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Article: Emma the 'Imaginist'

Jane Austen

Emma the 'Imaginist'

The Scope and Limits of Imagination

Spellbound, Emma Woodhouse is listening to the hair-raising narrative of Harriet Smith’s rescue from gypsies by Frank Churchill:

Could a linguist, could a grammarian, could even a mathematician have seen what she did, have witnessed their appearance together and heard their history of it, without feeling that circumstances had been at work to make them peculiarly interesting to each other? How much more must an imaginist like herself be on fire with speculation and foresight! Especially with such a groundwork of anticipation as her mind had already made.
“Imaginist.” The word was coined by Jane Austen according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Surplus of imagination or misuse of it are concepts which recur throughout Emma. Just as we noticed an opposition of sense and sensibility in Austen we find a contrast between “imagination” or “fancy” and judgment. Such a contrast was common for the writers of the eighteenth century. In Some Words of Jane Austen, Stuart Tave defines the broad opposition:
The judgment makes careful distinctions usually working with patience and with study, separating facts from errors, discerning just relations and distinguishing proprieties. It is interested in determining truth. The imagination, less concerned with real differences, ranges widely and moves quickly, sees similarities or makes its own agreeable combinations and unities, guided by its feelings. It is interested in finding pleasure.
For Samuel Johnson, one of the writers whom Austen admired the most, imagination was indeed wicked depraved, sinful, and corrupt and he prayed against it. He saw it as a disease of the intellect which could on occasions lead to madness. There is nothing so somber in Emma of course, given that she is only twenty-one and can be corrected by such a Johnsonian figure as Mr. Knightley. Her imagination has serious consequences though. The danger for Austen's heroine is that “imagination reshapes the world, and the self, to the desires of the mind.” To Emma, however, that faculty is very dear, and it is one for which she constantly seeks an object because it gives her a lot of pleasure: “That very dear part of Emma, her fancy, received an amusing supply.” (Volume 2, Chapter 8). Immediately upon meeting Harriet Smith, her delight is obvious:
Her first attempts at usefulness were in an endeavour to find out who were the parents, but Harriet could not tell. She was ready to tell everything in her power, but on this subject questions were vain. Emma was obliged to fancy what she liked—but she could never believe that in the same situation she should not have discovered the truth. (Volume l, Chapter 4).
We cannot fail to be struck by the irony of the words “obliged” and “truth” since we understand fancying is the obligation she loves to assume and the truth is of course one she would have reshaped to suit her own ends. She tries to improve Harriet's mind but soon she finds it “much pleasanter to let her imagination range and work at Harriet's fortune than to be labouring to enlarge her comprehension or exercise it on sober facts.” (Volume l Chapter 9). It is just as Knightley had predicted: “She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” (Volume I, Chapter 5). When facts cannot be embellished, she invents them as when she draws the cozy scene of Elton showing Harriet's likeness to his family:
No, my dear little modest Harriet, depend upon it, the picture will not be in Bond Street till just before he mounts his horse tomorrow. It is his companion all this evening, his solace, his delight. It opens his designs to his family, it introduces you among them, it diffuses through the party those pleasantest feelings of our nature, eager curiosity and warm prepossession. How cheerful, how animated, how suspicious, how busy their imaginations all are! (Volume 1, Chapter 7).
Emma has created a whole world and Harriet smiles. This delight in imagining is contagious, it seems, as Emma, Harriet, and even Elton's family seem caught up in it! The pleasure it brings allows imagination to feed on itself as when Emma is indulging her fancy while thinking of Frank Churchill:
... and pleasing as he was, she could yet imagine him to have faults; and farther, though thinking of him so much and, as she sat drawing or working, forming a thousand amusing schemes for the progress and close of their attachment, fancying interesting dialogues, and inventing elegant letters, the conclusion of every imaginary declaration on his side was that she refused him. (Volume 2, Chapter 13).
Jane Austen had foreseen that readers might not like Emma, but most readers like her because she is flawed and human. Is it because there is a part of her too much like ourselves? We all let our imagination influence our speech and action sometimes. Stuart Tave writes: “Imagination is ‘lively’ and gives added life; it gives power over life, over others and one’s self, and Emma enjoys the power of having rather too much her own way.” Emma is the cleverest of her family, she is idolized by her father and admired by all in Highbury. It explains in part why she is so convinced that her fancy is right. To Knightley, imagination is nonsense. Chapter 8, where Emma and Mr. Knightley are arguing about Mr. Martin's proposal to Harriet is the most graphic representation of the opposition of “sense” versus “imagination” we have in the novel:
–...A man always imagines a woman to be ready for anybody who asks her. – Nonsense! A man does not imagine any such thing, But what is the meaning of this? Harriet Smith refuse Robert Martin? Madness if it is so; but I hope you are mistaken. –…I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty and such temper the highest claims a woman could possess. –Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have is almost enough to make me think so too. Better be without sense than misapply it as you do. –She knows what gentlemen are; and nothing but a gentleman in education and manner has any chance with Harriet. – Nonsense, errant nonsense as ever was talked! cried Mr. Knightley. 'Robert Martin's manners have sense, sincerity, and good humour to recommend them; and his mind has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could understand’. (Volume 1, Chapter 8).
As Stuart Tave writes: “The non-sense of her imagination is an abuse of judgment in which she has not elevated her gifted mind but madly sunk it below the level necessary for common life.” It is obvious to the reader that Emma has too much imagination but it is interesting to remark that many characters in the novel are implicitly criticized for the opposite fault, that of having a deficiency of imagination. There are circumstances under which imagination cannot function: many characters cannot imagine certain kinds of possibilities and are thus limited. Mr. Weston upon giving up his son to the Churchills had no apprehension whatsoever: “The aunt was a capricious woman and governed her husband entirely; but it was not in Mr. Weston's nature to imagine that any caprice could be strong enough to affect one so dear and, as he believed, so deservedly dear.” (Volume 1, Chapter 2). Mrs. John Knightley reflecting upon Miss Taylor's marriage cries out: 'How you must miss her! And dear Emma, too! What a dreadful loss to you both! I have been so grieved for you! I could not imagine how you could possibly do without her.” (Volume l, Chapter 11). Miss Bates had read Jane's letter to her mother and had expressed aloud her concern for Jane's health; later she recalls: “But I cannot imagine how I could be so off my guard!” (Volume 2. Chapter 1). Mr. Knightley, in love, forgets an appointment with Mr. Elton and Mrs. Elton scandalized by this lack of decorum exclaims: “I cannot imagine,” cried Mrs. Elton (feeling the indignity as a wife ought to do), “I cannot imagine how he could do such a thing by you, of all people in the world!” (Volume 3, Chapter 16). All these examples betray a certain narrowness of vision. Is this to mean that 'imagination' can be a positive trait? We are shown that there are certain things which Emma cannot imagine and that perhaps she should. When John Knightley hints that Elton might be interested in her:
“Yes,” said Mr. John Knightley presently, with some slyness, “he seems to have a great deal of goodwill towards you.” “Me!” she replied with a smile of astonishment. “Are you imagining me to be Mr. Elton's object?” “Such an imagination has crossed me, I own, Emma”, and if it never occurred to you before, you may as well take it into consideration now. (Volume 1, Chapter 13).
It seems that Emma's imagination only functions to give her pleasure. It gives her pleasure to exercize control over Harriet's destiny but not to become Elton's object. By the same token, when imagination functions properly, it is followed by evaluation. Mr. Knightley himself has suspicions about Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill:
He could not understand it; but there were symptoms of intelligence between them—he thought so at least—symptoms of admiration on his side, which having once observed, he could not persuade himself to think entirely void of meaning, however he might wish to escape any of Emma's errors of imagination. (Volume 3 Chapter 5).
The difference with Emma is obviously that this is based on observation and put to the test of his skeptical judgment first. Emma is amused at his attempts at imagining:
“I have lately imagined that I saw symptoms of attachment between them; certain expressive looks, which I did not believe meant to be public.” “Oh! You amuse me excessively. I am delighted to find that you can vouchsafe to let your imagination wander; but it will not do—very sorry to check you in your first essay—but indeed it will not do. There is no admiration between them, I do assure you; and the appearances which have caught you have arisen from some peculiar circumstances; feelings rather of a totally different nature; it is impossible exactly to explain—there is a good deal of nonsense in it—but the part which is capable of being communicated, which is sense, is that they are as far from any attachment or admiration for one another as any two beings in the world can be.” (Volume 3 Chapter 5).
There is so much assurance in her reply that once again we are to ascribe it to the sense of power and control over the events which Emma loves to have. Her imagination is indeed selective. Stuart Tave writes:
The imagination offers a freedom to the mind, a free ranging and lively activity, the quick eye that is not held by a limited vision, the insight into what is otherwise hidden. But the paradox of imagination, as Johnson had understood, is that it fixes its attention upon one train of ideas and gains its gratification by rejecting and excluding what it does not want. Seeing more, in its own conceit, it sees less, and having put its own shape upon the world it cannot conceive what lies beyond its preconceptions.
I could argue that imagination is the basis of all art and literature. Poets imagine, computers don't. Imagination in daily life is healthy and positive if tempered by reason. Emma is a psychological novel where we see the inner workings of a fallible mind, seduced by imagination, very much like our own and yet at the end, chastened into accepting the simple truth. That is, according to Marilyn Butler, where the final irony of the novel lies:
The final irony is that this most verbal of novels at last pronounces words themselves to be suspect. It has been called the first and one of the greatest of psychological novels. If so, it resembles no other, for its attitude to the workings of Emma's consciousness is steadily critical. Although so much of the action takes place in the inner life, the theme of the novel is scepticism about the qualities that make it up—intuition, imagination, original insight. […] Emma matures by submitting her imaginings to commonsense, and to the evidence. Her intelligence is certainly not seen as a fault, but her failure to question it is. The technical triumph is to employ the character-centred format, to place the action almost wholly within the heroine's consciousness, to enlist (as in the subjective tradition) the reader's sympathy; and at the same time, largely through the medium of language, to invoke the reader's active suspicion of unaided thought [...] it masters the subjective insights which help to make the nineteenth-century novel what it is, and denies them validity.
Françoise Coulont-Henderson teaches French language and literature in a small liberal arts university in the US. She has discovered Jane Austen late in life. Enjoyed this article? Browse our book shop.

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