‘Six good hens and now Miss Taylor’

Jane Austen has come to inhabit the soul of Masterpiece writer Andrew Davies.

I was sure that they must have been conversing on some middle plane when last night’s ‘Emma’ opened with chicken stealing, Miss Taylor’s marriage, and Mr. Woodhouse’s plaintive, ‘Six good hens and now Miss Taylor. It’s a sad business.’

The deus ex machina ‘pilfering’ of the poultry comes at the very end of the novel and spurs Emma’s father to consent to her marriage with Mr. Knightley. ‘He was very uneasy; and but for the sense of his son-in-law’s protection, would have been under wretched alarm every night of his life.’ Davies retains the incident at the end of his adaptation but it is a stroke of genius to establish the fanciful humor of the story with this initial juxtaposition. Mr. Woodhouse resists disturbance in any form, from the advantageous marriage of Emma’s governess to poultry stealing.

In the same way, Davies retains Jane Austen’s dialogue and seamlessly blends it with his own. The Miss Bates character is perfection, and Mr. Woodhouse’s comment that ‘she speaks a little too quick’ is one of the most satisfying understatements in the novel.

Mr. Woodhouse, in fact, sets the tone for this adaptation. He is good-hearted, well intentioned, and wrong-headed, as is Emma. Although he is past change, his daughter is not. She ‘blunders,’ a word used in the novel, from one mistaken surmise to another, but fortunately she has Mr. Knightley to stand in as her conscience. Father, brother, and finally husband, he watches out for her, and we can count on him to lead her beyond the happily ever after to maturity and sound judgment.

I enjoyed the extended ending – the harvest and the formal dance and – more chicken stealing. Andrew Davies understands that Jane Austen is all about juxtaposing the dance-like ritual of courtship and marriage with the ridiculous in ourselves and those close to us.

She is in good hands.

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