“We bless Thee for every comfort of our past and present existence, for our health of body and of mind and for every other source of happiness which Thou has bountifully bestowed on us and with which we close this day, imploring their continuance from Thy Fatherly goodness, with a more grateful sense of them, than they have hitherto excited” (from Jane Austen’s Prayers).
Nobody likes a spoiled child; except, perhaps, the one who does the spoiling. But seriously, how could anyone else care for someone with “the power of having rather too much her own way” and, even worse, “a disposition to think a little too well of herself”? That’s simply asking too much for any normal human being.
But that is exactly what Jane Austen attempts and, quite often, achieves in guiding the reader’s perception of her titular character, Emma Woodhouse. This young woman, we are told, “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” In spite of all these gifts given her by her creator, Emma acts in an extremely self-centered and, at times, insensitive manner. Yet, at the conclusion of the novel, it seems that it should be against our better judgment that we find ourselves won-over by Emma’s charm and desiring her happiness with Mr. Knightley.
On the other hand, we are not very different from Emma Woodhouse. We have received life from God, who has created us and holds us in existence. On top of that, He bestows us with countless other gifts and blessings, and all of this He does out of love for us. Despite this love, we act out through sin and turn away from Him for the sake of our own self-interests. Still, God reaches out to us calling us to conversion, to turn back to Him and live.
In the case of Emma Woodhouse, this conversion is rather late in coming. Throughout the novel she makes mistake after mistake, yet she continues to hold a high opinion of her own powers of observation and estimation. Further, the reader is given the rather intimate knowledge of these traits, as Austen subtly and cleverly tinges the narration with Emma’s thoughts and impressions. We see her repeatedly misread situations as she willingly interprets them according to her own fanciful conjectures of reality. The interesting and somewhat disturbing effect of Austen’s craft coaxes the reader into falling in love with this patently flawed heroine.
Perhaps Austen is successful because, at her core, Emma is a good person. In the midst of some of Mr. Knightley’s unflattering criticisms in the very first chapter, he admires the warmness and sincerity of Emma’s friendship for Mrs. Weston; without such qualities, he observes, “we should not like her so well as we do.” To a certain extent, the same is true for us. Part of God’s creation, we possess vestiges of His goodness. Made in His image, we reflect His goodness in an even greater way than the run-of-the-mill creature. However, with these greater blessings comes greater responsibility. The inherent goodness we possess and whatever good deeds we may accomplish are as straw if they lack the vivifying force of charity, which does not share an abode with sin. Therefore, we must look to God, who gives us the help of grace which disposes us to embrace the love He extends to us and to order our lives accordingly.
Similarly, while it is clear that Emma has a good heart, she must ultimately undergo a conversion. She must take heed of the deficiencies of her former deeds and amend her future behavior accordingly; however, this is not simply a cold, rational process of measuring her actions. It is also a matter of love. Emma dramatically, though perhaps characteristically, realizes her love for Mr. Knightley when her friend, Harriet, confesses her own love for him. Yet it is not jealousy that ultimately reveals Emma’s own heart to herself, for no such epiphany had occurred when she had feared he was in love with yet a third woman, Jane Fairfax (not an uncomplicated thing, this human heart!). Rather, Emma now feels and recognizes her love for Mr. Knightley because of his admonition to amend her ways, disposing her for this conversion. No longer simply the friend who often scolds her for her faults, he becomes the central part of Emma’s hopes for connubial bliss.
Finally, I should devote a few words to Mr. Knightley, lest I cause too much uneasiness in drawing an analogy between God and a man. Mr. Knightley is by no means a man without fault, but even his foibles point to features of God. He admits to taking liberties in openly reproaching Emma, but so does God reprimand his people through his prophets (e.g., Amos 2:6-16). Mr. Knightley cannot be free from the accusation of jealousy, but “the Lord – ‘Jealous’ his name – is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14). He is jealous because He desires our undivided affection, despite our faults and imperfections. Though we may stray, He remains faithful and calls to us, waiting for us to turn our faces towards Him and be saved.
As in the case of Emma Woodhouse, the conversion of our hearts is not simply a matter of obedience or mortification. God desires our happiness and our love. Out of love, He created us and blessed us with His Son so that, one day, we might hear Him say, “Come, beloved of my Father.” On that day, may we sing with blessed Augustine his hymn of love to the Beauty who is ever ancient and ever new.
Image: Marguerite Gérard, Artist Painting a Portrait of a Musician