Emma by Jane Austen

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.

  1. Pride and Prejudice
  2. Sense and Sensibility
  3. Emma

Which should I read next: Persuasion or Mansfield Park? I’m saving Northanger Abbey for last, possibly after I’ve read some gothic novels.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. Emma is the Austen novel that explained to me why some folks call her novels “satiric.” They’re very gentle satire, but all the things you mention from the introduction are part of the satiric perspective. That’s also what I love about Northanger Abbey (actually that verges into parody, which is sillier and I love it even more).

    I would suggest Mansfield Park, but since you know my satirical bent, you might want to read the other one first 😉

  2. Emma’s snobbish schemes were pretty irritating, but I remember enjoying the book. I was most bothered by Frank Churchill. I love Mansfield park, but I think I’m in the minority. A lot of readers don’t like the main character, Fanny Price, but in a different way than Emma. She reminded me of myself, which could be a bad sign!

  3. It looks as if our opinions of Emma are a bit similar. It’s funny that you mention how the introduction to the book added to your insights, because I had exactly the same experience when I read Emma over the summer (I read a different edition, though). Even though the introduction gave away some of the plot lines, the insight it gave, for me far outweighed the spoilers. This is the link to my review: http://armenianodar.wordpress.com/2010/08/03/emma-by-jane-austen/

    1. Myrthe, I don’t mind when introductions give up plot lines. I don’t believe in “spoilers!” so I’m always glad for a good introduction! Thanks for the link to your review.

  4. Persuasion is my favourite. Mansfield Park is a bit slow for some and many dislike Fanny, but I remember liking the novel. Northanger Abbey I love for its more obvious mocking of some aspects of society.

  5. I liked Emma more than Sense & Sensibility, but it was still just okay for me. I’ve read t hem all but Northanger and sadly none of them have captured the same sort of feel as P&P.

    Most people love Persuasion, though, and feel Mansfield Park is boring. I actually liked MP better than pretty much all of them but P&P, and I hated Persuasion because I thought the main love interest was a complete jerk and Anne should have smacked and him and left him alone, but I’m sadly in the minority.

    1. Amanda, interesting about not liking the love interest in Persuasion. I’m very curious now about both Persuasion and MP. I’ll have to give them a try. I wonder which ones I’ll like! I have no idea at this point.

  6. I would highly suggest “Persuasion”. It’s my favourite Austen novel, Jane’s last completed book and, I think, her most evolved work.

  7. I’m sorry you didn’t love Emma, Rebecca. I admit this isn’t my favorite Austen, but I don’t find Emma as disagreeable as you did. I agree that she’s a meddlesome dolt, but she does ultimately learn her lesson which I think redeems her a good deal. Someone who is loved so greatly by Mr. Knightley can’t be all bad! 😀

    1. Steph, I think Mr Knightley was ruined by the A&E movie I read. He was always yelling in that. And then just before he kissed her, he said, “I held you when you were three weeks old.” Yuck!! So I just can’t see him as romantic…

  8. Emma has grown on me over the years. I love the cosy feeling of Highbury now, everyone feels like family there. I do get annoyed with Emma manipulating Harriet, especially since I’ve experienced friendships like that, something women seem to do to their ‘friends’ (projects is more like it) more than men ever do. Jane Austen definitely portrays this downside of female friendship very accurately, along with Emma’s jealousy of Jane Fairfax and the way she avoids her, because she’s really Emma’s only equal and Emma wants to be special. One thing I do like about Emma, at some point in the narrative she’s called an ‘imaginist’ which is a fantastic word and I’ve read that some people think she would have made a good writer. Certainly, as you say, she interferes with people’s lives because she doesn’t have anything really challenging and exciting to do. The new mini-series with Romola Garai (which is so pretty to watch!) really highlights how because of her father’s fussiness she’s never really been able to travel away from Highbury and how that’s led her to try to over-control people, just as her father does.

    I would recommend Persuasion for your next read, it’s shorter and beautifully autumnal.

    1. Carolyn, yes, there is so much in the female friendship and GOSSIP as a main thing — my intro touched on that a lot too. I think I’d go crazy if I lived there! I didn’t see the Romola Garai miniseries, but I did watch a few other movies. Sounds like that one is very good. The others made Emma even more tiresome for me, unfortunately.

  9. Definitely read Persuasion next! I read it recently and absolutely loved it…even more than P&P.

    I haven’t read Emma or Northanger Abbey yet. And I know what you mean about appreciating books more after discussing them. While it might not change that I didn’t really care for a book, it certainly helps me better understand why I didn’t like it or what the author was intending.

  10. I have a hard time with the father-figure-turned-romantic-lead aspect of this novel; I’m willing to make allowances for the mores of different times, but I must admit it squicks me out a bit. Also, Emma is annoying. Still, I’ve read it three times (!) due to syllabus overlap in college, and I must admit that every time I appreciated it a little bit more.

    1. Emily, yes, just don’t watch the A&E movie of it. The father-figure Mr. Knightley is very not romantic. THREE TIMES. wow. that’s a lot of overlap. Maybe sometime I’ll revisit and I hope I enjoy it more.

  11. I like Emma but she always frustrates me — oh, and someday, if you have chance, you should listen to the audio version narrated by Juliet Stevenson (who played Mrs. Elton in one of the films.) Brilliant!

    Persuasion alternates with P&P as my favorite Austen novel. I just love the heroine Anne Eliot, and I disagree with Amanda about the love interest, but I’ll say no more until you’ve read it. I like MP but Anne is much more lovable than Fanny. MP is interesting though.

    I also saved Northanger Abbey for last. It’s somewhat different than the others since it’s sort of a spoof of gothics. Still fun.

    1. Karenlibrarian, maybe next time I revisit EMMA I’ll have to listen! Great suggestion. I’ll have to try Persuasion next. It’s gotten by far the most votes 🙂

  12. I’ve never succeeded in getting very far with Jane Austen. I’ve started Pride and Prejudice several times and ended up setting it aside unread each time. From the reviews I’ve read around the internet, I think the next one I’ll try will be Northanger Abbey. I think it has the greatest chance of success!

    1. Erin, I love P&P but I wonder if that’s because I discovered it as a teen? No, I think I’d still like it today. I hope you enjoy Northanger Abbey and find success with Austen at last!

  13. I have to admit while I adore Austen, Emma is my least favorite of her works. For most people including myself I do think it lies in the character of Emma and her…dare I say unlike-ability. Austen definitely broke out of the box with her as a heroine. Even in the end I have a hard time feeling happy for Emma. It’s almost as if I don’t think she really deserves the happiness she finds. I have re-read all of Austen’s works except for Emma. Northanger Abbey is one of my true favorites though especially if you enjoy gothic. If you like gothic…Austen also writes about many of her favorites at her time in Northanger Abbey and it’s fun to read those as well.

    1. Courtney, I always thought I’d adore Austen but I was so disappointed by how much I disliked EMMA! You’re right — does she really deserve happiness in the end?! I didn’t like Knightley so much (although he was much better than Emma).

  14. Here’s another vote for Persuasion. I’ve read all six Austen novels and Persuasion is my favorite with Pride and Prejudice a strong second. Mansfield Park is a good story, but the character of Fanny is a bit mousy.

  15. Emma was one of my least favourite Austens when I first read it (when I was maybe 13?), but I’ve reread it twice in recent years, and now I’ve really come to love it. The last time I reread it, I was going through a rough spot in my life, and it seemed to give me hope that no matter how many mistakes you make, you can always learn and change your ways and your family & close friends will still love you.

    I’m not sure whether you should go for Mansfield or Persuasion next: depends on what you’re in the mood for!

  16. My oldest daughter studied Emma for AP English Literature – in fact Emma was the one book she especially prepared for the exam. In addition, she had to write a response paper on the book – and chose the quote you start out your blog with. She explored how Austen could have written a book with a ‘heroine’ we would not naturally be drawn to. Her thesis was that we would see ourselves in Emma, the very ‘imperfect’ heroine, more than we tend to see ourselves in most heroines. Usually a heroine is someone we aspire to be; with Emma we rather see things in her we want to avoid – but at the same time we realize we are often like her.
    As you mentioned, Emma does change, and if we identified ourselves with her in any way, that gives us hope that we too can change for the better.

  17. I have just finished watching the latest BBC version of Emma with my 11 year old who loves all things Austen (she has started reading Pride and Prejudice). Emma is difficult to like in comparison to many other Austen heroines, but I have had more of an appreciation for her after my then high school senior daughter wrote a paper on that quote you mentioned. My daughter pointed out that Emma is so much more human than most heroines and most of us probably don’t like her because we see something of ourselves in her. We can identify with her more than we would like to. But therein lies the ‘good’ part about Emma. As she does learn and grow and change we realize that we can too. And then she suddenly becomes more likeable.

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