronistic about it, they were long seen as "realistic" models for the more developed and programmatic versions of realism that followed. In the heyday of Victorian realism, George Eliot, George Lewes, William Dean Howells—virtually everyone who would talk about her (even Charlotte Bronte in her criticism of her)—saw Austen as a realist. Emma, in an exemplary way, fits into the pattern of English realism, most particularly in its working through of the protagonist's "formation," her Bildung.

  6. We have been hearing much, too, about the ways in which nineteenth-century realism was ideologically complicit in the construction and affirmation of bourgeois society and consciousness. The protagonists of Emma are instinctively aloof to people who are "vulgarly" related to money (by work, like Farmer Martin, or the Coles, or by nouveau riche connections, like Mrs. Elton), and they are explicitly, unselfconsciously "complicit." The education of Emma is precisely the education into self-control, social discipline, and acquiescence in larger social norms that has been attributed to books more obviously, even egregiously so, like David Copperfield. There is no hidden conservative agenda in Austen's writing, no ruse of resistance, as D. A. Miller might see it. She is, rather, quite overtly committed to good old money and land and self-discipline. Yet Mr. Weston, who is one of the select few, somehow makes his fortune, and John Knightley is rather busy making money in London. And if the thoroughly landed Emma and Mr. Knightley preside unequivocally over the community with the qualities of true gentleman and lady, that community is subtly infested with the odor of the new bourgeoisie. The novel gives the impression of seeking socially equal matches, and formally it has, therefore, a wonderful precision of shape, but while the matching works with Emma and Knightley, it is less obviously precise elsewhere. Mrs. Elton is a parvenu, and a grossly unpleasant one, but the amiable Mrs. Weston was a governess elevated above her position, Harriet Smith is a bastard who marries into farming respectability, and Jane Fairfax would have been a governess and is rescued by the old money given to the son of new money, Frank Churchill: that is, despite appearances, the marriages tend actually to be unequal as to class, if largely equal as to "merit"—as merit is defined by Mr. Knightley (even here, there's a question of whether Harriet is good enough for farmer Martin, if Frank is good enough for poor Jane; to be sure, the Eltons deserve each other).

  7. There would seem to be nothing in Emma that resists the ordering of bourgeois consciousness, the transference of the best of the aristocratic ideal to the newly emerging bourgeoisie, and the confidence in the comforting solidity of the social real. Moreover, the book is obviously not—like the later realism of some of the high Victorians—reformist. It is not so much that its resistances are actually to be understood as complicities, but that it unequivocally takes its complicities as the social and moral ideals, usually affirmed by Mr. Knightley, as the measure against which all other behavior is to be judged. Emma, like Elizabeth Bennett before her, is allowed the fullest reach of her individuality and specialness, and acquiesces, of her own choice, in the general values that Knightley persistently affirms and that, the book always reminds us, Emma has always shared, deceived only about her own power independently to achieve them.

  8. Emma reverberates with the strategies of realism even in its multiple complications of them. The realism that took deep root in the nineteenth century was, at its most interesting, always pressing the limits of empirical validation, resisting its own awareness of the impossibility of its project. The excitement of realist texts, like the excitement of much of Emma, is their tightrope walk across the abyss of uncertainty, inevitable deception and self-deception, alternative possibilities. The narrator of Adam Bede, in a passage that is often taken as the fullest articulation of the mid-Victorian realist project, notes that his work is to "give a faithful account of men and things," but only "as they have mirrored themselves in my mind." Moreover, "the mirror is doubtless defective." While Austen's narrator writes with an apparent authority that belies such defect, she is sparing of narrative omniscience, and every character within the novel, even Knightley himself, is a defective mirror. For the most part, though not entirely, the narrator stays out of it, slides into Emma's consciousness, records dead pan (often, of course, in hilariously funny ways) what people say and think, and only appears unequivocally as narrator at the points at which she makes sure we are aware of the conventions of romance happy endings. She leaves the sorting out of truth and values to the characters themselves—for the most part. And yet some voice announces, at the point when Emma has at last recognized her love for Knightley and her determination to allow nobody but herself to marry him, and when Knightley has made it clear that the feeling is mutual: "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken" (391). The test of realism is precisely its encounter with the impossibility of getting it right, of registering the really real.

  9. Realistic novels often turn at a point of crisis—an extreme situation—that extends realism beyond its normal limits. Such crises frequently occurs at some extreme geographical point, often on open waters, as, say, in The Mill on the Floss or Great Expectations, but usually on some height, as in garrets, mountains, or hills. Waverley's trials begin in the highlands, from which he is expelled in spite of himself. Lucy Snowe's gothic nun and her rehearsal for M. Paul's play take place in the attic. The landscape of realism, literal or moral, is traditionally urban or flat; its excursions into geographical extremes, like the Alps, almost invariably test the limits of the ordinary that is so often affirmed as the "real" in English realism. Box Hill, of course, is not the Alps, but its heights seem to crystallize the divisiveness and instability that the social norms of Highbury and Jane Austen's prose work hard to judge and restrain. Somehow, as against the intense sociality of the rest of the book, on Box Hill "there seemed a principle of separation" (III.vii, 332). And even Emma, after two hours of "flattery and merriment" from Frank Churchill "wished herself rather walking quietly with any of the others, or sitting almost alone, and quite unattended to, in tranquil observation of the beautiful views beneath her" (III.vii, 338). Beautiful views, it seems, are not quite compatible with the delicate interrelations that sustain society and form the substance of a realist world of compromises and connections.

  10. It is, perhaps, excessive to talk of "extremes" in Emma, which begins with Emma attending lovingly to the hypochondria and nervousness of Mr. Woodhouse, who imagines anything but gruel as poisonous to health and, later, fears a light sprinkling of snow an occasion for being snowbound. Frank Churchill's quick excursion for a "haircut" is quite obviously beyond the limits of realistic constraint. It is surely only an Austenian extreme that brings the novel to its moral crisis on Box Hill, when in two lines Emma wittily and woundingly acts out her impatience with the garrulous Miss Bates. Yet Box Hill is unmistakably marked as extreme: the chapter devoted to it ends with Emma in tears. It is the only time that Emma cries, and, indeed, the tears are shocking in their suddenness; they throw into relief Emma's wonderful difference from usual sentimental heroines. She is no weepy, romantic, pining heroine, and her relation to all others in the novel—even as she almost parodies the sentimental novel in her labor at matchmaking—is so knowing, so superior, so supremely confident that tears mark, with the geographical heights, the emotional extreme of her career, the vulnerability she has persistently resisted. The narrator allows the extremity in a phrase that seems almost a throwaway, that even in announcing the strangeness almost refuses to acknowledge the tears' significance. "Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were" (III.vii, 341).

  11. The significance is, finally, in the descent that follows, the retreat to the real to which they lead. The tears are provoked, of course, by Knightley's just reprimand of Emma for being "so unfeeling to Miss Bates. How could you be so unfeeling," he asks, "to a women of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible" (III.vii, 339). Although throughout the novel, Emma had been almost unpleasantly severe in her impatience with Miss Bates, she had always publicly restrained her dislike, and for precisely the reasons Knightley offers in his reprimand. It seems "impossible" that Emma would so overstep herself, so violate the order of Highbury behavior. Yet in the artificial intensity of Frank Churchill's reaction to his arguments with Jane Fairfax that the novel to then has only hinted at for alert readers, Emma lapses from her characteristic social attentiveness and indulges her own wit and the pleasures of the flattery. Emma's tears in response to her "impossible" behavior are private, although Harriet, herself "not in spirits," accompanies Emma on the ride down from the hill. It is in fact because she has no time to redeem herself on Box Hill, to become social and connected once again (with Mr. Knightley, primarily, of course), that the tears come.

  12. Emma's response to the privacy and separateness of the extremes of Box Hill is immediately social and self-disciplinary, for the next chapter opens with her "pleasure" in attending to the comforts of her father: "As a daughter, she hoped, she was not without a heart. She hoped no one could have said to her, 'How could you be so unfeeling to your father?' [. . .]" (III.viii, 341). Her selflessness is read as public; it matters enormously how she is judged. And the morning after, she moves to redeem herself directly by an apologetic visit to Miss Bates: "she would not be ashamed of the appearance of the penitence, so justly and truly hers." Once again, repentance is read as public and social. She takes pleasure, for the first time, in hearing: "'the ladies were all at home.' She had never rejoiced at the sound before, nor ever before entered the passage, nor walked up the stairs with any wish of giving pleasure, but in conferring obligation, or of deriving it, except in subsequent ridicule" (III.viii, 342). The crisis of Box Hill has made an irrevocable change, and Emma's Bildung is almost complete.

  13. But of course, nothing in Emma is as uncomplicated as it might look. Yes, Emma is deeply repentant, and yes, she is angry with herself . She asks herself, as she drives away from Box Hill, "how could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates." But she also asks herself, "how could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued!" (III.vii, 340). The public drama of sin and repentance, of excess and self-discipline, is the secret drama of Knightley and Emma's love for each other. Knightley's appropriate reprimand is in fact driven by his jealousy of Churchill's gross flirtation with Emma; Emma's repentance may have more to do with the loss of Knightley's regard than with concern for Miss Bates. The tears mark Emma's entrance into the role of romantic heroine as well as her developing renunciation of her own self-love. The repression of imaginist energies is clearly an internalization of the values of Knightley himself. Emma, in her growth to maturity, within the Bildung pattern, achieves the freedom of renouncing the recklessness of her imagination and the satisfactions of self for the constraints of the Knightleyan social ideal. The novel makes the inevitable realist move to social compromise. The two narratives, the unspoken romance and the taming of the Bildung heroine, play out together.

  14. Yet the novel and the drama of Box Hill are infinitely more interesting and complicated than the Bildung schema, itself interesting enough, might suggest. The "extremity" of Box Hill is played out not only in Emma's unkindness to Miss Bates and her single lapse into tears, but in the dance of possible meanings and misunderstandings that mark almost every line of dialogue. No character fully understands what is happening, and as readers, constrained as we are by Emma's own perspective, we can only guess. The strange "separateness" of the couples on the hill is played out in the way the scene is narrated. Frank, though he seems to know that Emma does not love him, has misunderstood Emma's sense of their relationship; Emma takes the flirtation seriously enough but is preparing for a match between Harriet and Frank; she has no idea of Frank's relationship with Jane and certainly no notion that Frank behaves as he does because of that relationship; Knightley is jealous of Frank's flirtation but, as ever, turns that jealousy into more general moral judgment, both of Frank and of Emma; Mr. Weston blindly and genially plays into Frank's flattery of Emma, assuming of course that Frank's flirtation is serious and hoping that Frank will in the end marry Emma. Frank's comments about the Eltons are only fully intelligible when the history of his relations to Jane are spelled out in later chapters. It is not easy to read what is a rather angry and nasty attack on Jane in his contemptuous dismissal of the way in which the Eltons met, briefly, at Bath: "as to any real knowledge of a person's disposition that Bath, or any public place, can give—it is all nothing; there can be no knowledge. [. . .] How many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance, and rued it all the rest of his life!" (III.vii, 337). Frank's meeting of Jane at Weymouth is the retrospectively obvious allusion here, but as the chapter unfolds, the reader can only guess, or accept the comment at face value. Virtually all the language of the Box Hill section grows in the light of later information the book supplies. So while the scene seems self-contained and fits splendidly into the Bildung pattern, it is constantly suggesting other possibilities, possibilities that only the shrewdest readers might guess on their first time through the book.

  15. All the worst of the events on Box Hill begin when Frank tries to liven the party by asserting that "I am ordered by Miss Woodhouse to say, that she desires to know what you are all thinking about" (III.vii, 334). Knowing what everyone is thinking is in fact the dominant problem of the book, at least Emma's problem, for Emma consistently gets it wrong. Frank's outdoor parlor game pushes beyond the limits both of the restrained narration of Emma and of possibility. It is nevertheless the case that the narrative would have changed significantly if everyone had in fact volunteered his thoughts. Yet Knightley, appropriately cuttingly, inquires: "Is Miss Woodhouse sure that she would like to hear what we are all thinking of?" While Emma knows that many in the company are thinking hostile thoughts, she does not know what Knightley, Harriet, Frank, or Jane are thinking: knowing that would change the nature of the narrative, and hasten the denouement. Yet, when the ground shifts to asking everyone to say something entertaining (or dull), Emma in fact sins precisely by saying what she thinks but shouldn't say: her hostility to Miss Bates' verbosity and tedium burst out. So the Box Hill episode, raising the question not only of whether one can know what others are thinking, but whether it is a good idea always to say what you think, threatens to complicate once more the overt commitment of the book and of the protagonists to the supreme value of openness. Being social, being kind, being generous is often incompatible with full knowledge.

  16. The reader leaves Box Hill, like Emma, with very incomplete and even contradictory knowledge. Yet, in the end, the novel resists its own multiplicities and instabilities. If we can read Knightley's chastisements in more than their literal sense, understanding how the firm moral judgments are directed by personal interest, and if in the end we need to agree with the narrator, who tells us that it is impossible ever to tell the whole truth undistorted, it is difficult to disagree with Knightley and Emma's revulsion from deception, indirectness, and with their urgent satisfactions in openness. The drama of Box Hill emphasizes the risks of deception and incomplete knowledge, the inevitability of mixed motives, the dangers of undisciplined openness. And precisely because the world is so obviously a web of uncertainties, doubleness, contradictions, and multiplicity of meanings, the urgency of the Knightley ideal carries its weight.

  17. And so by various strategies of confirmation of guesses and plot resolutions Austen moves her narrative toward a confident sense of what might count as true and good without requiring the narrator to claim omniscience. There is just the slightest touch of clumsiness to the primary device Austen uses to settle things—Frank Churchill's extensive, explanatory letter—but the clumsiness, so utterly unusual in Austen's work, is a sign of the difficulties and of the seriousness of what's at stake. Frank's letter to Mrs. Weston, which the novel gives in full, accounts for what turns out to have been Frank's deliberately misleading behavior. The attentive reader will have figured most of this out: the frequent visits to the Bates, the coincidence of Frank's visiting his father with the return of Jane Fairfax to Highbury, the explanation of Frank's bad behavior at the outing at Donwell Abbey by the fact of an angry encounter with Jane on her way down from the party, the flirting with Emma.

  18. Of course, Frank, too, even in the letter designed to clarify, has some things wrong—in particular, his notion that Emma had some inkling of what was going on between Frank and Jane. But what matters is that the evidence is in: Knightley, for all his prejudice, turns out to be right. The letter itself, in its self-exculpation, good enough for Mr. Weston and perhaps also for Mrs. Weston, is hardly good enough for the reader, who should by now have internalized the lessons of Knightley and the final judgments of Emma. Frank's commitment to secrecy and fear of losing Mrs. Churchill's support have led him to a kind of cowardice that only a clever letter can in part disguise. The novel and Emma are certainly right: Mr. Knightley is by far the better man. Austen's characteristic perfunctory way of concluding the "romance" of the novel, with language that offers itself as cliché, or something close to cliché, may suggest some unease with the authority she allows the narrative to take over the extraordinary dramatic complications of the realist crisis, but it also suggest her novel's final refusal to acquiesce in the confusions and obscurities it has so brilliantly dramatized on Box Hill.  

    Works Cited

    Austen, Jane. Emma. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995. Cited by volume, chapter, and page.

    George Eliot, Adam Bede. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1980.

    D. A. Miller, The Novel and the Police. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

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Published @ RC

April 2000