There's no heat with Mr. Knightley," Allegra said. She had a very expressive face, like Lillian Gish in a silent movie. She frowned when she was making a point, had done this since she was a tiny girl. "Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax meet in secret and quarrel with each other and make it up and lie to everyone they know. You believe they're in love because they behave so badly. You can imagine sex. You never feel that with Mr. Knightley." Allegra had a lullaby voice, low, yet penetrating. She was often impatient with us, but her tones were so soothing we usually realized it only afterward.
"That's true," Bernadette agreed. Behind the lenses of her tiny glasses her eyes were round as pebbles. "Emma is always saying how reserved Jane is, even Mr. Knightley says so, and he's so perceptive about everyone. But she's the only one in the whole book"-the lights came on, which made Bernadette jump, but she didn't miss a word for it-"who ever seems desperately in love. Austen says that Emma and Mr. Knightley make an unexceptional marriage." She paused reflectively. "Clearly she approves. I expect the word 'unexceptional' meant something different in Austen's day. Like, nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing to set tongues wagging. Neither reaching too high nor stooping too low."
Light poured like milk over the porch. Several large winged insects hurled themselves against the screens, frantic to find it, follow it to the source. This resulted in a series of thumps, some of them loud enough to make Sahara growl.
"No animal passion," said Allegra.
Sahara turned. Animal passion. She had seen things in the kennels. Things that would make your hair stand on end.
"No passion at all." Prudie repeated the word, but pronouncing it as if it were French. Pah-see-ohn. Because she taught French, this wasn't as thoroughly obnoxious as it might have been.
Not that we liked it. The month before, Prudie's beautician had removed most of her eyebrows; it gave her a look of steady surprise. We couldn't wait for this to go away. "Sans passion, amour n'est rien," Prudie said.
"Apres moi, le deluge," Bernadette answered, just so Prudie's words wouldn't fall into a silence that might be mistaken for chilly. Bernadette was really too kind sometimes.
Nothing smelly outside. Sahara came away from the screen door. She leaned into Jocelyn, sighing. Then she circled three times, sank, and rested her chin on the gamy toe of Jocelyn's shoe. She was relaxed but alert. Nothing would get to Jocelyn that didn't go through Sahara first.
"If I may." Grigg cleared his throat, held up his hand. "One thing I notice about Emma is that there's a sense of menace." He counted off on his fingers. He wore no ring. "The violent Gypsies. The unexplained pilferings. Jane Fairfax's boat accident. All Mr. Woodhouse's worries. There's a sense of threat hovering on the edges. Casting its shadow."
Prudie spoke quickly and decisively. "But Austen's whole point is that none of those things is real. There is no real threat."
"I'm afraid you've missed the whole point," said Allegra.
Grigg said nothing further. His eyelashes dropped to his cheeks, making his expression hard to read. It fell to Jocelyn as hostess to change the subject.
"I read once that the Emma plot, the humbling of a pretty, self-satisfied girl, is the most popular plot of all time. I think it was Robertson Davies who said so. That this was the one story everyone was bound to enjoy."
. . .
When Jocelyn was fifteen, she met two boys while playing tennis at the country club. One of them was named Mike, the other Steven. They were, at first glance, average boys. Mike was taller and thinner, with a prominent Adam's apple and glasses that turned to headlights in the sun. Steven had better shoulders and a nice smile but a fat ass.
From The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler, copyright © 2004 Karen Joy Fowler, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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