Sometimes I think I read Jane Austen for the same reason I watch movies like Sleepless in Seattle. There’s a part of me that wants to experience that tinge of apprehension in the will-they-won’t-they moment, but only because I know everything will come together beautifully in the end. It is a roller-coaster of emotions, but it’s a predictable one and always satisfying.
I feel this delightful anticipation most of all with Emma. Although I think in part it’s because I always connect with Emma’s fear that Mr. Knightley wants to marry someone else, even though I know he doesn’t, but I believe it can mostly be attributed to the fact that we aren’t told explicitly that our hero and heroine are in love until nearly the end of the novel. Sure, we know it is headed in that direction, and we can feel the tension building, but, unlike the four preceding novels, there is no admission of love by either of the two, either to themselves or one another, until Emma discovers her feelings later in the story.
I admit that this is the first time I’ve ever noticed this small fact. Regardless of whether or not this was a conscious decision; this is an abrupt shift in Austen’s style of romantic suspense. I can’t help but wonder if this change was the result of a major event in her life that occurred before Emma was written. The death of Austen’s father in 1805 and the moving of her family from Bath to Chawton both happened before Austen began working on Emma in 1814. This would clearly affect anyone’s views on life and love. However, this notion of mine does not account for Mansfield Park, which was the first novel to be written at Chawton.
I do not know much about Austen’s relationship with her father, but I suspect that he may have been in her thoughts during the writing of Emma. Even though he is something of an absurd character, Mr. Woodhouse is described with a tone of affection. Though his health concerns are nonsensical, they stem from his deep love for and innate need to protect his daughters. Emma herself is quite attached to her father and shares his separation anxiety in a smaller degree. Perhaps this could even explain the fatherly attentions of Mr. Knightley to Emma and his efforts to guide and correct her because of his love and respect for her.
Clearly this is all purely conjecture. Not to mention that I have not really accounted for what might have happened in Austen’s life in the nine-year gap between her father’s death and the beginning of writing Emma. So for now, I will do Jane Austen the courtesy not to speak for her on the subject, especially without further research. Nonetheless, I will continue to muse on the possibility of Emma containing Austen’s ruminations of a lost loved one.