Part of my problem with Jane Austen’s Emma (first published in 1815) lay in the main character. Jane Austen once famously said, “I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Unfortunately, such was the case for me. I disliked Emma Woodhouse’s immature manipulation of others around her, and found Austen’s writing tedious for the most part. It seemed quite long, and I was completely surprised and disappointed to discover that I didn’t like it.
But as is often the case, after discussion with my book group, I appreciate it much more. The comments in the introduction to my edition (the Everyman’s edition, written by Marilyn Butler) indicate that it is a novel that improves upon rereading. I can see that knowing what comes helps give sense and humor to the manipulation in the beginning. Maybe someday I’ll revisit Emma Woodhouse and see if that is true.
Emma has a story that many already know, thanks to multiple Hollywood productions, from Clueless to the A&E special to one with Gwyneth Paltrow and so forth. Emma Woodhouse, the wealthy daughter in a country community, determines to play match maker, with amusing consequences.
Although I disliked Emma herself, the introduction gave some further insights that I’ll have to look for next time I read. The conflicts among those Emma associates with are related to class: Emma adopts Harriet Smith, who is “the natural daughter of nobody knows whom,” as her next match-making assignee, and despite the fact that she tries to raise Harriet’s station, class still dictates Harriet’s future. On this read, it seemed that Emma was a story of class.
The introduction also suggests that possibly even Emma’s own station is far less than she anticipates. She and her father are somewhat reclusive in the outskirts of town. Although they think highly of themselves as the wealthiest of the town and of the highest class, Emma is somewhat clueless as to the rest of the society’s opinions of her. Since much of the novel is filtered through Emma’s perspective, we likewise don’t know for sure.
Further, others in town are rising in status, such as the Coles family. Although Emma scorns association with them initially, when she realizes she is the only one not attending the ball, she readily agrees to attend, despite the fact that the Coles are of the merchant class and earned their status. Does she realize that Mr. Knightley’s association with Robert Martin is not all that unusual? She may be the only one in the novel who scorns an honest farmer because he was not born wealthy. Her pride, which irritated me, seemed an integral part of her status realization.
*This paragraph may contain spoilers.* Yet, Emma does change throughout the novel. By the end, she is willing to associate with Robert Martin, despite her status. Part of this is thanks to Mr. Knightley’s influence, but I also think she learned a little bit about her place. Jane Fairfax was true competition for her, with her beauty and numerous talents. Coming to accept her was a necessary step in Emma’s humbling. I liked Jane and felt sorry for her. I thought she deserved far better than who she ended up with (I despised him throughout the novel). I also felt for Harriet, who Emma never ceased manipulating, it seemed. *end spoilers*
In the end, I wondered how I would have been had I been stuck in Emma’s situation. She was the only wealthy woman in the community; she must have been incredibly bored. I think I may have resorted to match-making too, if I wanted amusement. She was raised by an adoring father who saw no faults in her; she had no options other than being incredibly spoiled. Of course she thought highly of herself! She was in dire need of a humbling.
I should also mention that every time I picked up the book to read, I could not but help think of Clueless and the cleverness that was putting Jane Austen’s story in 1995 Beverly Hills. Austen’s talent is in writing universal stories, for even in the novel, only a different lifestyle (carriages, balls, etc.) date it as an early nineteenth century novel. Her story stands the test of time well, even two hundred years later, and I believe many today can relate to Emma’s story. Take some of the lifestyle details and replace them with today’s and it works perfectly.
For me, Emma does lack the clever flirtations and sigh-inducing romance that I loved in Pride and Prejudice. It also lacks an intriguing relationship, such as that between the sisters in Sense and Sensibility. Nonetheless, if I were to read it again, I think I could find a number of issues I could explore: women’s roles in the early eighteenth century, class status, or the changing nature of rural society, for example. It is witty, and I loved meeting of the memorable characters, like Miss Bates (even if I didn’t like her particularly). While I didn’t love reading Emma, it certainly has a lot in it, and I still look forward to reading the rest of Ms. Austen’s repertoire. What I have read, in order of preference, is shown below.
- Pride and Prejudice
- Sense and Sensibility
Which should I read next: Persuasion or Mansfield Park? I’m saving Northanger Abbey for last, possibly after I’ve read some gothic novels.