Jane Austen: Bits to Bytes
Material Realities and Contexts
Oct 31 Class 11
DUE Post #9
Paula Byrne, The Real Jane Austen: A Life in Small Things
Given our focus on material contexts and realities as reflected in the novels and the scholarship on Jane Austen, I chose this biography
of Jane Austen, originally published in 2012, because it creates a unique lens for each chapter by historizing and contextualizing an object
either from Jane's life or associated with her somehow. Byrne does a good job tying the objects back into the novels, and by this point in the
course, you have read most of the novels and so should be able to appreciate the scenes she references. I've asked you to choose three
chapters to read (more if you have time and interest). It is not a chronological life, and so there is no fear of missing part of the
story by jumping around. Rather it is a pastiche told through affective objects, objects latent with emotion.
Which objects/chapters did you choose and why? What historical, biographical, and/or literary information surprised you and why? What
raises your curiosity to know more?
As a method for telling the story of the author's life, how does the use of objects work? Do you find this a compelling method? What
are some of the benefits and drawbacks?
To what extent do the objects that attracted your notice appear in the novels? Has this biographical context affected the way you understand
the fictional texts?
Emma is a novel replete with affective objects, from portraits and gruel, to carriages and apples, spectacles, pianoforte, carriage,
and so many more. Perhaps the most affecting object scene involves Harriet's box of "Most Precious Treasures" (III.iv). Analyze the meaning
of the objects that Harriet is ready to burn, the court plaister and the pencil stub. How does their value change in the course of the narrative?
How is their value different to different characters? For example, why does Emma try to save the court plaister? What does the scene reveal
about the nature of objects in the narrative? What does it reveal about the characters?
What is the difference between the affective objects debated in this scene and the consumer objects debated in other scenes, such as ladies' finery
or the proper vehicle of transportation? What does the novel have to say about consumerism? Think of the Eltons and the Coles.
Highbury, according to Juliet McMaster in her article on "Class" in The Cambridge Companion, is a social microcosm that encompasses a full
range of classes interacting in a close-knit society. The main character, Emma, like many others in the narrative is a fine discriminator of
class distinctions. Several key moments in the novel involve the rupture of these fine discriminations, such as the Cole's dinner party, the
discovery of Harriet's parentage, Elton's pretension to marry Emma, and, indeed, the mystery at the heart of the story, the revelation of the
secret engagement between Frank and Jane. Using some of these key textual moments, can you assess if the novel's sympathy rests with a particular
class? Is there a difference between class and status? How does gender and rank affect status? What is the benefit of containing
the narrative in this small community?
The novel makes some pointed comments on the status of single women, in particular with the contrast between Emma and Miss Bates. Harriet and
Emma discuss the reasons why Emma herself does not marry, and Harriet worries she will be yet an old maid. Emma is caustic in her reply: "it is
poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous,
disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant
as anyone else" (I.x). What is true about this statement? How does this reflect the class and status norms of the culture? What is not
true about this statement? What does it suggest about the perspective that Emma has and why she has it?
Compare this scene to the humbling of Emma after the disastrous trip to Box Hill (III.vii). Why is Knightley angry at Emma for her joke? What is
right about his censure? How does Emma respond? Consider Jane Fairfax as a single woman without fortune rather than Miss Bates. Emma (III.viii) reflects
"on the difference of woman's destiny" comparing Jane with Mrs. Churchill. What might the novel say about this interesting topic? (I noted
that the word "destiny" is used 7 times in the novel, generally with respect to marriage.)
George Justice in his introduction to the new NCE writes that Emma "rewards rereading to an extent perhaps unmatched in the British novel;
it is like one of the puzzles, charades, and other word games that populate the narrative, not to be unfolded without careful disentangling" (ix).
Conjecture as to what happens when one rereads Emma and why it is so particularly rewarding?
The chief mystery revolves around the story of Frank Churchill. Analyze how the story changes once we know his secret? What clues does Austen
provide along the way that we might otherwise miss because we are following Emma's perspective? Note the usefulness of the game playing in the
novel for revealing double-speak? Note the clues that are revealed in Miss Bates' ramblings? When taken together, the characterization is more
than a gesture toward realism and a highly intentional intellectual puzzle.
Emma may not be a character everyone likes, but what she is missing at the beginning of the novel is a companion who is her intellectual equal (I.1.6).
The narrative plays a game with the reader by moving close to Emma's perspective and then leaving openings for us to see gaps in her perspective.
What are the blindnesses that prevent Emma from seeing Frank for who he is? What are Knightley's?
Note the role of domestic tourism in the novel. How do the scenes strawberry picking at Donwell Abbey and picnicking at Box Hill function
in the text? What is the narrative significance? What is the symbolic significance? How do these scenes compare to the dinner parties (at
the Westons or Coles) or the ball?
This novel ends with three marriages in three months. Evaluate the relationships of the married partners in comparison with earlier novels.
At one point Harriet believes she has a hero, and Emma mistakenly believes she means Frank Churchil who saves her from the gypsies. What makes
a hero in this novel? Compare this with other heroes in previous novels? Do you see any trends? Do you see any significant differences in
the character of Knightley?
Who is the cad in Emma? Who is the fool? How do men fare in this novel? Where does Mr. Woodhouse belong on the spectrum of masculinity?
Discuss age in Emma? We see a range of characters from newborns and toddlers through to octogenarians and everything in between. How does
age (or the range of ages represented) affect the story being told?
As always, analyze the moment of revelation of love between the hero and heroine? Do you notice any trends? How is Emma different?
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