The relationship between Emma and her father affords us our first real opportunity to weigh the narrator's characterization of things against an actual encounter; it should cause attentive readers to continue to wonder about the narrator's reliability.
The first thing we are told about Emma's father was that he was "affectionate and indulgent" (1). The first thing we are told about Emma's attitude towards her father is, "She dearly loved her father, but..." (2)
The rhetorical force of that "but" may not be as strong at negating what comes before it as does the previously mentioned "seemed," but it does (or should) heighten our attention to what comes after. What follows is "...but he was no companion for her" (2). We are told, indeed, that "he could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful" (2). We are told that they have an "evil" (there's that word again) disparity of age, caused in part by his not having married young (2). Her father is a bit of a hypochondriac (the narrator uses the word "valetudinarian"), and while he is amiable (and, hence, loved), "his talents could not have recommended him at any time" (2). The description of Mr. Woodhouse's qualities is interrupted by two paragraphs describing the supremacy of the family in Highbury, and then we are told that Emma could not sigh over her sadness at losing Miss Taylor as a companion because "her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful" (2-3). In case we haven't gotten the point, the narrator repeats:
His spirits required support. He was a nervous man, easily depressed; fond of everybody that he was used to, and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind. Matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable; and he was by no means yet reconciled to his own daughter's marrying, nor could ever speak of her but with compassion, though it had been entirely a match of affection, when he was now obliged to part with Miss Taylor too; and from his habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself... (3)
Here's a question I pose to the readers who think I might be too hard on Mr. Woodhouse: what is "gentle selfishness"? As near as I can tell, this paragraph says that Mr. Woodhouse is used to getting his own way, and when he doesn't he is "easily depressed." He has trouble reconciling himself to his children growing old and having marriages of their own. Is selfishness ever gentle--or experienced as gentle by those who must submit to it?
Mr. Woodhouse is an interesting foil to two characters we have not yet met--Mrs. Churchill and Miss Bates. With the former he shares a bossy attachment to his children and desire that they forestall marriages of their own to make their parent's life comfortable. With the latter he shares an amiable disposition combined with a tiresome lack of conversational ability (rational or playful). He differs from them both in that: a) he is male; and, b) everyone seems to like him. The question that jumps to my mind, of course, is "why"?
We are told he is "amiable"--that amorphous quality that is hard, exactly to pin down. The American Heritage Dictionary defines "amiable" as "friendly and agreeable in disposition; good-natured and likable." We are told this right before we are told that "his spirits required support," that he found change "disagreeable," and that he was "selfish" (albeit, gently so).
Were I to give in to my inner feminist critic, I'd probably suggest that what we get in these pages looks suspiciously like a daughter who has internalized the cultural and/or familial expectations placed on her to the extent that she lacks the voice or means to question the divine right of the status quo. She loves him because....well, because he is amiable...by which she means if you look past all that selfish behavior (as she must), you will find a man that genuinely likes those people who cater to his every whim and arrange their lives around making his as pleasant as possible.
It is equally possible to take our narrator at face value and decide that Mr. Woodhouse has some quality of personal charm or charisma that Miss Bates and Mrs. Churchill lack. Putting aside momentarily the question of when and to what degree the narrator's perceptions are that of a neutral observer and when they are descriptive of Emma's inner thoughts or feelings, we are forced to concede that Emma's love for her father and his amiability are presented to us as facts by the narrator and not protestations of the moment from Emma. Why then is he this charming character whereas the two women who are most like him are held up to scorn and derision?
One reason is purely formal. For reasons we may discuss more later (but which can be easily guessed or deduced), Miss Bates's passages will go on and on, inviting the reader to share Emma's boredom and frustration with her. By contrast, Mr. Woodhouse's more tedious practices tend to be described quickly and abstractly rather than chronicled at length. We are to understand that the exchange between Emma and her father (page 3)--in which she parries his lamenting that getting the carriage to go a half mile is too much of a bother with a reminder that he has a coachman who will welcome the chance to see his daughter (in service at their destination)--is a snippet of a much longer, more tedious evening, but it is charmingly eccentric when doled out in small doses, and the effect it is likely to have on the reader is to provide some comic relief to contrast with Emma's sadness. This effect is much different than what the same exchange might get at the end of a long evening filled with such exchanges.
What are we to make of all this? When I go over this passage with students, I'm often surprised how different our attitudes are towards Emma and her situation. Whereas some readers will immediately see her handsomeness, cleverness, money, and social prestige as qualities for which she is to be justly envied, others may very well see her isolation, boredom, and preternatural responsibility to care for an aged and difficult parent as a situation for which she might engender sympathy. As for the narrator's claims that Emma dearly loved her father, I remind myself that love is acts of love as well as feelings of love, so the evidence that she loved him is found as much in nights of tedious conversation and backgammon endured cheerfully rather than sullenly than it is in any illusions about another's character. She doesn't even seem to resent her sister, Isabella, for breaking away and making a family of her own, leaving Emma to bear the brunt of the work of caring for their father.
Emma has her flaws, no doubt. But if we can get past first impressions and not be too influenced by what others (particularly, in this case, the narrator) are saying about people, we sometimes see their behavior or actions in a different light. Much of Austen's work is about going beyond initial impressions or looking past people's reputations in order to come to your own judgments.
"Emma smiled and chatted as cheerfully as she could..." (3)
"Emma spared no exertions to maintain the happier flow of ideas..." (4).
These are throw-away lines, easy to read over and read past, easy to forget or dismiss when faced with bolder descriptions of Emma's grievous social offenses or failures. Like the work of many extroverted, hospitable, amiable people, Emma's work is seldom appreciated because, like the mortar that holds buildings or relationships together, its constancy makes it appear more plain and less important than it really is. If you've ever been around someone, however, who does the hard work of keeping the depressive person's spirits up or attending to the fussy and demanding person's needs, you know just how much you miss their work when it is gone.
I can't help but think of Patricia Rozema's film adaptation of Mansfield Park here--specifically the line from Fanny's mother to take heed of the fact that she married for love. Knightley is sixteen years older than Emma (64), making him 36, by my calculation. He has not exactly "married early." Apparently in Austen's universe, one of the largest mistakes one can make is to extrapolate some sort of life lesson from another's marriage and use it as a model in selecting one's own mate.