Review: Emma

Emma by Jane Austen

I first read Emma for my high school’s book club a couple years ago. It was my very first Jane Austen and I loathed it. I didn’t like Emma as a character, and the age gap between Emma and Mr. Knightley freaked me out. I kept that opinion well into this year, bemoaning the fact that I would have to reread Emma for class. But when I picked it up again, I was pleasantly surprised–something was different. I don’t know if it was me or the fact that I was reading it academically, but I really enjoyed it.

Emma starts after the wedding of Emma Woodhouse’s former governess, Miss Taylor, to a Mr. Weston. As Emma settles into a routine without a female companion to help stir her intellectual curiosity, she decides, after the success of the Westons, to try her hand at matchmaking. When Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown parentage, comes into Emma’s path, Emma decides to improve Harriet and marry her off favorably. But Emma’s matchmaking takes unexpected turns, including secret engagements, obnoxious new neighbors, and, perhaps, a match for Emma herself, who has sworn never to marry.

Emma is a polarizing character, I find. On my first read, I found her insufferable, probably because I didn’t understand marriage meant something different to Regency women than it did for someone like me. However, this time around, I found her charming because she thought she was so much smarter than she actually was. Emma is a heroine Austen isn’t afraid to poke fun of; when Emma decides to draw Harriet as a gift for a potential suitor, the narrator mentions all the other art mediums she’s tried and abandoned over the years. Emma is about Emma growing up and growing past her spoiled behavior, but, marvelously, she doesn’t change into someone else–at the end, she’s still the most independent Austen heroine (Mr. Knightley comes to live with her, which I loved!), loving to tease her beloved mercilessly and refusing to call him George even when he asks. Perhaps it’s because Emma can be read, more than any other Austen heroine, as ace (watch her reactions to romance before Harriet confesses to being in love with Mr. Knightley) or because Emma is the most powerful of Austen’s heroines, but I just loved her this time around. I also found her relationship with Mr. Knightley utterly charming; you get the feeling that if Harriet hadn’t changed things, they would have happily snarked at each other for the rest of their days, oblivious to the warm, fuzzy feelings they give each other. But I can definitely see how she’s polarizing; she, like the novel, is quite classist.

The novel’s classism is most evident in its treatment of Mr. Elton and Harriet. Mr. Elton, in proposing to Emma, reaches too high above his class and is punished with Mrs. Elton, one of the most obnoxious women you’ll ever meet in fiction–she looks down upon Highbury as rural and rustic, pretends she’s humble even as she toots her own horn, and is, in general, aggravating. While it is Emma’s fault, Harriet dreams of marrying higher and higher until she hits upon Mr. Knightley, and she’s punished by the gradual end of her friendship with Emma when she does marry someone suitable for her, a farmer. While Austen’s works are always aware of class, the class stratification is more visible here than in any of her other novels that I’ve read. If Mansfield Park can be read as a response to anxiety about a changing world (hence the incestuous marriage), then Emma can be read as a response to the threat of class fluidity.

Emma has some other issues that might hinder a reader; there’s the length, which is delightful for people who like Emma and debilitating for people who don’t, and the infamous Miss Bates. Miss Bates is a spinster resident of Highbury who can talk your ear off, which Austen faithfully renders… over and over again. Learning from my first reading, I simply skipped over the pages composed of Miss Bates’ dialogue. But there’s plenty to love here, too; Emma has a broader scope, occasionally dipping into Mr. Knightley’s perspective and even ending with Mrs. Elton sniping over Emma and Mr. Knightley getting together. Even Austen’s snarky wit is softer and more affectionate here–while she gets several good jabs in here and there, there are no antagonists or runaway sisters in Emma; the conflict and humor is derived from the disconnect between how Emma views the world and how the world truly is. While I wouldn’t recommend Emma as a first Austen, because the character can be polarizing, it’s definitely second or third on the proper Austen reading order.

Bottom line: Emma can be utterly delightful–if you like the main character, who can be polarizing and classist. If you do, it’s quite a treat; Emma is charming and the most powerful Austen heroine, her relationship with Mr. Knightley is very sweet, and Austen’s legendary snark is downright affectionate here. Word to the wise, however–skip Miss Bates’ pages of dialogue.

I bought this book from Barnes & Noble.

17 thoughts on “Review: Emma

  1. I tried to read Emma many years ago and gave up. I couldn’t get over how annoying Emma was but since I now own the complete works of Austin, I’ve been wanting to give it one more chance. We’ll see how I feel about Emma this time around.

  2. I love how you said Austen is not afraid to poke fun at Emma. I loved her myself, but I found that the narrator’s ironical treatment of her made the book all the more enjoyable.

  3. I love Emma the character and Emma the book. It’s been a little while since I’ve read it though. I have a friend who was in a class that read Emma, and she was surprised when everyone in the class ripped the main character to shreds in class discussion. She really is a divisive character.

    Really liked the recent BBC miniseries adaptation w/ Romola Garai. I thought it did the book justice while having some vision of its own.

      • Romola Garai is a fantastic Emma (I actually thought she matched well with the other Brionys in Atonement, but I think I’m in the minority there). You might also like the Kate Beckinsdale adaptation of Emma as it particularly plays up the class issues of the novel.

  4. I have that high school experience of Emma. I did not hate the book, but I did not love it as so many Austen fanatics do. So I am hoping that when I reread it, I will learn to love it a little more, like you did this time.

  5. Yup, my experience of Emma was just the same. I remember reading it on the school bus in high school and wanting to punch Emma in the face. Then when I reread it I absolutely loved it. Austen’s so witty.

  6. I wasn’t a huge fan of Emma on my first read, but I’ve reread it three or four times now, and each time I love it even more. I think it’s one of those books that’s much better on the second go round! lol

  7. I didn’t love Emma at first, but she definitely grew on me. I agree with you that the way Austen wrote her makes all the difference. She pokes fun, but she also shows the reader that she has the best intentions.

  8. You are so right, Emma as a character polarises many – but I grew to love her, though not quite as much as Elisabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. Emma is, however, my favourite Jane Austen book. In fact, when I struggle to write, I read Jane Austen, who has supposedly had the effect of being like a blood transfusion for writers. I agree about Miss Bates lines in the book – you do want to skip them, but somehow, I don’t. One of the best written books ever.

  9. Pingback: Page to Screen: Clueless (1995) | The Literary Omnivore

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