Door Lenneke de Ruijter
With every other year a new BBC adaption of an Austen novel, the question rises how an authoress from the 18th century is able to attract and hold the attention of the 21th century public. Comparing the novel Emma by Jane Austen, published in 1814, with a novel from the same period, namely Waverley by Sir Walter Scott which is published in 1815, several differences in the notion of time appear. Firstly, Austen is very vague in terming the notion of time as Scott is very explicit in his time arrangement. Furthermore, Austen does not show a preference of either old fashioned or modern objects. Whereas the whole novel by Walter Scott takes set in the past and thus he cannot escape referencing to the past in a favourable way. Difficulty in keeping up with the story could be a consequence of the clear historical background of Waverley. Consequently, considering the notion of time in both novels, Emma is an easier novel to read as a historical ignorant reader than Waverley.
The clear time phrasing in the novel Waverley by Walter Scott asks for more attention from the reader in order to understand the plot fully compared to the vague references to time in the novel Emma by Jane Austen. The title of the novel by Scott, Waverley or ‘tis Sixty Years since, on itself makes this clear. He proceeds in the introduction with stating the exact day from which the novel starts: “By fixing, then, the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November 1805…” (ch. 1 ). He could not be more exact in his arrangement. This also becomes clear through the rest of his novel. The following quotes are examples of this: “It was upon the evening of this memorable Sunday… ” (ch. 4), and “The retreat had continued for several days, when Edward, to his surprise, early on the 12th of December, received a visit from the Chieftain in his quarters…” (ch. 39). Emma, on the other hand, lacks this explicit arrangement of time. The novel covers exactly one year; starting somewhere in October and ending in September the following year. Though, which could not be thought of in a Scott novel, the exact year is unknown. Austen does keep track of time within the novel itself; several chapters begin with a reference to which month the characters are living: “Though now the middle of December…” (ch. 9) and “In this state of schemes, and hopes, and connivance, June opened upon Hartfield” (ch. 35). Though when it comes to an arrangement of time outside of the events that take place in the novel, Austen does not seem to care whether the reader takes of leaves a year: “… and between useful occupation and the pleasures of society, the next eighteen or twenty years of his life passed cheerfully away” (ch. 2), “Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard’s school…” (ch. 3) and “Though some years passed away from the death of poor Fairfax before his own return to England put anything in his power” (ch. 20). Only the chronological order of the events seems to be important in Emma, the exact day is not needed to understand the full meaning of the events.
In Austen’s novel Emma there is no clear favour of either modernity or history, while Scott’s novel Waverley, as being a historical novel (Orr, 715), is known to have a preference for the old. The clear historical context in Scott’s novel Waverley asks for more knowledge of the period in which the novel is set. The time in which Austen en Scott lived was a disturbed one. Changes of great historical importance took place in their time, for example the early Industrial Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. Scott tried to preserve the memory of Scotland of sixty year before. Waverley was in that sense a memorial of his beloved Highland culture. He also tried to show his readers and his fictional characters that history is not a fixed subject. Marilyn Orr writes about this : “Only the unaccountable play of time and circumstance makes history out of moments” (730). The example Orr gives to illustrate this statement is the part where Sir Everard is rewriting his will: “… and had Lawyer Clippurse (…) arrived but an hour earlier, he might have had the benefit of drawing a new settlement of the lordship and manor of Waverley-Honour, with all its dependencies” (ch. 2). Lawyer Clippurse does not arrive an hour earlier, so the events stay as they were. Some of these possibilities are connected to the time the novel is set:
Had Fergus Mac-Ivor lived Sixty Years sooner than he did, he would, in all probability, have wanted the polished manner and knowledge of the world which he now possessed; and had he lived Sixty Years later, his ambition and love of rule would have lacked the fuel which his situation now afforded. (173)
Scott presents history here as a multitude of might-have-been’s. Edward Waverley’s former education plays a role in this. In the beginning of the novel the reader learns that Waverley got his knowledge from reading books. Most of the books present history as a fixed line of events. Scott tried to show Waverley and his readers another point of view. Jane Austen, on the other hand, seems satisfied with the way things are, but is also open to welcome modern adoptions if they are proved to have quality. Claire Lamont has written an article on this subject, Jane Austen and the Old. In this article she states the opposite: “Austen’s novels describes a modern world in which most of the characters find history tedious to read, irrelevant to their concerns, and limited to their wishes” (673). She makes this statement in spite of several examples of Austen’s conservative way of thinking. Austen is known to have a strong dislike of women working in any form. In Emma this is found in the voice of Jane Fairfax:
With the fortitude of a devoted noviciate, she had resolved at one-and-twenty to complete the sacrifice, and retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever. (142)
This description could not be more unfavourable towards the life of a governess. On the other hand, Austen does several times write in approving terms about modernity. Hartfield is namely “modern and well-built” (ch. 29) whereas Donwell Abbey, the home of Mr Knightley, is old, “rambling and irregular, with many comfortable and one or two handsome rooms” (ch. 39). The combination of modern and well-built shows the proved quality of this relatively new building.
The explicitness of Scott’s time arrangement gives him the opportunity to present as much historical and political facts as he did. Jane Austen, on her side, is able to bring history and politics to the background because her novel is not bound on exact years as Waverley. Scott emphasised the background of his novel in order to preserve a part of the Highland culture and history. Though this makes his novel harder to understand for uninformed readers. Austen probably did not include the historical and political information because she did not consider it the most important aspect of her novel. Her novel centres around other subjects. As a result, Austen’s novel Emma is more accessible for historical uninformed readers than Waverley by Scott.
Austen, Jane. Emma. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2003.
Lamont, Claire. “Jane Austen and the Old.” Review of English Studies Nov. 2003: 661-674.
Orr, Marilyn. “Real and Narrative Time: Waverley and the Education of Memory.” Studies in English literature, 1500-1900 (SEL) Sept. 1991: 715-735.
Scott, Walter. Waverley. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2004.