THE JANE AUSTEN SOCIETY
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THE PERFECT MATCH
Genesis, II, verse18: “And the Lord God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.”
Verses 21 & 22: “And the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon Adam, and he slept, and he took one of his ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof.”
“And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto man”
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:
“A hasty and imprudent attachment may arise, but there is generally time to recover from it afterwards… It can only be weak, irresolute characters (whose happiness must be always at the mercy of chance) who will suffer an unfortunate acquaintance to be an inconvenience, an oppression for ever”. (p.759)
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”:
“Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies” (31, verse 19)
Among her merits is stressed:
“She openeth her mouth with wisdom; and in her tongue is the law of kindness”(verse 26)
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)
“She looketh well to the ways of her household, and eateth not the bread of idleness” says Proverbs. (v. 27)
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,
“She stretcheth out her hand to the poor; yea, she reacheth forth her hands to the needed.” (v. 20)
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:
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. (v. 22)
“For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body” (v. 23)
“Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (v. 24)
Mr Knightley confides to Mrs Weston that her stay with Emma has taught her a very important accomplishment:
“on the very material matrimonial point of subjecting your own will and doing as you were bid.” (p. 602)
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:
” You are the worst judge in the world Mr Knightley, of the difficulties of dependence. You do not know what it is to have tempers to manage”(p. 653)
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:
“There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do if he chooses, and that is his duty. Not by manoeuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution“. (p.654)
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:
“A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her” (p. 613),
so she advises:
“if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him. It is not a state to be safely entered into with doubtful feelings, with half a heart” (p. 609)
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:
“Poor woman! I am on her side as far as I can be because she is a woman and I hate her husband. If I must give up the Princess, I am determined at least to think that she would have been respectable had the Prince behaved in a reasonably tolerable manner at the start.
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:
“A crack or fissure in the literary scene tending to divide writers into two big factions was the acceptance or rejection of absolute morality. Jane Austen and her admired mentor, the poet George Crabbe, believed firmly in natural or absolute morality, which Man could not change… Hence… for example, in her most serious novel Mansfield Park, Jane Austen makes Fanny reject Henry Crawford’s proposal of marriage, notwithstanding the fact that it is made with the full approval of her benefactors.” (chap. V)
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 .
The Jane Austen Society of Buenos Aires