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Emma: A Modern Retelling

Chapter 5

Dearly beloved,” began the vicar. “We are gathered together here in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation . . .” The echoing opening of the Wedding Service, couched in the Cranmerian prose of the Book of Common Prayer, could not but move every one of the one hundred guests attending the wedding of Isabella Woodhouse to John Knightley. Emma listened to each word, and was impressed by the sheer solemnity of what she heard: “. . . which is an honourable estate . . . and first miracle he wrought, in Cana of Galilee . . . and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly . . .” The resonant language brought home to her the significance of the occasion. This was her Isabella, her sister, taking such an irrevocable and adult step, leaving the security of her childhood home and venturing out as a married woman, as Mrs. Knightley. It was hard for her to accept that this was actually happening; it was all so sudden, and so dramatic—almost an elopement, but not quite.
She looked about her at the congregation almost filling the small Norman church in Highbury. The Knightley family was led by George, and was well represented by an assortment of cousins, even if somewhat distant ones; there were fewer Woodhouses—not because various relatives had been passed over, but because they were a smaller family. Then there were people from the village: Miss Bates, an unmarried woman in her fifties who occupied, on a fixed rent, a cottage in the village, and who lived a narrow life in severely reduced circumstances; James Weston, a widower whose Georgian house of eight bedrooms was barely a mile from Hartfield, and who had always been a good friend to Mr. Woodhouse; Mr. Perry, an exponent of alternative medicine, regarded as a charlatan by some (but not by Mr. Woodhouse), and his wife, an illustrator of educational textbooks; and a number of friends whom Isabella had known at Gresham’s: Rosie Slazenger, Timmy Cottesloe, Kitty Fairweather. Emma knew them too, although she was a few years younger; Mr. Woodhouse had heard their names before and had met some of them from time to time, but could never tell which one was which.
Mr. Woodhouse had reconciled himself to Isabella’s choice. His attempt to marry her off had succeeded, of course, but not in the way he had imagined. He had wanted her to find a husband in order to protect her, and she had done just that, with alacrity and determination, although not alighting upon quite the sort of husband he had envisaged for her. Still, it could have been worse; and the most important consideration, he knew, was her happiness. John Knightley made her happy. She adored him, and as far as Mr. Woodhouse could make out, this adoration was fully reciprocated. And he accepted that the fact that he had a tattoo was far less important than the fact that they were both happy. His tattoo, moreover, was a relatively discreet one, and not something that people would necessarily notice, although it was a pity, Mr. Woodhouse felt, that the best man should choose to mention it in his speech.
Immediately after the wedding she informed him that she was three months pregnant, and that she was expecting twins. Emma, who was sixteen at the time, greeted this news with delight, but proclaimed, quite spontaneously, “Not for me! I’m never going to get myself pregnant! Yuck!”
She addressed this to Miss Taylor, who was surprised by the vehemence of her reaction. “But it’s a wonderful thing to have children,” she said. “You love children—I’ve seen you with those little girls in the village shop.”
“Children, yes,” said Emma. “But pregnancy, no. All that . . .” She assumed an expression of disgust. “All that fumbling.”
Miss Taylor smiled. “You shouldn’t worry about that,” she said. “That’ll take care of itself. The important thing is to meet a young man whom you love. Once that happens, and I hope it does, then everything else—fumbling, and so on—will seem quite natural.”
Emma shook her head vigorously. No, Miss Taylor did not understand; how could she—at her age? “I don’t ever want to get married,” she announced. “Never. Never. Not in a thousand years.”
Miss Taylor was tolerant. “Millennia come round so quickly, Emma.” She smiled again. “I’ve already experienced one in my lifetime. And you may think that of marriage now, you know, but one’s views do change.”
“Mine won’t,” said Emma, with conviction. She was certain; she knew what lay ahead of her: she would continue to be pretty, clever, and rich. That did not include getting married: pretty, clever, and rich people did not have to bother with such things.
“Oh well,” said Miss Taylor. “There are other lifestyles. There is a great deal to be said for being single.” And she thought: Exactly what? Not having to worry about another person; not having to accommodate a partner’s wishes; not having to tolerate the slow, gravitational decline of the flesh into middle age and beyond, into that territory of sleepless nights and infirmity; not having to listen to familiar views on the same things, time after time? Not having to have to, in short. And yet, she thought, if I had to choose between being a governess and having a man . . .

Emma, having pronounced, now looked thoughtful. “Of course, I quite see how lots of other people want to get married. I can see how it’s fine for them. In fact . . .”
Miss Taylor waited. “Yes?”
“It’s probably rather fun to help other people find the right person. Yes, I think it must be.” An idea had entered her mind. It was unbidden, but it excited her, and had to be expressed. “You, for example, Miss Taylor . . . What about you and James Weston?”
This was not an area into which Miss Taylor felt they should stray. She was, after all, Emma’s governess, and there were boundaries to be observed, no matter how easy and familiar their relationship had been. “Leave me out of it,” she said sharply. “Cadit quaestio.”
Cadit quaestio,” muttered Emma, under her breath. “Sed quaestio manet.” She had asked her Latin teacher at school for a suitable rebuttal to cadit quaestio, and she had said that one might retort: But the question still remains, and that could be rendered sed quaestio manet. That was to put it simply, she explained. Simpliciter. Emma loved Latin because it gave her a sort of power. At school she had tossed a Latin phrase at a boy who had been staring at her in a disconcerting way, and he had been crushed—there was only one word for it: crushed.

Emma: A Modern Retelling
by by Alexander McCall Smith

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor
  • ISBN-10: 0804172412
  • ISBN-13: 9780804172417