Deborah Yaffe


By Deborah Yaffe, Dec 28 2015 02:00PM

Amid the flood of tributes, appraisals and critiques unleashed by last week’s bicentennial of Emma, I’ve been intrigued to note the special interest inspired by the character of Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father.

Depending whom you ask, Mr. Woodhouse is a comic hypochondriac (Adam Kirsch in the New York Times Book Review), an anxious Alzheimer’s patient (Carol J. Adams in the New York Times’ Sunday Review section), or a voluntarily “fossilized creature” inhabiting a radically shrunken world (David Denby in the New Yorker).

Kirsch thinks Austen avoids the character’s darker shades, sidestepping the hateful, tyrannical version of Mr. Woodhouse that a different kind of writer would portray. Adams sees Austen as writing a “paean to caregiving, depicting its hardships, demands and frustrations.” Denby, recuperating from an eye operation, identifies with Mr. Woodhouse’s homebound condition and the narrowness of focus it entails.

Personally, I don’t see why we have to choose among these versions of Mr. Woodhouse. They are all present in Emma – first one, now another catching a gleam of light as we turn Austen’s multi-faceted jewel of a novel this way and that.

Looked at one way, Mr. Woodhouse is precisely the kind of “domestic tyrant” that Kirsch claims he isn’t; but, of course, he’s also one of the greatest comic creations in all of literature. Adams isn’t wrong to feel compassion for Emma’s caretaking duties, and admiration at the patience and efficiency with which she manages them; it’s precisely her kindness to her father that makes readers realize, at least by the third or fourth reading, that Emma is more than the spoiled rich kid she can seem on first acquaintance. And Denby, identifying with Mr. Woodhouse from the inside out, as we seldom do with Austen’s comic caricatures, suggests another way of understanding obsessions that usually seem entirely irrational.

To me, all these different versions of Mr. Woodhouse provide further illustration of one of Austen’s most remarkable qualities: her ability to hold multiple interpretations in equipoise, and thus to suggest the way that a change of perspective can alter perceived reality. Even more than the other novels, Emma is about maturation as an education in empathy – a never-completed lesson in seeing reality from someone else’s point of view. It’s a lesson that we readers can learn anew every time we return to Austen’s pages.

By Deborah Yaffe, Jun 30 2014 01:00PM

Yesterday’s New York Times Book Review ran an article by poet and critic Adam Kirsch responding to the question, “When we read fiction, how relevant is the author’s biography?”

I tend to be a skeptic of biographical interpretations of fiction, mostly because so many novelists are. Over and over, they seem to say more or less the same thing: that the events of their lives bear the same relationship to their stories as grains of sand do to pearls.

It’s not that there’s no connection – just that the connection isn’t linear and can’t necessarily be inferred from the final product. The imaginative transformation of the one into the other is the point of the whole enterprise.

In the course of his argument for a cautious and nuanced use of biography, Kirsch mentions Our Jane: “The self that matters to us as readers is the one we encounter in, or hypothesize from, the novelist’s pages. It is impossible to read Pride and Prejudice and Emma, for instance, without developing a very vivid sense of the kind of person Jane Austen must have been; indeed, the pleasure of Austen’s intellectual company is one of the primary reasons we read her.”

Of course, I agree: we all have our own picture of the kind of person who could write, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich. . .” We Janeites have such a strong sense of Austen’s personality that we sometimes daydream ourselves into a relationship with her. JA BFF!

But here’s where my skepticism kicks in. Our “vivid sense of the kind of person Jane Austen must have been” is really a vivid sense of the persona conjured by Jane Austen’s cool, ironic narrative voice – and that persona is every bit as imaginatively constructed as Elizabeth Bennet or Mr. Knightley. Jane Austen’s omniscient narrator is a Jane Austen character – she’s not Jane Austen herself.

Maybe the real live Jane Austen was just like her narrator – but maybe she wasn’t, and given the dearth of biographical evidence about her, we’re treading on thin ice if we try to extrapolate from the books to the life. Ultimately, Austen -- like so many of the novelist-friends we extrapolate from their pages -- is an imaginary BFF.

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