How Emma persuaded me to write ‘Perfect Happiness’

Impossible to believe that Miss Emma Woodhouse could change anyone’s mood for the better. Conceited, narrow-minded, snobbish, insensitive are just a few of the appropriate adjectives.

In 1995 I was writing a novel about a man who has committed murder, on the face of it an unsympathetic character, who serves his time in prison and comes back to a small village and finds himself deeply unwelcome, which is a fine story, except that I was stuck. As I was not writing for hours every day, I had a chance to notice that the youngest of our four children was about to be sixteen. Was this the end of motherhood, a role I’d enjoyed? And, worse still, my mother was about to reach ninety which could soon mean the end of being a daughter (actually she lived till ninety-six). It seemed that, with the novel going nowhere (later published as Tiger Sky) and other roles closing fast, I must rethink the days ahead.

At that dire moment I had a call from a publisher, not my own, inviting me, with a fine sum involved, (reminded me that money is one of the meanings of life) to write a sequel to ‘Emma.’My mother chose this moment to repeat a plea she has made throughout my writing career, ‘Darling, I do hope this book will have a happy ending.’ I thought about it. It could be my last chance to please her. Austen books always have happy endings.

Gradually, very gradually, I began to be, at least, interested. Why ever did Emma think Harriet Smith worthy to be the bride of Hartfield’s new vicar when we could all see she was an airhead? Why did Emma treat her dreadful father, Mr. Woodhouse who thought draughts more important than anything or body in the world, as if he deserved respect? Surely a quick blow to the head would be more practical. Why did she so dislike the cultivated Miss Fairfax? Or rather why couldn’t she admit it was sheer jealousy? Why did the great Mr. Knightley, owner of Donwell Abbey, who much preferred his own company, hang about the Woodhouse menage, trying to turn spoilt Emma into a better person? As I asked these questions with passionate interest, I suddenly realised, to my amazement, that I was hooked. Just as I had been when I was twelve and first read it.

As many have said before me, it is a kind of detective story but not one with a surprise ending. The reality is there for every reader to pick up on. Airhead Harriet will marry Farmer Martin who she’s loved all along. Chancer Frank Churchill who Emma has briefly imagine she loved, will reveal his engagement to delicate Jane Fairfax. And Knightley will declare his undying love for Emma and, as Jane Austen comments, will find Perfect Happiness.

As I read those words I saw the genius of Jane Austen and an opening for myself as humble follower. The whole story is a mirage, a concoction of a literary imagination quite a dictatorial as Emma. Of course they wouldn’t be happy. Knightley, over two decades older, is more like a severe schoolmaster than a lover, even Emma can only commend his ‘tall, firm, upright figure’. Worse still, they are going to live with the wingeing Mr. Woodhouse. Jane Austen has created the most unlikely happy ending in the world. Nor could flirty Frank possibly stay faithful to delicate Jane Fairfax.

I admired Jane Austen’s wicked genius more and more and picked up my own pen to write the title ‘Perfect Happiness.’ And as I wrote, the mean abbreviations of modern Englishgave way to the glorious language of Latin A levels, complete with ablative absolute and impersonal passive. The fading away of motherhood and daughterhood forgotten, I plunged into the world of Hartfield.

So that was my conversion: language, authorial command, characters that bustle into your life… Emma may be the most unsympathetic heroine in fiction but the book will always be near my hand.
Ps What other classic uses dashes and exclamation marks with the same optimistic liberality!

(First published in The Tablet)