OF BUENOS AIRES
THE PERFECT MATCH
On reading Jane Austen's Emma, regardless of the ways employed by the characters, either in "husband -hunting" or "wife-searching", it is interesting to recall which should be the merits and accomplishments of the "perfect husband" and the "perfect wife" according to the general opinion expressed specially by the heroine of the novel.
Let us start with the "perfect husband" who would make the "perfect match" with the "perfect wife".
AGE: One remarks at once that men should not marry too young, i.e. "Mr Woodhouse had not married early" (p. 588). Indeed this character "lamented young people would be in such a hurry to marry" (p. 667). No hurry then, otherwise, the man generally "chooses ill" (p. 785). Emma's opinion on Mr Martin's age insists on the subject: "only four-and-twenty. That is too young to settle...but six years hence..." (p. 598)
FORTUNE: Of course, before searching for a wife, he should have a "comfortable income, a respectable establishment". (p. 599)
In Emma's circle, manners are extremely important: they should be those of a "gentleman"
SOCIAL ENVIRONMENT: "It is only by seeing women in their own homes, among their own set, just as they always are, that you can form any just judgement. Short of that, it is all guess and luck, and will generally be ill-luck"(p. 759). The last applies to the fact of marrying far away from your social environment. But also it advises for a suitable time to know each other, because as Frank Churchill remarks: "how many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance, and rued it all the rest of his life" (p. 759) The happy marriage of Mr Elton to Augusta Hawkins who only met for a few weeks in Bath is considered: "Peculiarly lucky!" (p. 759)
On the other hand, the gravity suggested by those sayings, is in full contrast with Jane Fairfax's remarks with reference to imprudent attachments:
Incidentally, it is perhaps this understatement that led Edward Knightley say about Jane Fairfax: "She has not the open temper which a man would wish for a wife" (p. 719)
In the case of the "perfect wife", we shall try to compare briefly her accomplishments in Jane Austen's opinion with those outlined in Proverbs IX and St Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, chap. 5, a source of inspiration to later writers on the subject.
In Western literature for example, we find De institutione feminae christianae (1523) by Juan Luis Vives. Before him the Classics had only written about women episodically (Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle) but always in the perspective of an exhortation to chastity. So had done the specialists in Theology like Tertulian, Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine. In fact, feminine education as Vives proposes is impregnated by Saint Paul's teaching. Half a century later, we find it in Fray Luis de León's La Perfecta Casada (1583). In France, Fénelon followed the latter's footsteps in Traité de l'Education des Filles (1689).
How difficult it is to find, according to the Book of Proverbs, the "perfect wife":
Among her merits is stressed:
Similarly, in the novel, the characters insist upon those qualities of a future wife who must be "well judging and truly amiable." (p. 597) Well judging because Emma thinks: "men of senses do not want silly wives." (p. 615) And besides, "there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart (...) and for a wife -a sensible man's wife- it is invaluable." (p. 710)
So does Emma, the heroine, mistress of her father's house from a very early period and who dearly loved and took good care of her aging parent.
Also according to the Proverbs,
An episode in the novel shows the heroine paying a visit to a poor family. The virtue of charity is also visible here.
In Emma, there is a point made on the subject that does not appear in Proverbs. It is however cited in St Paul's Epistle among the duties of the married:
Mr Knightley confides to Mrs Weston that her stay with Emma has taught her a very important accomplishment:
That is the wife's obedience to her husband.
Jane Austen can actually encompass all aspects of human behaviour and condition with great subtlety. Very tactfully, she may bring Mr Knightley to a climax when discussing Frank Churchill's misdemeanor towards his father, Mr Weston, in that he often fails his promises of visiting him and Mrs Weston, at Randalls.
By minute discussion of the situation, both Knightley and Emma exchange opinions about the young man's attitude. For her part, she takes sides with Frank Churchill whom she rather discharges of any plausible offensive behaviour arguing that "situation and habit" make all the difference. This is not so with Mr Knightley though.
The feminine mind -shrewd and complying as it might be- may at moments encounter its pits and fall and in so doing, tend to overprotection or overbearing reasoning.
The masculine mind -conversely- less dependent, less sanguine, more assertive as such, is more apt to reach down to fundamentals and call things by their name. Feerlessly, straightforwardly as in the case with righteous, liberal minded, well meaning, Mr Knightley. The well administered crescendo that through-out chapter XVIII leads to the latter's spiteful remark:"He is a person I never think of from one month's end to another" (p. 656),causes the reader to feel, to breathe a gust of fresh air that the interplay of bright and well meaning minds, feminine and masculine, in this case, can bring about with.
Oddly enough, Emma, who had been driven into this disagreement with Mr Knightley, was "taking the other side of the question from her real opinion, and making use of Mrs Weston's arguments against herself "... and all this "to her great amusement". (p. 653) A typical case of transference.
Here is the real gist of the question. Emma is making her point ever so cunningly as she says:
Back and deep in her mind is this question of dependence. Much deeper than this overruling nature of hers, this irrepressible imagination to settle things officiously the way of matchmaking on other people's behalf.
She can very well grasp -overstepping the mark a little in saying it- the dependence of Frank from the Churchills. She does not see anything unmanly in the young man's behaviour or at least admits so.
On the other hand, this gives Mr Knightley the opportunity to bring forth a man's more assertive nature, dictated by vigour and resolution these basic, essential virtues, if there are any. To this purpose, he says:
And all this, within the strictest and most gallant rules of behaviour.
All in all, the "disagreement" boils down to what could be called a tiff or petty quarrel, one of many flirting games in courtship in which temperament and conviction play their part ever so lightly, ever so shrewdly, ever so forcefully...
In Emma's opinion:
so she advises:
The "perfect match" is supposedly reached at the end of the novel. Mr Knightley, sixteen years his future wife's senior, is a well established man, and "You might not see one in a hundred, with gentleman so plainly written as in Mr Knightley" (p. 600), comments the heroine. He has known Emma since she was born. But is she the "perfect wife"? Some doubts remain. She is "handsome, clever and rich" but she has had "the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself"(p. 587). Although these "disadvantages" tend to be softened as the novel unfolds, and she realizes in the end that she had been a fool with her match-making mania, one can wonder if the change has really taken place and transformed her character enough to accept her future husband's command. Of course, being his senior and very much in love with her, he certainly will point out the errors that eventually she can commit and forgive her for them.
Most marriages fail, according to the author, through men's fault. With regards to the failure of the Prince Regent's, and the long, undignified wrangle between him and his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, Paul Johnson reports our author as saying or writing in 1813:
If this is correct, two years later Jane Austen had changed her mind, dedicating what many consider her best novel to the most exalted of her "fans" as H.R.H.'s "dutiful, obedient and humble servant".
In Jane Austen's historical context, Johnson also recalls that:
None Nontheless, in Emma, our author's talent provides us with an intrigue which keeps the reader's interest alive up thereader's up to the last page and besides, gives us some sound advice on the conditions for a "perfect match" that, surprisingly, can still be acceptable.
Susana N. Zanetta and Nadine Aguilar
Austen, Jane, Emma in The Complete Novels, New York, Gramercy Books,1981 The Holy Bible, King James' version (1611)
Proceedings of The Jane Austen Society of Buenos Aires, October, November 1998 .