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Word from Wormingford

19 April 2013

Ronald Blythe finds much that is relevant in an Austen heroine

AS THE countryside swarms up, and as folly in its many disguises preoccupies the nation, let us re-read Jane Austen. And particularly Emma. Emma Woodhouse, you will recall, was "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition", and "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".

Thus, both ignorant and innocent, she believes that she is qualified to run the parish. Of course, one does not have to be a rich girl to possess this ruling confidence: elderly or merely grown-up politicians with a great deal of money do the same. But it is the confidence of folly which brings unease.

This being the Church Times, we must first glance at Emma's religion. It should not take long. It is, of course, Austen's religion - and she the daughter of a parson! But what she knew and recorded, wrote someone who knew her, "was the opinions and practice then prevalent among respectable and conscientious clergymen before their minds had been stirred - first by the Evangelical, and afterwards by the High Church movements".

Thus the Church is scarcely mentioned in Emma, in spite of the fact that four of its main characters - Mrs and Miss Bates, and the Revd Philip Elton and Mrs Elton - could not be more closely connected with it.

Mr Elton does not suggest priestliness, and does not mention his Lord once. And Emma herself only goes to church twice in a long novel, and that to weddings. The ethical and social aspects of Christianity jostle every chapter, though never the spiritual. In Austen-land, however, these are the religious contours. When popular Evangelical sounds broke into her sedate Anglicanism, she said that "they who are so far from Reason and Feeling, must be happiest."

Death is avoided, for the most part. Its absence is comic rather than sad. "What a blessing it is when undue influence does not survive the grave!" But money is a far more serious matter. There is a hard fiscal core to all the novels, and particularly to Emma. When rich Frank Churchill marries penniless Jane Fairfax, "it wasn't a connection to gratify - although, because of the Married Women's Property Act being far off, even if Jane had been as rich as Emma, Frank would have taken everything she possessed at the chancel step.

Sir Walter Scott, the international novelist of Austen's day, and himself writing his way out of bankruptcy, when he reviewed Emma, blamed the author for her mercenary view of marriage. To this she replied that if it was wrong to marry for money, it was certainly foolish to marry without it.

And so the glorious author goes her way in the 21st century, undated, witty, and still financially sound in our unequal world, shaking our certainties, and laughing at our pretensions. And yet mysteriously, like the old Jews, not liking to say his name even when practising his love.

She certainly knew that there was such a thing as society. It was this knowledge on which the morality of her wonderful novels depended. We use them like a measure for our own time, for what is true taste and for what is folly. Inequalities that we thought we had grown out of have returned. The immensely rich rule. There is a North and South. A funeral costs £10 million.

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