(originally published 1816)
I had always rather steered clear of Emma, despite the eponymous character being my namesake, since all I had read about her seemed to suggest that she was not as delightful a heroine as, say, Elinor Dashwood or Anne Elliot. I’d watched Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 filmed version and the ITV film of the same year with Kate Beckinsale – and enjoyed them both – and had read Austen’s other novels and quite a lot of her unfinished works, but never felt much inclination to try Emma the novel.
However, the 2009 BBC mini-series, which I watched recently, did prompt me to read the book. I think it was partly to do with the pace of the story-telling – Emma is not a short novel, and its minutiae are best served by several hours of drama, rather than a necessarily time-limited film – which made me eager to try the book at last.
Emma begins with a classic line (not so well known as the introduction to Pride and Prejudice, but equally memorable), which sets the tone for what is to come:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
(Volume I chapter I)
Emma is young, rich and clever, the acknowledged leader of the society of Highbury, the small town in Surrey in which she lives, rather too fond of her own way and spoiled by almost everyone around her. Her father, an elderly man who constantly worries about his own health and everyone else’s, leaves all the running of the household of Hartfield in Emma’s capable hands, and even her governess, Miss Taylor, is more likely to give way to Emma’s opinions and views than to persuade her otherwise. Only Mr Knightley, who lives at Donwell Abbey in the neighbouring parish, and is a family friend (and whose younger brother John is married to Emma’s older sister Isabella), presumes to criticise Emma and tells her her faults.
The novels starts with the wedding of Miss Taylor to Mr Weston, a widower of long-standing, and the consequent departure from Hartfield of Emma’s long-time companion and friend. To replace her, in a way, although Mrs Weston now lives at Randalls, barely half a mile away, Emma develops her friendship with Harriet Smith, a parlour-boarder at Mrs Goddard’s school, who is a few years her junior. Flush with success at what she sees to have been her matchmaking the Westons, Emma determines that, under her guidance and influence, and despite the stigma of her illegitimacy, Harriet would be an excellent spouse for the vicar of Highbury, Mr Elton.
However, and not for the first time in the novel, Emma misjudges the people around her, causes pain and heartache, and resolves to stop match-making. This not a particularly successful resolution: she is momentarily attracted to Frank Churchill, Mr Weston’s son, when he finally returns to Highbury, but misjudges his attentions to her (a smokescreen for another attachment), and she misinterprets Jane Fairfax’s reticence on the subject of the Dixons – and more reprehensibly, shares these conjectures with Churchill.
She’s still violently interested in the people around her but she sees only what she wants to see – when the Knightley brothers or Mrs Weston point out that their observations of people seem to suggest meanings and attachments different to Emma, she dismisses them.
Mr Knightley suggests that, had Emma’s mother – whom she much resembles – lived, that her cleverness would have more positively influenced her younger daughter. As it is, Isabella’s departure from Hartfield to marriage left Emma in charge of the house at the age of twelve, and with a father much her inferior in intelligence. Emma is also a snob, feeling outraged when Mr Elton presumes to pay his addresses to her, and looking down on the Coles, who are in trade, or the respectable and intelligent farmer, Robert Martin.
Despite her faults, most of which she does acknowledge, whether eventually or soon, or due to being scolded by Mr Knightley, Emma does have some good qualities: she is genuinely attached to her friends, and she grieves causing Harriet pain through her thoughtlessness; she is a loving daughter and sister, and fond aunt; she is responsible and philanthropic in a practical way. There is rather a lovely bit, at a family dinner when the Knightleys have come to stay, where Emma and Mr Knightley contrive to divert the conversation to avoid an actual argument at the table between Mr Woodhouse and Mr John Knightley about the risks and responsibilities of sea-side holidays for the family.
There is a great deal of quiet and dry humour in the novel, particularly with the characters of Miss Bates and, later in the novel, of Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton, on arriving in Highbury, sees herself as now the most important woman there, trying to arrange Jane Fairfax’s life, expecting to lead out the ball, making frequent references to her sister’s very superior home Maple Grove. The information Austen provides about Mrs Elton indicates that she has no authority, either by possession of actual wealth or influence, force or elegance of mind, other than her sublime self-confidence in her own superiority and her husband’s position, which would make her naturally usurp Emma’s position as first lady of the parish. Her encouragement of her husband’s worst qualities is also allowed to contrast with Mr Knightley’s real courtesy.
Austen focuses most of the narrative on Emma’s point of view, seeing most things from her perspective; there are a few scenes in which Emma does not appear, but not many. Austen writes the surface of things, implying much through her prose – the whole story of Frank and Jane, for example, is only brought to light towards the end of the book, in a long letter written from Frank to Mrs Weston, but there are hints of it through the preceding narrative. Much of the scene setting is done through dialogue – for example, she writes the essential inanity of Miss Bates (Jane Fairfax’s aunt) and her inconsequential chatter, beautifully: so repetitious, so fluttery, so easily side-tracked – and she rarely describes anyone or anything in much detail. All we know about Emma’s appearance, for example, is that she is “handsome”, moderately tall, and has hazel eyes. Interestingly, Austen gives the reader more information at once about John Knightley than his brother – at least, with respect to his disposition rather than his looks – but then, what we gather about George Knightley is spread over the whole novel.
Mr Knightley is just as interesting and complex a character as Emma, though almost her antithesis. He is sixteen years her senior, and through almost daily visits to Hartfield, is on terms of close friendship with Emma and her father. Despite being master of Donwell Abbey, a much larger estate compared to Hartfield, he is not at all snobbish, seeing the essential qualities of people rather than the surfaces as Emma does. Emma scolds him for not arriving at a party at Randalls by coach, as befits a gentleman, but Knightley is active and energetic, and doesn’t care much for status. He also proves himself, throughout the novel, humane, generous, observant, intelligent, and thoughtful of others. He is the one person of whom Emma, whether consciously or not, needs his good opinion: her worst moment comes after he has strongly criticised her for her reply to Miss Bates during the expedition to Box Hill in the later part of the novel. Miss Bates may be ridiculous, with her dull, repetitious chatter, but she is poor, and thus Emma does very wrong in ridiculing her in front of several of her friends.
Some readers have seen the sixteen-year age gap between the two, and Mr Knightley’s admission that he might have been in love with her since she was thirteen, as a bit awkward. The sixteen year gap was not unusual for the standards of the time, though elsewhere Mrs Weston acknowledges that “excepting inequality of fortune, and perhaps a little disparity of age, I see nothing unsuitable” in a match between Mr Knightley and Jane Fairfax, who is Emma’s age. I don’t think Knightley is actually being serious in suggesting that he really has been in love – with all that implies – with Emma since she was thirteen (and he was twenty-nine), just that he has loved her, in a close friendship sort of way, in something more than the rather distant relationship which would be usual between a man and a woman at the time. And that he really did only discover that he was ‘in love’ with Emma when Frank Churchill appeared and Emma showed him so much favour.
As you might see, this hasn’t really been a review at all, but has turned more into a discussion of character (and I haven’t even gone into Jane Fairfax or Frank Churchill). I enjoyed this book much more than I expected: it’s still not my favourite book by Austen (that still is Persuasion), but Emma is entertaining, amusing, and says a great deal about perceptions, class, women’s limited circumscribed lives, and the harm which can be done to others by gossip and interference – even if for what one thinks of as the best of motives. The characters are well-drawn and convincing, and emotions are felt, even if disguised for the sake of good manners or to avoid hurting others’ feelings.
I could write a lot more about the novel, but will stop now, merely observing that I should have read Emma a long time ago, and will surely read it again.
Coincidentally, pop along to Jenny’s Reading the End for her thoughts on The Cheap Reader’s Emma read-along, where she also considers the several re-interpretations of the novel for a modern audience.