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.