By Mary Anna Violi | @Mary Anna Violi
On these frosty winter nights, I have been luxuriously re-reading Jane Austen’s Emma. Among the splendors of reading Emma is that of uncovering an aspect of the work that failed to strike a chord in previous readings. One discovery is realizing that the characters of Mrs. Elton and Miss Bates reminded me of two now deceased Italian ladies.
Mrs. Elton’s boorish behavior brought to my mind the incurable annoyance of the Italian matron. Her children were smarter [which they weren’t]; her décor was more au currant [which it wasn’t]; and she knew better than anyone else about everyone else [which she didn’t]. Mrs. Elton, flaunted her married status, ingratiated herself with the families of HIghbury, fancied herself a benefactor to Jane Fairfax, and demonstrated a mean-spirited streak. Yet Mrs. Elton failed to fool Emma, for Emma, by the end of the story, was nobody’s fool.
Miss Bates was reminiscent of the impoverished, mind-numbing monologues of an Italian lady my family knew. Like Miss Bates, the woman I remember was harmless, but droned on ad nauseam. Maybe she talked on and on because it made her feel less lonely, less isolated from the world. Miss Bates’ gentility resonated in spite of her nerve-wracking prattling. Taking great solace in her friends, their charity, and their inclusion of her at social functions, Miss Bates was a happy soul. This rang true as well in the grateful nature and humble attitude of the Italian gentlewoman.
Emma resonates with me each time I enter into her world. While the narrator in Emma is vexed over the phobias of Mr. Woodhouse, he resembled an old Italian gentleman friend of my family’s. Like Mr. Woodhouse, this Italian man was courtly and sweet-natured. His gentle admonishment to me was, like that of Mr. Woodhouse, meant to ensure my safety in swinging on my backyard swing set, and in making certain I drank milk every day. Mr. Woodhouse too fretted over Emma out of his love for her, and his own paranoia about anything beyond the realm of his Hartfield fireside.
To a child, these Italian seniors seemed insufferable. However, my behavior was polite and kind towards them. Had it not been, my parents would have been aghast at perceived rude behavior. In retrospect, I first read Emma through the eyes of a carefree college student; I read her now as a more introspective, compassionate adult. I still care about Emma herself and those several insufferable characters that circle around her orb. Admittedly, I cared about those ancient Italians, with whom I wish could converse again.
Ciao for now.