- [whimsical music]
Shilo Brooks: Welcome back to The Free Mind podcast, where we discuss philosophic and political ideas with adventurous disregard for intellectual trends. I'm Shilo Brooks from the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I'm joined today by Colleen Sheehan, professor of political science and director of graduate studies in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University. Sheehan is author of books on James Madison and the Federalist Papers, and she's published articles on subjects ranging from the American Founding to Jane Austen. She was Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy at the Benson Center in 2019, and she's a former professor at Villanova University. Our discussion today focuses on Jane Austen's novels, paying particular attention to Emma. We explore what makes Austen's character so enduring, the lessons Austen teaches about love in "Emma," and what readers can learn from Austen's complex use of language and her penetrating psychological insight into human nature. We're joined in conversation by Betty Kilsdonk, associate director of the Benson Center and Jane Austen superfan. Colleen Sheehan, welcome to The Free Mind podcast. And we have a special guest, the associate director of the Benson Center, Betty Kilsdonk, Jane Austen superfan. She's here with us today, too. So it's gonna be me and Betty and Colleen having a jam on Jane Austen. Welcome, you guys.
Colleen Sheehan: Thank you, Shilo.
Betty: Thank you.
Shilo: Yeah. I wanna start out by asking you a broader question about Austen. I think our order of business today will be to talk broadly about Austen as a literary and, arguably, I think, philosophic figure, and then to talk in particular later on about "Emma," which is one of her great books and one that I think the three of us very much enjoy. So I think I wanna start out, Colleen, by just asking you this question. You know, Austen is one of these authors. I studied Nietzsche. He's one of these authors, too. There's a handful of authors in the Western tradition where when they get you, it's like a virus and you wanna read everything that they've read. And not everybody's this way. I don't wanna read everything Kant ever wrote. I don't wanna do that. But some people are this way with Plato, some people are this way with Dostoevsky, Jane Austen, Nietzsche. They get under your skin. Austen is that way. So I wanted to start by asking you what is it about Austen that's so attractive, so enduring? What is it about her that's like a virus that gets under your skin? [Colleen laughs]
Colleen: Shilo, that is a very interesting way to put it, that I've never thought [laughs] about it that way before. Nietzsche might be a disease, but I don't think [Shilo laughs] Austen is. [laughs] Yeah, I mean, there are people who just absolutely love Jane Austen. And I have to admit, I'm probably one of them. What is it that's so special about Austen? I would say, first of all, she's [laughs] really smart. And her smarts and her talents, her ability to write, to turn a phrase. But there are a lotta people that are smart and have the ability to turn a phrase. I mean, there's Shakespeare, there's Nietzsche, [laughs] there's others, but we don't have societies. There's no Nietzscheanites, as far as I know, society that gets together every year and dresses up like Nietzsche, as for as- [Shilo laughs]
Shilo: That's right.
Colleen: I'm aware of. [laughs] I think with Austen, it's the combination of just how incredibly brilliant and insightful and witty and provocative she is. But also, it's about what she cares about, what she writes about. She writes about what we care about, what matters to us. And it's the biggest question, not just the big questions, it's the big question. How should we live our lives? She shows us, in a sense, without ever lecturing us. She never lectures us, but she shows us how we could become better people and how that might lead us down a path to a happier life. And who doesn't care about that?
Shilo: Yeah, yeah, no, that's a nice way of putting it. And you indicate that, I mean, in a way, I think what you're saying is the questions that Austen is addressing are living questions. They don't ever die. And this seems true to me. Let me ask you this. I mean, with respect to those questions, you mentioned she's posing the question in a way that's a great philosophic question about how we should live. There are other themes, it occurs to me, in her writing that are deeply philosophic. I have in mind there's a certain kind of political theme in her writing, a kind of reflection on the aristocracy. But even more than that, one of the greatest or deepest philosophic themes that seems to me to appear in Austen is Eros, love. Austen is a master of Eros. Just, I mean, arguably, perhaps, on the same plane as many of the other great philosophers: Plato, Xenophon, philosophers of Eros. How do you understand the role of love in Austen's writing? I mean, what is she exploring and what's peculiar about her exploration of love? We need not tell people, Jane Austen is the rare woman who is in the canon of the great books of the West. So my sense is that her perspective on this might be rich as a consequence. And do you have any sense for what she brings to the table on some of these deeper questions like that?
Colleen: Ah, yeah. 'Cause Austen does write about, of course, love in the sense of courtship and marriage, sort of romantic love. In fact, Allan Bloom wrote an interesting article on that, that he published as part of an anthology years ago in which he thinks of Jane Austen as a romantic, sort of in the tradition of the long, well, it wasn't a very long tradition then, but certainly starting with the romanticism founded by Rousseau. And Austen does advocate not arranged marriages, and not just based on class, but based on genuine feelings of love. But here's what's interesting. For Austen, love isn't. Remember "Sense and Sensibility"? That's what this is about, right? I mean, in a sense, it's, [laughs] no pun intended, in a sense [laughs] Marianne and Elinor are showing us, Marianne represents romantic love, right? No holds barred. Forget any kind of practicality. If that's where your feelings bring you, then go in that direction. Whereas Elinor says, "Well, "love isn't just a fancy. "It's not just a feeling." It also has to do with something else. And there's a certain necessity to be prudent about some of these things. Well, that sounds kinda cold, where Marianne's sounds passionate and what it should be. So where does Jane Austen fall in that, right? Well, I don't think she falls on the side of Marianne, certainly, but she does fall on the side of Elinor, but not the way I just phrased it. It's not a coldness on Elinor's part. It's a practicality of the world, of needing to, if you're gonna have children, be able to provide for them, right? Remember the Prices in "Mansfield Park." I mean, they have nothing. And so if you have nothing, you're not gonna get an education, either, and you're not gonna have the opportunities in the world to live a good life. So Austen is practical about these things. I think Bloom is wrong. She's not simply a romantic, but I also think she's not at all cold about these things. This is not a steely sharp, just a rationality. Here's, I think, a good example of it. Some people think in "Emma" that Mr. Knightley lacks passion. We don't know about his parents, where he came from. He's just presented in the beginning as Mr. Knightley. And you have to come to know him through what he says and through his actions. Everybody else, we know something about them, but with him, you have to judge for yourself based on how he lives and how he acts. And so some readers really think Knightley is, why did Emma fall in love with him? I mean, what is there about him? He doesn't even seem passionate or attractive or something. Well, Austen says at one point about Knightley, 'cause he never wears his feelings on his sleeve. He's not at all like Frank Churchill, or he's not somebody who smiles so much or bows so well, as Frank Churchill does, but she says you have to be careful that you don't misunderstand because it's in that kind of character like Mr. Knightley where the feelings are most retentive. In other words, there's a depth to Knightley's feelings that you might miss if you don't pay attention to who he is. This is a classical gentleman of great souledness. But, you know, we live in a day and age where if somebody doesn't tell you that they're wonderful, you won't know they are. [laughs]
Betty Kilsdonk: And that's one of the things that I really like about Austen, that draws me to Jane Austen. For me, the core of her novels is this understanding of the psychology of people, and the understanding that we cannot know everything about others. When we think we know about others is when she shows us, over and over again, that we are blind to the realities of situation. Just similar to Shakespeare. To me, this really in-depth understanding that people are complex, and we can't know everything, even though we wanna control everything in our world, we cannot do that. It's another theme, I think, with Jane Austen. Emma really wants to control her world. And the world is bigger than what she can control. [laughs] She's blind over and over again. Every time she thinks she's got everything answered, she does not. And to me, that is one of the real draws I have that takes me back to Jane Austen over and over again.
Colleen: I think that's really well said, Betty, that there's a certain teaching of humility, isn't there, about stepping back and really watching others and listening to others? Because Emma makes that mistake all the time. She knows it before she's even been introduced to it, right? [laughs] But one other thing on this question of love and Eros, Shilo, think of the mistakes that some of the people make in the novels. For example, Elizabeth Bennet about Wickham. I mean, the name should have given it away, right, to [laughs] begin with, that maybe there's something wrong with this fellow. But she really misunderstands Wickham and Darcy. And she has to come to learn that one had all the appearance of virtue, and the other had all the reality of [laughs] it. That was just the opposite of her first impressions, right? Or Emma with Mr. Elton and Mr. Martin. She totally gets it wrong in both of those cases. And so Austen is sort of teaching us about the humility about learning from what's before you and not jumping to conclusions, but she's also teaching us that love is not just necessarily what brings us instant pleasure or momentary pleasure. That love is something much more precious than that. There are things in life that don't deserve our love. There are things and people in life that don't deserve our life, our love, and there are other things that are truly worth loving. And that's a very classical perspective, this idea that love has to do with that which, that there are some things in life that are truly worth loving. Really, in a sense for people like Plato and Aristotle, that lesson of coming to love what is worth loving is what it means to be human.
Shilo: Mm-hm, that's a very, it seems to me, holistic way of putting it. And I think now we're kind of, we picked up the thread that is most interesting to me about her novels. And what I wanna do is take Betty's remark about Jane Austen being a master of portraying psychological complexity, psychological nuance, combine it with your remarks about the complexity of her, or her perspicacity on love, and talk now in a more focused way on "Emma," about "Emma." And we've been gesturing in that direction anyway. And let's talk about Emma, the character. And I have in mind the following thing. With respect to what Betty says, Emma is someone who suffers from, I think it's fairly obvious, a certain kind of what I'll call erotic self-deception. And that is to say, and the reason I bring this up is because I see this in other great literature in the Western tradition. And I think Austen may, in an inadvertent way, perhaps conscious way, be in conversation. But she claims in the novel, it's on several occasions, not to want to be married, and in a certain way, not to be interested in love. And yet her highest interest is precisely love in so far as she envisions herself as a matchmaker. And so she's got this contradictory character to her nature. She's not interested in love, but at the same time, love consumes her all the time. And you see this young girl who's 21 and you think, you don't see it, do you? [laughs] You have no interest in love, yet every waking moment of your life is spent thinking about the nature and character of love, perhaps for other people, not for yourself, at least at the beginning. And so my question is whether you can unpack the kind of confusion that this character Emma suffers from, and then give us, or at least the three of us together, try to provide an account of what it is that Emma learns about herself and about love. Because by the end of the novel, she says her matchmaking days, as she indicates, her matchmaking days are over because now she's in love. And so there's this weird way in which she acknowledges her desire for love, and her getting it cures her self-deception. And so I wanna unpack the psychological nuance here and try to figure out what it is about love Austen's trying to teach us through the psychological complexity of Emma.
Colleen: Do you wanna field that, Betty, first? [Betty laughs]
Betty: I think, yeah, [Colleen laughs] another very interesting take [laughs] and something I hadn't actually thought a lot about, but, yeah, Emma is an interesting character. One of the things I wanted to talk about was she, when Austen herself said that Emma was a heroine that no one but Austen herself will much like, I think part of this complexity about her character may be that, what Shilo was saying, the way she talks and the things that she do maybe don't always agree with each other. Her preoccupation with matchmaking, well, it's matchmaking for other people. To me, it's her sense of wanting to control the world. Beyond romantic love, it's she wants to manage, just like she manages her father's household. She wants to manage everybody's relationships, too. [laughs] And only at the end does she come to realize what is the best outcome for herself. But I think that's part of her maturation. She matures during the novel is something I think that is so interesting. She does wrong, she does badly. She insults, she insults in spades at Box Hill, and from kind of a childish, I'm thinking, perspective, but she realizes, she makes amends. We are human beings. We make mistakes. We all have opportunities to make amends. And through that, we mature. And she doesn't find her true love until she has matured in the course of the novel.
Shilo: Yeah. Go ahead, Colleen.
Colleen: Oh, Betty, I think that was just so well said. I think you are absolutely right, that Emma wants to control everything and everybody in Highbury. She's mistress of Hartfield, remember, because her mother died when she was younger. And there's Miss Taylor, her governess, but Emma controls her, too. [laughs] Emma is more Miss Taylor's teacher than vice versa. And so, I mean, but there's a bit of an aspiring tyrant in Emma. She wants to control everybody and everything without their consent. [laughs] She's just up to it. And this is partly because she's this wealthy young woman with nothing else to do in this small little town with nothing very much happening. And so this is the most fun game in town, and she's onto it, right? And she herself thinks she doesn't need anybody or anything else. Well, she's got her own money that she's gonna inherit from her father, an estate. And unlike other women in her time, in the Regency period, she's not going to have to depend on a man to make it in the world. And then add that to the fact that she lives in this isolated little village where she is up to meddling in other people's affairs, and she's enjoying it. And she also lives in her own little isolation in the world of her imagination, where she doesn't need to experience things in the outside world to know how things should be. She's already got it all figured out. Emma has it all figured out, or at least so she thinks she does. And that's the very opening salvo of the novel, right? That she's lived nearly 21 years in this world with little to distress or vex her. Well, [laughs] the whole rest of the novel coming is what is going to distress and vex Emma because she doesn't have it all figured out.
Shilo: Yeah, I like that you used the word tyrant to describe her, Colleen. I think it's accurate. And the reason I like it is because it's merely proof of the, and I know my language is odd here, but of the erotic dysfunction from which she suffers. I mean, doesn't Alcibiades, who's a great tyrant, is also a man who has a love problem. This happens. I mean, many tyrannical people are people with a love problem. And when I say that she has this, I mean, and that she suffers from self-deception, which sounds odd. I give a few examples. So first of all, with Mr. Elton, she has no idea that this guy's actually in love with her, and not Harriet Smith. She's like, oh, she draws this picture of Harriet. And Mr. Elton's like, what a, just a beautiful picture. I'm gonna go to London and get it framed. And Emma's like, he loves Harriet. He just can't wait, you know? And it turns out, Mr. Elton loves Emma. You know what I mean? And then she's got this thing for Frank Churchill, where she thinks, of, he's in love with me. And it turns out, that's not the case at all. He's in love with Jane Fairfax. And then she gives Harriet the advice not to marry Mr. Martin, who, she's very impressed with his letter. He writes her this proposal letter, and Emma takes the letter and it's like, "Let me see that letter." She expects it to be this letter from this peasant. And Harriet's like, "Well, how was the letter?" And Emma's like, "This is a very good letter. "You should still say no." You know what I mean? And then, of course, it ends up Harriet marries Mr. Martin and is just totally spellbound by this man. And Mr. Knightley calls her out on this. I think he's sort of onto this. And the other thing with respect to a certain kind of erotic difficulty that she suffers from is that she's such a good minister to the poor. In a certain sense, she wants them to love her. This is, in a way, tyrannical. And so she goes and she makes their beds and she is very kind to them and she loves them. Yet when a poor person crosses her, Miss Bates, boy, she lets her have it. There's a certain kind of generosity that's missing when you're not in your place kind of a thing. And this is why she sort of regrets herself later as [laughs] matchmaker. She's like, well, apparently I have no idea [laughs] what I'm talking about. And so that's what's so interesting to me about what Austen is trying to do is she's portraying this classic type of, this classic human type, which is lovesick, love intoxicated, but deeply confused, and yet thinks that they know it all and that they're a master. You know what I mean? And this happens in other novels. I'm reminded of the first historical novels, Xenophon's "Education of Cyrus," where Cyrus swears off love and he says, "I'll never fall in love with anyone." And yet he doesn't see that he's taking over the entire world and he wants the whole world to fall in love with him. And at the end of that novel, he calls himself a great matchmaker. He says he's a great matchmaker. So this is what I have in mind with respect to what is it that Austen's trying to teach us? I know this is very difficult. I don't know, but it's fascinating.
Colleen: Well, that is a very interesting comparison to Xenophon. And I think you might have an article there, Shilo. I mean, I'd like to hear more about it. If Emma is lovesick, with whom is she in love? Well, I think herself, right, which is what tyrants do, right? So, I mean, there's a lot of food there for thought. Let me just comment on. I mean, [laughs] you expressed that so well. Emma wants Harriet to be in love with Mr. Elton, but Mr. Elton is really in love with Emma. I mean, think of it this way. So Mr. Martin is in love with Harriet, who is actually, but not really, in love with Mr. Elton, who is not [Shilo laughs] in love with Harriet, but in love with. And the list just keeps going on. Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley. Austen deliberately based this novel on Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream," where that's exactly what happens, right? It all gets mixed up with Lysander and Demetrius and Helena and Hermia, and one is in love with the other, who's in love with somebody else, who's in love with. Well, Shakespeare's having so much fun with this. And Austen takes that and applies it to this little world of Highbury. That is that love is blind, right? And it's almost like there's a Puck, a Cupid out there coordinating things, and it all goes wrong. Remember, Shakespeare says the course of true love never did run smooth. And Austen writes in Emma, in the ninth chapter, she quotes that. She says the course of true love never did run smooth. Well, "The Hartfield Edition" of Shakespeare would have a long footnote on that passage, she says. "Emma," the novel "Emma," it is a long footnote on that passage where everything has gone wrong with love. Everything is upside down and backwards and topsy-turvy. And Austen is having a heyday playing on that Shakespearian theme. Now, that's all fun, but what is it? But is there some teaching in that? Well, there always is for Austen, right? There's always something else going on. She's like the layers of an onion. You have to keep peeling it and peeling it 'cause there's so much going on. You can get one part of it, and still just have a wonderful time reading the novel. And then the second time you read the same novel, you say, "Wow, look at what I missed "the first time I read it." I still find things reading these novels for the 50th time.
Betty: Right, so I wanted to ask you, Colleen, if you could talk a little bit about the riddles in Emma. When you were talking about the layers of the onion and all the different layers of complexity in the novel, I think part of those layers have to do with the wordplay. There's a lot of wordplay, things that further the plot, they help illuminate the character. Can you talk about what are your favorite riddles are in Emma and what the deeper meanings might be that those of us who were not alive during the Regency era, when Jane wrote the book, things that we may not get just as a casual reader of the novel?
Colleen: Betty, there are so many. Where to start? But let me just mention a couple. So you mentioned earlier in our conversation on Box Hill, when Emma really went after Miss Bates. She was cruel to Miss Bates. Her wittiness turned into, well, worse than buffoonery. I mean, it was mean-spiritedness, really. She just couldn't resist, and it was contempt. And Knightley calls her out there. Emma keeps saying throughout the novel, okay, all right, I've made a mistake. I'm gonna get better. I've got this, I've got it figured out. I'm gonna morally repent. I'm gonna change my wicked ways. And then she falls right back into it every time, you know? I mean, it's not hard to understand that. At least I've done that many [laughs] times in my life. I think I've figured it out, and I'm gonna get better and learn from my errors. And then the next thing I know, I make a mistake again, right? It's part of life, learning. And Emma does this time and time and time again. And then at Box Hill when she insults Miss Bates and Knightley calls her to task, and he says, "Badly done, Emma, "badly done, indeed," she actually finally gets it. Now, this happens. Then she's then in the carriage, riding down Box Hill. And by the bottom of Box Hill, she is beside herself. She's in tears. Emma is in tears. I don't think Emma cries very much, by the way. [laughs] She's in tears. She's finally properly humbled such that she gets herself. She comes to know herself. Well, I took a trip to England a few years ago and I wanted to go to Box Hill just to see it. And it's an amazing place. So you get there, there's really, there's this hill [laughs] and there's a little train sign for Box Hill. At the base of Box Hill, there's a little, tiny hamlet. I mean a small, little, tiny village. And so the train sign for Box Hill, it has also the name of the village on it, the Hamlet. And it's Box Hill and West Humble. So it's at West Humble, at the base of Box Hill, that Emma finally is humbled. And it's sort of the turning point of the novel. Well, anybody who read the novel in Austen's time, or probably who lives around that area or has traveled there in England, gets it. They laugh. But for most of us, we didn't know that. She has that kinda wordplay all through this novel. Wordplay, and also, she has charades and anagrams and riddles and conundrums and puns and double entendres. And it's all through, totally through this novel. She really gets the prince regent. Remember the prince regent, she has to dedicate this novel to him, but she doesn't like him. She thinks he's a bad guy. He calls himself the first gentleman of Europe. And she thinks he's a philanderer, a gambler, an adulterer, a cheat. She doesn't like him, but she's gotta dedicate it to him. You've gotta know with Austen's spiritedness and wit, which, by the way, Emma reflects that kinda spiritedness and incredible intelligence and energy, that Austen would not have stood for that. Somehow, she would get the prince regent back. Well, she does, she [laughs] does. She plays this game of... The poems that are little poems that are dropped by the fairy, supposedly, once again in that first, chapter nine in the first volume, it just seems like it's Mr. Elton's little love poem, supposedly to Harriet, though it's really to Emma. Well, the lines of that, if you play the kind of games that Austen has her characters play throughout the novel, that is anagrams and acrostics, and you do that with the little poems, that little poem that Elton drops, you find that there's an acrostic and an anagram in there that points to the prince regent. Remember, who is the prince regent? The son of King George III. He's going to be King George IV. But before he becomes King George IV, he is, like Prince Charles today, the prince of Wales. And so she plays on that idea of the prince of Wales, but spelling Wales W-H-A-L-E-S, after a poem by Charles Lamb making fun of the prince of Wales. So there's another example of how Austen plays games throughout the novel. One quick last thing. When they play the game of letters and Frank Churchill is secretly communicating with his love, Jane Fairfax, and he spells out Dixon and he spells out blunder because he's given away something he shouldn't have given away, he writes out a third group of letters that get brushed away. Jane Fairfax brushes them away, no more. Well, Austen, of course, these novels live on, they're alive, and she tells her nieces and nephews afterwards. They wanna know, what did he spell? So she tells them he's spelled pardon. Well, think of the very end of "Midsummer Night's Dream." At the very end of "Midsummer Night's Dream," Puck looks to the audience and he asks for our pardon. Gentles, if you pardon, we will mend.
Shilo: Wow, yeah, I mean, there's so much there with respect to these word games. I had never thought about this. This is fascinating. One thing, when you were talking, it occurred to me to ask is you mentioned you had visited Box Hill and that you saw this little village with the word humble in its name. Can we say exactly what happens to Emma when she starts to cry? In other words, I'm confused about what it is. We wait the whole novel for that moment, where she has this moment of self-enlightenment. What does she realize about herself? I suspect it's more than just, oh, I'm mean. [laughs] I was mean to Miss Bates. There's some piece of her character which disgusts her, which disturbs her, which she finally sees and which I suspect Mr. Knightley has had a kind of eye for for perhaps some years and has been amused by, but perhaps also somewhat troubled by. What is this aspect of herself that she sees? What is this self-enlightenment moment of deep shame? What is she ashamed about? She's a different person after that, and why?
Colleen: See, Emma is not a vicious human being, which is why we can come to love her, just as Jane Austen loves her. Emma has, we learn early on in the novel, that she's been given principles. She has been taught the right principles. Miss Taylor and her father, they've done an okay job with that. It's not that she doesn't know how she should live. It's just that she doesn't do it. [laughs] And, of course, this is not unusual, right? This is what moral education is about. It's both coming to know the right thing to do, and then actually putting it into practice. Remember that line from "Merchant of Venice"? If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches and poor men's cottages princes' palaces. The brain can make laws for the blood, but a hot temper leaps over a cold decree, right? And this is Emma's challenge. She knows the right thing to do, but she's so strong-willed and she's so sure of herself that she doesn't need any kind of correction or any kind of guidance, that she gets it wrong. And so that moment, she's actually finally learned that she's got to look outside of herself in terms of genuinely caring about others. She's misunderstood and that she needs to come, she needs to be a better person, not only for Miss Bates, but for her own happiness. Because you almost wonder at that moment, don't you, if that's the moment she realizes she's in love with Knightley?
Shilo: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Maybe-
Colleen: Oh, I've never thought of that before. It was just this moment that I thought of that. This is what conversations can do [Shilo laughs] when you're with other people as opposed to just living alone in your own imagination thinking about something. [laughs]
Shilo: Yeah, I mean, it's at that moment, I mean, it's at that moment, I think you're right, because she admits her love for Knightley not long thereafter. I mean, this seems very plausible to me. Maybe we could, in fact, talk about, and I know, Betty, this is of interest to you, talk about the suitors in the book. I mean, we've talked a lot about Emma now, but there are these. As a male reader, I'm always looking at Mr. Knightley and wondering what aspects of his character I should emulate. And I thought, Colleen, I'll tell ya, I confess, you used this term for him earlier. And I recently re-read the novel, and like, I don't know, 30 pages in, and I was like, well, Mr. Knightley's a great-souled man. Immediately, I was like, he's Aristotle's megalopsyche. Like, he's the guy, you know? And he's just kind of a stunning figure. Whereas my wife very much likes Mr. Darcy more than [laughs] Mr. Knightley, and I don't understand why. But perhaps we could discuss some of the gentlemen in "Emma," and then compare later on some of these gentlemen to gentlemen in other novels, such as Mr. Darcy. But we've got Mr. Martin, Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley and Emma's father, who are the main males in the novel. Betty posed a question earlier in the conversation that she and I had about true gentlemanliness, what does it mean to be a true gentleman and who is a true gentleman? And so I'm curious. Austen has this reflection on women and the kind of self-deception or erotic pitfalls of Emma. What is she trying to teach us with these men? Perhaps even about men, but even more generally a human question. But let's reflect on these guys.
Betty: And you have to talk about the names of people in this conversation.
Shilo: Yeah, fair game.
Betty: Knightley, Churchill. The names mean something, I think, right, just like Wickham, and the names have something to do with insights into their character, perhaps.
Colleen: Go ahead, Betty. What do you-
Betty: Well, I was thinking Knightley is such a great name [crosstalk] character, right? [laughs] He is knightly. He is the guy that comes in, he comes into Emma's life periodically throughout her life, and he's the shining character, right? You see very little flawed in Knightley as a character.
Colleen: And he lives in an abbey. [laughs]
Betty: Yeah, he lives in an abbey.
Yeah, and more wordplay, right? [laughs]
And he's, of course-
Colleen: And Frank. [crosstalk]
Betty: There's class, class comes into this as much as anything else, too, as far as these characters, like who ends up with who. Martin is the name of the farmer. It's not Knightley, it's Martin. [laughs] [Shiloh laughs]
Shilo: True, yeah.
Colleen:And so talk about that a little bit more. Does the word Martin?
Betty: Oh, I was saying that like Churchill, Churchill is something that's elegant, right, and grandeur, just like Knightley is. I think she's trying to say something about class.
Colleen: Yep, I see, I see.
Shilo: It's a common name.
Betty: Yeah, a common name. Thank you, exactly, yeah.
Colleen: Frank, the one thing about Frank is he's not frank. [laughs] And Frank actually tries to be courtly, gallant, knightly. He smiles so much and bows so well. I mean, he's obsequious. He's like the courtesan, whereas Knightley's not like that at all. Knightley doesn't want any deception or any surprises. He wants plainness, openness, candor, right? And so in a sense, Knightley is frank, and Frank is gallant or [laughs] knightly, or at least attempts to be. So there's that going on. But there's that question of who is the true gentlemen all throughout the novel, right? It starts out where Emma says about Mr. Martin, "He's no gentleman. "He's just a farmer." But, of course, she says, "Mr. Elton is a gentleman." And so what does Mr. Elton do later on in the novel to show that, in fact, she got this so wrong? Well, the way he treats Harriet at the Crown and ball is just despicable. He lies, he lies, and he's just a bad fellow. He's not a man of upstanding character. But it turns out in the end that poor, literally poor, Mr. Martin is an upstanding human being. And so Austen is showing us that the gentleman, the true gentleman, is someone of upstanding character. That it doesn't have to do with just title or money or class, right? It has to do with what it means to be someone in command of himself. And, well, as you just said, Shilo, the magnanimous man. That's what the gentleman is. Someone of a genuinely good and great soul. Now, the other part of the pun that's going on here that's read between the lines is that the prince regent has donned himself the first gentleman of Europe. [laughs] And so we're meant to reflect on that. [laughs]
Shilo: Yeah, it's interesting what you say about Knightley is magnanimous, which I agree with and was struck by, too, before I heard you say it. One thing about him, when I compare him to Emma, that's interesting is the magnanimous man, the Aristotelian magnanimous man, is aware of his own superiority. He knows he's superior and he's sort of ministering. And this is an interesting character feature of Mr. Knightley, who does this. He's very kind. He dances with Harriet. He's very kind to Miss Bates at those moments. I fall in love with a guy. I'm just like, geez, if I could be half of that man. But what's interesting to me is Emma seems to have a similar quirk in that she's aware of her own superiority. Like, you know, this is part of her deal. She goes over to the poor and she very much, she says hi to all of the gentry as she sort of goes by. And the poor people are there and she says hello, and she goes and gives them bread and soup. And Harriet's very puzzled by this, but Emma explains it. So she's aware of her own superiority, too. But the difference is he's got a healthier awareness of his own superiority than she [laughs] does, because my sense is that she's sort of lording it over. I think she gets pleasure from being higher, a kind of perverse pleasure from being higher. And when Knightley criticizes her for telling Harriet not to marry Mr. Martin, he says, "You don't know what's good for her." No one knows who her parents are. She's destined to be an old maid. "He's a gentleman, a farmer. "I know him, he's on my land. "You're insane." He criticizes Emma for mistaking the order of rank, and he says, in a way that is harmful to Harriet. And so he sort of says you need to understand what these people need and these kinds of things. And at the same time, later in the novel, he sort of criticizes her for lording her superiority over Miss Bates. You know, they're poor. Why did you say these things to her, these kinds of things? And so he's got a healthier awareness of his superiority than she does. And it's interesting because what I suspect may happen is, well, you mentioned the moment when she cries and she's humbled. Maybe she comes around to his way of thinking about herself. You see what I mean? I mean, maybe she comes around to his view of the kind of nobility of superiority, not this resentful kind of look how much better we are than you and these sorts of things. And so she, in a way, becomes a gentleman, a gentle lady, in my view, in a higher way. I don't know what you make of that, but it's interesting.
Colleen: Oh, I think you're right. I think you're right, Shilo. I mean, Emma is a snob.
Colleen: Emma's a snob. [Shilo laughs] And she just gets the idea of rank wrong, basing it just on class and money and estates and so on. She doesn't wanna intermingle with the Coles, but she can't stand to be left out, [laughs] you know? Whereas there's Jane Fairfax, who has nothing to her name, and she's a woman of genuine elegance and abilities and talents and character. But still, here's interesting, still, Knightley falls in love with Emma, and not with Jane Fairfax. Why do you think that's so, Betty and Shilo? Because really, Jane Fairfax seems to be the genuinely superior character. And she's also beautiful. She's as beautiful, if not more beautiful, probably, than Emma.
Shilo: Before we answer the question, can you give an account of Jane Fairfax's superiority? Like, by what measures is she a superior woman?
Well, I have the impression, and, of course, she's not outlined for us to the extent that Emma is, but she is called in the novel the other heroine. This is interesting. Austen makes it clear that she's also a heroine. She is absolutely beautiful. She's composed, she's elegant. She can play the pianoforte like no one in Highbury. She's a gentle soul. I mean, she seems to me, well, she's much more than Frank Churchill deserves. Remember at the end, when he wins her heart, he is called the child of good fortune, which you might remember that, Shilo, Oedipus is called the child of fortune. Frank Churchill is called the child [Shilo laughs] of good fortune. So it seems to me, Jane Fairfax just has it all, she has it all going for her. Nature and nurture both have made her quite a woman.
Shilo: Right. I mean, from the point of view of a male, the only thing I can say for Emma versus Jane [laughs] Fairfax is Jane Fairfax strikes me as somewhat bloodless, whereas Emma is full of vitality. I mean, she's a firecracker, you know? And I can see Mr. Knightley. I mean, there's something to that. She's a vital, vital woman who's willing to be wrong, who's willing to make mistakes. And I suspect that Emma is a, I mean, now I'm suspecting about odd things, but is a more passionate lover for it. Like, she's just gonna be a lover of deep passion for him. And he's such a even-keeled, still-water man that it's kind of a funny coupling because Emma's not. I mean, she's not even-keeled, calm-lake disposition. And my sense is that there's something in him which likes that about her and likes the fact that he's sort of brought her around to his sort of gentility, but knows that she'll keep a little bit of that fire in her soul. Whereas Jane Fairfax is polished and beautiful, but that's not. I don't know-
Colleen: That's very interesting, that male perspective-
Shilo: Got the whole package. [laughs]
Colleen: That's [indistinct]. That's wonderful, Shilo.
Betty: So here's what I see. Here's why I think women, female readers, anyway, prefer Emma, Emma over Jane Fairfax, because we. And not just women, I think anybody. Because we see her flaws, and in her flaws, we see our own flaws. She can get beyond her flaws to be someone that can love him as much as she is loved by him because she has been able to get over herself. She's been able to deal with her flaws. We are all flawed. None of us is perfect. As much as we would like to love our husbands and wives as perfect beings, we cannot do that because we're human. And that is why I think, I think, we root for Emma. Emma is us, in a way, right? She stands in for us in our partnerships, with our own partners in how we're able to overcome the flaws in ourselves to be worthy of being loved and to love in the substantial way.
Colleen: And in a sense, we're all in need, to a certain extent, of an education, [laughs] right? I mean, that's what life is itself, an education. Shilo, on that question of Emma and Jane Fairfax. I mean, [laughs] I just find what you've just been saying really interesting. And I think that is a perspective. I think you just gave a man's perspective that would be more the way men would think than women, but there's something that you said that I very much agree with. Emma is spiritedness writ large.
Shilo: Yeah, yeah.
Colleen: And [Shilo laughs] I think that it's not just passion, it's also spiritedness. She is alive, she's vital. And I've thought to myself before about Book II of Plato's Republic, when we're introduced to Adeimantus and Glaucon. And Emma is Glaucon, and Jane Fairfax, in a sense, is a better Adeimantus, but she's got all that moderation about her. But Glaucon could go, he could go in one direction or the other, and we wonder what will become of him because he could become a tyrant or he could become someone of genuine superiority, really fit to rule. And remember at the very beginning of the novel Emma, what Knightley and Mrs. Weston talk about. What will become of Emma? We wonder what will become of her.
Colleen: I mean, this is an incredibly interesting human being-
Shilo: It is.
Colleen: Who can go one way, a good way, and can go another way, all downhill. [laughs]
Shilo: And she's rough, and I mean roughly developed in the sense that she's not fully educated, and there's something about that that's attractive. I like very much at the beginning where she's taking out her pencils to begin to draw Harriet. And the narrator, in the narrative voice, at least, says Emma takes up these things, like drawing and the piano, and she never pursues them to mastery. But the little bit that she does is always very good. And then she puts it down and goes some other way. Jane Fairfax is sort of the inverse of that. She has mastered the piano. She could probably sit down and draw a perfect portrait. But Emma just kind of dabbles, and then is easily distracted. And there's this point where Harriet comes over, and I don't know if they're gonna sit down to sew or what they're gonna, stitch a few things, but the narrator then says they were gonna. Oh, no, Emma was gonna read with Harriet 'cause, you know, Emma's always concerned that everyone reads. She's like, well, does Mr. Martin read? But then the narrator says Emma had made, or Knightley maybe says Emma had made a list of books from when she was 14 that she wanted to read, and she never read 'em, but she enjoyed making the list. Emma has this kind of conception of herself. I'm gonna read all of these books. I'm gonna draw. And then she never does it. I suspect 'cause there's this other thing, this vitality, this distract. When she's gonna read with Harriet and the narrator says, "But they just found it more interesting to chat." [laughs] They ended up not reading. This is, on the one hand-
Colleen: And you like this, Shilo?
Shilo: Well, yeah. [Colleen laughs] It's a sort of knock against Emma, but it's over and against Jane Fairfax, who's known as this polished person. And I think that for Knightley, there's something rough-hewn about Emma. He's known her his whole life, they're friends, and they become something dearer. And he's endeared to this. And I guess maybe to go back to your, to go back to what you said about Glaucon, like Glaucon, and perhaps less like Adeimantus, I think this is the point of view of Plato, Glaucon is educable by Socrates. He's probably the most educable man there in the room at the time. That's not to say he's the most intelligent, that might be Polemarchus or, of course, Socrates himself, but Glaucon is known for the eagerness of his questioning. There's something about Emma that is this way. She's deeply curious, and I think this is a kind of indication of it. So maybe Knightley likes this about her. I do. So-
Betty: The things that you're saying about Emma, her vitality and also her desire to master the arts, and yet her inability to really follow through, those are things that remind me of Elizabeth Darcy, I mean, excuse me, Elizabeth Bennet and her character, right? Aren't those similar traits? Elizabeth, she says, "If I would take the trouble to practice, "I'd be better at playing [laughs] piano." And there's a lot in Pride and Prejudice about how vital, her vitality and her physicality and all that kind of stuff. It seems to me that's a little similar.
Colleen: Versus her sister, Jane Bennet.
Betty: Yes, exactly. Versus her sister Jane.
Colleen: Who's absolutely beautiful and has her own accomplishments. But there's something about Elizabeth Bennet that's not as beautiful, but more attractive to Darcy.
Betty: And how interesting that Jane is the same name, [laughs] the character. The Jane character has similar characteristics in both novels.
Colleen: Yeah, and so like Elizabeth Bennet, had she practiced more, she would have been more proficient, as opposed to Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Remember what she said? I should have been a great proficient, had I ever learned. [laughs]
Shilo: It's odd you say this because I wonder, I mean, I know that the character is named Jane and that this is Jane's first name and these kinds of things, but I like to think about the natures of the sorts of people from whom these great works spawn. So if you think about the man Dostoevsky must have been to write The Brothers Karamazov, what kind of artists are you that that can come out of your mind? Or with Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, what kind of human type are you? Because that's not me. Like, this kind of thing cannot come out of me. I mean, there's a real order of [laughs] rank here. And these people have talents that, you know, Shakespeare, world historical talent. With Jane Austen, I wonder what kind of nature was she, and are these women, Emma, Elizabeth, who are, in a way, rough-hewn, vital women, I would think that Jane Austen would have had to have been that way, sort of deeply curious, a bit unpolished. It's weird for a woman to be a novelist. [laughs] She's clearly very learned. As Colleen has pointed out, she's criticizing high politics. Like, she's throwing grenades. Like, this is not. And so I wonder if she's not, in a certain sense, this type of woman herself? I don't know what you make of that, but it would seem to me that she would have to be in order to write these beautiful works. She's not a pushover. She's not just pretty and playing the piano.
Colleen: Yeah, not at all. I mean, Jane Austen was, in my view, a prodigy. Jane Austen is the rarest of the rare. It's hard to find a comparison, the talents and character that this woman had, which isn't to say that she was a woman of perfect virtue. I think she might've been tempted to make that joke at Box Hill. It would've crossed her mind.
Shilo: That's what I mean.
Colleen: Though she wouldn't have said it because-
Colleen: The thing about the joke at Box Hill is it's true about-
Shilo: It's true. [laughs] It's true. [Colleen laughs] Yeah.
Colleen: So, yeah, I think of Jane Austen as the rarest of the rare.
Shilo: She is.
Betty: I don't think she was well educated, right? She was not real educated. Her father was, I think he was the rector of a parish, their local parish. She's from Hampshire, a small place.
Shilo: Yeah, yeah. Self-educated.
Colleen: Yeah, not formally well-educated, but her father had an extensive library. And remember, I mean, he might not be of the upper crust, but he's a clergyman, and they are part of the educated class. And her brothers received good formal education. You have to think of someone like Jane Austen, who said things like, made the comparison between dull elves and sharp elves, that she wasn't rummaging around her father's library and filling, finding all the food for thought. Well, actually, in Pride and Prejudice, when Lady Catherine de Bourgh grills Elizabeth Bennet about her education. "Where did you get your education? "Who taught you? "Did you go to London and study with the masters? "Did your mother teach you?" And poor Elizabeth Bennet says, "Well, no." "And did you have a governess?" And Elizabeth Bennet said, "No, no governess." No, [laughs] certainly Mrs. Bennet didn't teach them. But Elizabeth Bennet said, says, "I had all the masters that were necessary." Now, what does she mean? She meant she had books. That's Jane Austen's own response about her own education, I think.
Shilo: Yeah, that's extraordinary and very beautiful. And then what's stunning to me about her is that all of these, she had those books, and then all of the characters whom she writes exist inside of her. She's such a multifaceted human being, and that's what I mean when I talk about Emma and Elizabeth Bennet and these multifaceted women. All of these characters in this book are pieces of Jane Austen's own psyche. The complexity, her psychological complexity, must know no bounds. We have to wind down. And so what I wanna do is give Colleen the last word. But I wanna ask you, Colleen, I ask this at the end of every podcast, or at least the ones that are on specific figures, we have a listener who has never read Jane Austen before and they are looking for the gateway drug to beginning to dress up as characters of Jane Austen in a year or two. What perhaps two novels, and this is a very difficult question because they all have their merits, but what are the first two novels that you would begin with?
Colleen: Well, I would certainly begin with Pride and Prejudice because I think it's, as Jane Austen herself said, it's light, bright and sparkling. And to evoke Plato again, if there's such a thing as goodness, sometimes the way we have to be brought to that is through pleasure. The head is sometimes led by the heart. And so this is, in a sense, the useful lie, that the good is pleasurable, because in this case, it certainly is, in Pride and Prejudice. It's such an easy novel to fall in love with. And the characters are, I mean, think of Darcy and Elizabeth. They're right up there with Benedick and Beatrice and Romeo and Juliet. These are just some of the most beautifully crafted characters in all of the history of the novel. The second of Jane Austen's novel, well, let it be the reader's choice. All are fair game after that.
Shilo: Fair enough. So start with Pride and Prejudice, everybody. Well, look, thank you, Colleen, and thank you, Betty. This has been a real pleasure. Thank you guys so much.
Colleen: Thank you, Shilo and Betty. Thanks very much.
Betty: Thank you.
The Free Mind podcast is produced by the Benson Center for the Study of Western Civilization at the University of Colorado at Boulder. You can email us feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit us online at colorado.edu/center/benson. [whimsical music]