Jane Austen’s Emma is the funniest book I have ever read.
Emma may be too clever for her own good, she may flirt too heedlessly with Frank Churchill, she may almost ruin her friend Harriet’s life by advising her badly on marriage, but I prefer her company to that of the more subtly bitchy Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, the decorous Fanny in Mansfield Park, or the weak Anne in Persuasion (I love Anne, but she’s too passive, however hard Austen tries to explain it). Emma is smart. Emma says what she thinks. She doesn’t want to marry, and she prefers the lively Harriet to the rigid Jane Fairfax. Emma would destroy society in a moment, if Knightley weren’t there to criticize.
Knightley corrects all Emma’s mistakes, but he’s more like a father than a lover. I’ve always suspected he would be as tyrannical as Lucy Snowe’s unattractive fiance, M. Paul (her second choice when the man she loves chooses someone else), in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette.
Margaret Drabble’s heroine, Jane Grey, in The Waterfall particularly dislikes Knightley.
How I dislike Jane Austen. How deeply I deplore her desperate wit. Her moral tone dismays me: my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts. Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley. What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley. Sorrow awaited that woman: she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.
The Waterfall is a remarkable novel, has some Austenish overtones, and Drabble knows it. Her heroine Jane is a kind of anti-Jane Austen. In the last weeks of pregnancy, Jane lives alone, her husband having left her and her son having been sent to stay with her mother. She wanders around the house drinking coffee, shops only where no one will recognize her so she can be solitary, and reads an article about a woman who gave birth alone in a hut in Alaska.
Although Jane loves to be alone, she does call the midwife when she goes into labor. Then her cousin Lucy and husband James take turns staying with her. Handsome, sexy James, who owns a garage and fast cars, climbs into bed with her and sleeps with her chastely until she can have sex again. Then they have a steamy affair.
It is Jane’s first real love affair. She had married Malcolm, a musician, because she felt sorry for him, and they hadn’t suited one another in bed. James is an ideal lover, and loves to sit around the house with her: he doesn’t really work, he explains. He takes her and her children on outings and to the racetrack. The racetrack is too nerve-racking for her, though.
Jane doesn’t want much human contact except with James, and it is the fault of her neurotic family. She very much dislikes the rigidity of anything that resembles Austen’s social code. She hates the dissimulation and pretenses of her family: her father, a sarcastic headmaster, bullied boys and was deemed a success; her mother was a hypocrite and social climber who pretended not to care about material things but spent all her time sucking up to the rich; and her aunt browbeat her inferior “husband in trade” until he became capable of middle-class malice.
Drabble’s portrait of her parents does remind us of Austen’s world, and Jane inhabits a post-Austen world of the ’60s.
Some people conspire to deceive the world and find in their conspiracy a bond, but they did it, I think, with a sense of profound mutual dislike. They presented a united front to the world, because their survival demanded that they should, because they could not afford to betray each other in public; but their dissension found other devious forms, secret forms, underhand attacks and reprisals, covered malice, discreet inverted insults, painful praise.
Jane looks like Lucy, and does feel some guilt about her cousin. And when there’s an accident…
The fascinating narrative is sometimes in the third person, other times first-person, with Jane trying in the first-person sections to explain how she has lied or exaggerated in the third person.
She even cites Jane Eyre, and muses how she could have rendered James impotent/crippled like Rochester had she felt like Charlotte Bronte (which she doesn’t).
This is possibly Drabble’s most difficult book: it is beautifully written, but a humorless predecessor of The Needle’s Eye, one of her masterpieces.
By the way, I love Jane Austen, I read her books again and again, but I do understand Drabble’s Jane’s doubts.
For Jane fans, here is a link to Howard Jacobson’s fascinating speech on love and sex in Austen: he gave it at the Telegraph Hay Festival last weekend.