A Lesson Learnt at Box Hill

A guest post by English Literature student Orla Lavery, who shares some thoughts on 'Emma' and *that* disastrous day out at Box Hill...

Emma Woodhouse is certainly a confusing mixture of flaws and assets. Described as ‘handsome, clever and rich’ by Austen, one contemporary reviewer added ‘lively, conceited and rather proud’.   Emma sees herself as a matchmaker, a meddlesome fact that leads to many misunderstandings throughout the novel. Austen’s ability to blend her own narrative voice with that of Emma’s allows us to fluctuate between being a rational observer and finding ourselves swept up in our heroine’s delusions. In naming her novel after its protagonist, Austen places Emma at its centre – a fact that would surely delight Miss Woodhouse, but which also captures the playful voice of our author as she invites us to critically observe this character above all others. At the heart of the story is Emma’s moral journey which reaches a turning point in one of the novel’s most famous scenes, the disastrous outing to Box Hill.

In a letter to her niece Fanny Knight, Austen wrote in November 1814, ‘Wisdom is better than wit, and in the long run will certainly have the laugh on her side.’ Emma places much importance on one’s ability to be witty. In an earlier scene within the novel, as she and Harriet receive Mr Elton’s charade, Emma berates her friend with the remark, ‘My dear Harriet, you cannot find much difficulty in comprehending’. It is ironic that Emma finds fault in Harriet’s inability to see what is right in front of her whilst she herself is unable to discern the true recipient of Mr Elton’s affections. The scene at Box Hill, too, is an instance in which Emma prioritises wit, this time to a much more detrimental effect. Hoping to liven up the conversation, Frank Churchill challenges everyone to come up with ‘one thing very clever…two things moderately clever- or three things very dull indeed’, and in a surprising moment of self-awareness, Miss Bates jokes at her own expense, ‘“three things very dull indeed”. That will just do for me, you know.’

Austen tells us, ‘Emma could not resist,’ and the reader is filled with dread. We know what will come next. Miss Bates all too readily presents an opportunity for ridicule and Emma immediately seizes it. ‘Ah! Ma’am, but there may be a difficulty… you will be limited as to number- only three at once’. Emma’s words are too cruel. They draw a gasp from the reader, they sting in their crudeness, and they force us to turn our back on our heroine, if only for a moment.

Emma believes she is superior to Miss Bates and yet Austen does not hesitate in showing the reader that, in this instance, she is not. When finally challenged, Emma tries to laugh off her mistake, but Mr Knightley will not allow her and nor does Austen. Although Emma does not immediately recognise the harshness of her words, Austen is quick to ensure the reader does. One example comes in the form of Mr Weston’s riddle: ‘What two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?’. The answer is a play on Emma’s name. What was meant as a compliment becomes its own joke, this time at Emma’s expense. Her behaviour towards Miss Bates is very far from perfect and therefore Mr Weston’s ill-timed conundrum draws attention to her blunder rather than smoothly moving past it.

It is Mr Knightley who forces Emma to confront her wrongdoing. ‘She felt your full meaning’, he assures her. Through Knightley, Austen once again draws attention to what Emma lacks, as he tells us how Miss Bates dealt with the blow with ‘candour and generosity’, two traits notably absent from Emma’s previous behaviour. Furthermore, Austen includes the line, ‘he looked around, as if to see that no one were near’; in doing this, Mr Knightley affords Emma a courtesy which she did not allow Miss Bates – that of having her humiliation remain a private affair.

Mr Knightley believes his anger stems from a desire to defend Miss Bates. However, once again Austen allows the reader in on a secret not yet known by the characters. Knightley may be disappointed in Emma’s behaviour, but his jealousy towards Frank Churchill lends his manner an unexpected harshness. Austen tells us later that Emma believes Knightley speaks ‘far too strongly to issue from any feeling softer than upright justice and clear-sighted goodwill’. The reader, however, already knows this isn’t true.

The chapter at Box Hill shows Emma at her worst and yet Austen manages to pull the reader back by having our heroine acknowledge and repent her wrongdoing; ‘Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved… She was most forcibly struck’. What redeems Emma is her readiness to learn. Austen presents us with a young girl who, at the very heart of things, is incredibly kind and loving but, having been coddled by her father and indulged by her social inferiors, she is all too often driven by her arrogance. Box Hill therefore marks a significant turning point for Emma as she is forced to face a side of herself that she now sees as ‘so brutal, so cruel’. It is a chapter filled with many conflicting emotions: hurt, anger, disappointment, embarrassment. Austen manages to make the reader feel them all and yet as the carriage pulls away and we are left with the image of Emma in tears it is perhaps most surprising that we find ourselves still able to sympathise with our heroine. And further still, that we are filled with a sense of hope that she has finally learnt a much-needed lesson.



This article is the first in a series of posts by young people who are roughly the age of Jane Austen’s heroines. Keep an eye out for more to come!

Orla Lavery is an English Language and Literature student from Northern Ireland currently studying at Somerville College at the University of Oxford. She has always enjoyed Austen’s work, particularly Emma and Sense & Sensibility, and she greatly admires her ability to make every character, no matter how small, completely, and utterly unique.