misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Reginald Hill's "poor emma": a commentary-parody sequel

 Dear friends and readers,

I read this remarkable sequel last night -- thanks to Edith Lank on Austen-l who told me it exists, and may be found printed in Hill's There are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union.  I make this blog on it because it has the merit of an intriguing parody and ironic commentary on Austen's Emma which I don't think Hill would have had the courage to make explicitly.  (It would not have helped his standing in Janeite circles in the British Jane Austen Society where he was invited to speak.) Nokes too (I think) adopted the dramatic imagination approach in his effective and intelligent biography of Austen in order to be able to say or imply things about Austen and her life and works which if he made explicit in the argumentative way would have made his book controversial in ways that would inhibit sales. I hope to make a blog about Nokes's book (to match the one I wrote about his wonderful book on Johnson) too before summer's end.

It's funny and may be described as a kind of satire or parody-commentary on Austen's Emma, which carries us further into the character's imagined later lives. It's short, story length. 

It's a better pastiche-type sequel than most I've tried (as in very bad, P&P and Zombies; and very weak, My Dear Charlotte) -- I use the word to mean a fiction which is really rooted in Austen, replays out of the Austen's novels the characters, plots, and some of the themes. One of its merits or what makes it good is the style. Like Diana Birchall, Hill imitates Austen's style with verve and facility; he's lighter than Diana, more sparse and had made the feel more modern. At the same time "poor emma" is clearly a parody and yet in a way or at moments to be taken seriously.

The parody and critique.  I've read other sequels which are sharp comments on Austen's novels and through fiction expose a critical point of view on Austen the person might not want to present in a clear argument (for it could be attacked).  One is Elizabeth Jenkins (yes her) [Miss] Harriet [Woodhouse]: if a Harriet could possibly exist, she'd be an imbecile. Of course Austen's character is at times part caricature.  Jenkins takes the character seriously, and we see how she can't survive in a world of real people-characters.

So I take it Hill doesn't like Emma: she's not just arrogant and proud and seeking power, she's frigid; Mr Knightley is more than a prig with his advice: he's self-satisfied.  Mr Woodhouse is an invalid who enjoys the power of his illness.  He develops the characters in directions which make this reading of their natures clear but it's by adding things that could not happen in Austen's world.

Kate Beckinsale as Emma bullying Samantha Morton as Harriet by describing Mr Morton in mortifying terms (Andrew Davies's 1996 Emma)

Emma (Doran Goodwin) having trouble persuading her father, Mr Woodhouse (John Eccles) to let her marry (1972 Denis Constanduros' Emma)

He does indeed make a shadow story but the way this is brought off without seeming sordid or overdone is the light imitative style which I've not got time to quote. For example, Knightley leaves Emma to live in London and becomes a gambler, is promiscuous (secretly); Emma is irritating; she may have little to vex her, but boy she vexes others. Actually she has much to vex her. Frank is now a widower (yes Jane died of consumption) and made a scamp, frivolous, and to make a short story even shorter, he manages to seduce Emma and impregnate her. They have a quiet affair, but when he wants to marry her when he discovers she's pregnant, she comes out with comments against marriage that remind me of Austen's own heroine. With less trouble than she rejected Mr Elton, he's out the door and as the story ends Emma is a widow expecting a baby -- thought by everyone to be Mr Knightley's.  This is good as this baby will be the heir to Hartfield. .

The brothers' rivalry comes out.  Again this is done by departures:   John Knightley loses his business and has to go live at Donwell Abbey and George takes out post-obits to survive. We see Emma and Isabella spat. Mr Weston dies and Mrs Weston turns Roman Catholic -- her need or at least compliance with being ordered about is here.

There are little jokes or insights:  he suggests by implication little Henry who was to inherit all Donwell is Austen putting her brother Henry's name into the fiction. There are other moments and details where he is suggesting that Emma too is a family fiction just the the way the Juvenilia are with hidden allusions and motifs. One made me want to revive and write my essay on Bad Tuesdays in Austen: there's a reference to time and the calendars in Austen's novels also as reflecting specifics we find in the letters and her family's histories as far as we know these.  He has fun replaying some of the motifs of the novel and undermining them. Such as poor Emma, poor Miss Taylor, poor Harriet ...

I said it has its more serious quiet moments and again these come out of the style -- and also are about time and seasons. Then the style will change to something modern and become briefly descriptive with a feel of the passing of time and seasons:  Thus, Emma thinks: "perhaps, after all, her father would outlive her husband. And a little flurry of brown leaves drifted down from the summer trees."  (Mr Woodhouse does die, leaving Emma at last truly in charge -- though she does not run to the sea; this fiction was written before feminism which the close of Sandy Welch's 2000 Emma testifes to). 

Penultimate scene of Emma 2009:  Mr Knightley takes Emma to the sea

The fiction begins and ends with a light parody on the opening sentence of Emma; when we conclude it we (ironically) feel indeed Emma seems to escape vexation, what would certainly bother if not traumatize others seems to leave no trace on her thick-skinned and rich (in property) and single (she does not live a sexualized life at all, even if we are told Frank Churchill breeched her bedroom door upon occasion) complacent.  This is no diary-writing Emma, nothing soft here, all manipulation.

Peter McGraths' 1996 Emma (Gweneth Paltrow) made Emma generous-spirited and open-hearted

Underneath the ironies of this sequel Reginald Hill's Emma is a poor Emma because she is so constituted that life passes her by.

Tags: jane austen criticism, jane austen films, jane austen novels, jane austen sequels

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