Beautiful Emma Woodhouse, Jane Austen’s Emma, is one of those people who fill a room to overflowing all by herself. For all her class, she is the forerunner of the less-than-classy Manhattan babes who mow you down with their pricey strollers and all the other self-appointed lords and ladies who loudly call attention to themselves.
Maybe they’ve always overpopulated the world, but my impression is that they’re spawning in alarming numbers, armed with all sorts of weapons, like smartphones, nose rings, obscenely expensive suits, high-decibel voices, exaggerated guffaws, nuisance body language, smutty talk, and a limitless capacity to pretend everybody is enthralled by them, or should be.
Emma is not as obnoxious as her ubiquitous successors in our public precincts, but she is the harbinger of a contemporary self-absorption in her absolute conviction that she knows what’s going on better than anyone else. She’s a fixer, much like the Wall Street gamers who have brought the world to its knees with their venal chutzpah.
Emma believes she knows who is good for each other. She believes people can be moved like pawns on her pricey chessboard. Her intentions are nobler than today’s predatory lenders and profiteers-she would regard them as boorish-but she has just as little respect for others. She has designs on quite a few people but is offended at the very thought of anyone having designs on her.
Austen isn’t celebrated as a modernist for nothing. Emma Woodhouse is a high-handed contemporary fixer who plays fast and loose with other people’s lives and smiles disingenuously about it all the way to high places. True, she would have regarded the likes of Dick Cheney and George Bush as vulgarians and an Obama presidency as a gaffe, but in her sense of entitlement and the inflatedness of her persona she inhabits every bank, every Starbucks, every cafe and street in America.
Emma is huge in a particularly distasteful way. Everyone else is wallpaper. She mows us down, she hijacks our attention, she makes us think about her when we have better people and better things to think about. She’s like a big black fly in the bedroom. But she couldn’t have foreseen how distasteful her 21st Century iterations would be. After all, she hadn’t had the opportunity to read Ayn Rand.
Regency England undoubtedly had genteel words for exhibitionism, a characteristic almost certainly regarded as more deplorable then than now. And Regency England hadn’t heard about passive aggression, so the victims of Emma’s meddling couldn’t have observed that exhibitionism and passive aggression get along like catcher and mitt. As a dedicated people-watcher and cafe habitue, it seems to me passive aggression, exhibitionism and the greedy-gut 90s were a kind of perfect storm, and we, the rest of us, are its flotsam.
I see the suits walking down Madison Avenue four abreast, making way neither for God nor man. I see the over-privileged East Side mommies using their kids’ strollers as rams in their gorgeous self-absorption. I see the hyperventilating bassmouth on his cellphone acting if he’s all alone in Starbucks. I take them as Gordon Gecko knockoffs.
But the more you watch Emma in Masterpiece Theater’s new and handsome edition the more you sense having just met her and been made to feel at least an inch shorter. Emma takes up entirely too much room. She imbues us with a fear of running out of room. In many ways she stands for an elite that has made us feel superfluous in our shoes-except as consumers of sweatshop products and contemptuous services.
Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.
His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller’s Room, in 1999.
He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.