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I'm having trouble parsing this excerpt from Jane Austen's Emma, particularly the bolded sentence:

He was not a great favourite with his fair sister-in-law. Nothing wrong in him escaped her. She was quick in feeling the little injuries to Isabella, which Isabella never felt herself. Perhaps she might have passed over more had his manners been flattering to Isabella's sister, but they were only those of a calmly kind brother and friend, without praise and without blindness; but hardly any degree of personal compliment could have made her regardless of that greatest fault of all in her eyes which he sometimes fell into, the want of respectful forbearance towards her father. There he had not always the patience that could have been wished.
Emma, chapter 11

Who does "she" refer to in this line - Isabella or Emma? I'm inclined to read it as referring to Emma, but then the reference to "Isabella's sister" later on reads a bit odd either way.

I'm also not quite sure what "passed over more" is referring to. Is this referring to Emma ignoring his faults or to Isabella noticing them (or to Emma talking to Isabella about them)? The paragraph that this is taken from is quite a long paragraph, and uses many different terms to refer to the same people, so I'm having trouble parsing this part.

How is this sentence supposed to be parsed?

2 Answers 2

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“Passed over more” means “ignored (his faults) to a greater extent”. Here’s the passage annotated with some referents of pronouns, relation terms, etc:

He [John Knightley] was not a great favourite with his [John’s] fair sister-in-law [Emma Woodhouse]. Nothing wrong in him [John] escaped her [Emma]. She [Emma] was quick in feeling the little injuries to Isabella, which Isabella never felt herself. Perhaps she [Emma] might have passed over more had his [John’s] manners been flattering to Isabella’s sister [Emma], but they [John’s manners] were only those of a calmly kind brother and friend, without praise and without blindness; but hardly any degree of personal compliment could have made her [Emma] regardless of that greatest fault of all in her [Emma’s] eyes which he [John] sometimes fell into, the want of respectful forbearance towards her [Emma’s] father [Mr Woodhouse]. There [towards Mr Woodhouse] he [John] had not always the patience that could have been wished [by Emma].

The confusing bit is “she might have passed over more had his manners been flattering to Isabella’s sister” where “Isabella’s sister” is the same person as “she”. This is an instance of cataphora, where the pronoun comes before the noun it refers to. Modern style makes less use of cataphora, so in a modern novel we would expect to encounter the noun before the pronoun, for example, “Isabella’s sister might have passed over more had his manners been flattering to her”.

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  • It is cataphora, but that’s really incidental here: had the subject been Emma, it would not have been (strict) cataphora, but still just as confusing. More relevantly, it’s referring to an already named subject by an unnecessarily obfuscating circumlocution that makes that same subject’s identity unclear. It’s akin to saying, “John nicked his wife’s younger sister’s brother-in-law while shaving” instead of just saying, “John nicked himself while shaving”. The natural phrasing would have been, “Perhaps she might have over more had his manners been flattering to her”. Mar 25, 2023 at 12:41
  • @JanusBahsJacquet but the subject is Emma?
    – verbose
    May 5, 2023 at 6:07
  • @verbose No, I meant the literal word Emma. Emma (the person) is of course the anaphor for the pronoun she, so Emma is the logical subject, but anaphora and cataphora are syntactic concepts (not logical ones) referring to the use of pronouns specifically. Had the sentence read, “Perhaps Emma might have passed over more had John’s manners been flattering to Isabella’s sister”, there would be no pronoun and thus no cataphora, but it would have been every bit as confusing. May 5, 2023 at 9:57
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You are correct, the subject of the clause "she might have passed over more" is Emma herself. The passage illustrates both Austen's pioneering technique and her superb irony. With regard to the former, John Mullan writes:

Emma ... was certainly not revolutionary because of any intellectual or political content. But it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. ...

The narration follows the path of Emma’s errors. Indeed, the first-time reader will sometimes follow this path too, and then share the heroine’s surprise when the truth rushes upon her. Yet it is still a third-person narrative; Emma is not telling her own story. We both share her judgments and watch her making them.

Austen was the first novelist to manage this alchemy. She was perfecting a technique that she had begun developing in her first published novel, Sense and Sensibility. It was only in the early 20th century that critics began agreeing on a name for it: free indirect style (a translation from the original French: style indirect libre). It describes the way in which a writer imbues a third-person narration with the habits of thought or expression of a fictional character. Before Austen, novelists chose between first-person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game). Austen miraculously combined the internal and the external.

The Guardian, Saturday, December 5, 2015. Accessed March 23, 2023.

In this free indirect technique, every incident, thought, and feeling is presented from Emma's point of view—how things appear to and affect her. The passage you exemplifies this: it is Emma's thoughts that are being reported, not Isabella's. It means, "Emma would have ignored greater faults [than the ones she sees] in her brother-in-law's treatment of Isabella, if only he had been more flattering toward herself". This is what marks the pioneering nature of Austen's narrative: we are given Emma's, and only Emma', point of view.

Yet the passage also points to Austen's celebrated use of irony. She tells us that Emma feels somewhat slighted by her brother-in-law. Why? Because his manners are not flattering: "they were only those of a calmly kind brother and friend, without praise and without blindness". Accustomed as she is to receiving praise from all quarters, Emma holds it against her brother-in-law that he sees her objectively, without being blind to her faults. Austen is poking fun at her own heroine here, showing how entitled Emma feels to uncritical adulation, how deluded she is in her self-assessment, and how warped her judgment of those around her is. The entire plot of Emma relies on this contrast between Emma's point of view and the reality of a situation. We see things only from Emma's perspective, but on re-reading, we can spot these clues Austen gives us throughout that perhaps this perspective isn't to be entirely trusted.

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