It occurred to me not so long ago that whilst I may have seen two or even three adaptations of Jane Austen’s Emma on the television, I had never actually read the book. It’s funny, I have a tendency to think I’ve read all Austen’s novels, but I only got through half of Mansfield Park on an ill-fated English literature course many many years ago, and then Emma was missing entirely from the line-up. I wondered if it would spoil my enjoyment to know the storyline in advance; I could remember Emma as a busybody matchmaker, bustling around in her sprigged muslin trying to do good to people who didn’t need good done to them, and falling foul of her own half-baked schemes. I remembered that at one point she was horrified to have attracted the attentions of a vicar whom she had earmarked for her poor friend, Harriet, and on a picnic she snubbed a rather silly, loquacious family friend and earned the polite wrath of Mr. Knightley for her error. ‘It was badly done, Emma, badly done.’ And I recalled a Frank Churchill, whose expression reminded me of all the boys I’d ever known who sat in the back row of the class, primed for mischief. But how it all fitted together, I was no longer sure.
In the event, the book was (unsurprisingly) much better than any adaptation. For me, this is because Austen excels at producing the kind of character portraits that have the reader chortling merrily, when those self-same characters would compel you to throttle them in reality. There is a gloss that Austen lends her world which, like a transparent force field, is invisible unless you happen to bump into it and recoil thinking, but hang on a moment, these people are awful! Generally, Austen steers you clear, with gentle but compelling assurances that her characters may have their little faults but no one could be more charming and respectable and noble, once you get to know them better. It is remarkably effective and exquisitely comforting. And yet, when nasty critics try to take a bite out of what they initially think to be sentiment, their teeth crunch down on a kernel of rock solid intemperate humanity. That’s kind of fun, too.
So, Emma could be seen in one light as a bit of a pain in the neck; having been brought up motherless, with an indulgent father and an even more indulgent governess, she tends to be self-satisfied and a little vain, determined her opinion should prevail. She has too much intelligence and nothing to do with it, living in peaceful and comfortable seclusion as the head honchette of a small English village (the only heroine of Austen’s not to have money problems). And spurred on by her recent ‘success’ of marrying her former carer, Miss Taylor, off to a recently moneyed local man, Mr. Weston, she decides to indulge her taste further for matchmaking. Her new best friend, Harriet Smith, is a lamb to the social slaughter; Harriet is of unknown parentage, but where Emma loves she is indulgent (naturally) and so, convinced Harriet is more worthy than she is, she makes her refuse a perfectly good offer of marriage and chase (fruitlessly as we readers realize) after the eligible vicar, far her superior in social rank. In terms of crimes against the sisterhood there is possibly none worse in Austen’s eyes. Emma has meddled obstructively, coming between a woman and a Good Marriage, and to make Harriet miss out is to have her potentially ruin the rest of her life. The remainder of the narrative is a long journey of expiation, in which Emma must be brought to realize the error of her ways.
As ever, judgment is a key quality to successful living, and Austen surrounds Emma with characters who could both help her and lead her astray, if she could but discriminate between them. Mr Knightley is the moral compass of the novel; he is Emma’s brother-in-law (her sister, Isabella, lives in London with the younger Mr Knightley and their five children) and neighbour, and a hero of the strong but mostly serious and silent persuasion, most significantly the only person to take Emma to task when she errs. This is Austen’s kind of man; she smiles on manners and wit, but frowns on flash and bling. Hence, he is contrasted with Frank Churchill, the son of Mr. Weston, the product of a faintly ill-starred first marriage who was brought up by relatives when his mother died. Frank represents fun and naughtiness, and the dubious benefits of charm. Emma favours him, precisely because he sets out to please, but Austen knows that such behaviour is unreliable, serving only the interests of the moment when her narratorial eye is set firmly on the long-term. Also in the mix is Jane Fairfax, the only other young woman in the vicinity to rival Emma for skill and beauty, and so try as she might, Emma cannot like her, even though Jane’s prospects for the future are poor. Much more readily dislike-able is Mrs Augusta Elton, the new wife of the vicar who caused such fuss in the first section of the story. She is pure vulgarity, a pushy social climber with a burning need to be top dog. There’s more than a hint of threat here, a covert possibility of what Emma could become if she let her snobbishness and vanity develop unchecked; but on the whole Mrs Elton is so awful as to be pure comedy.
Not a great deal happens in the narrative, apart from the shenanigans of romantic uncertainty, because not much needs to for Austen to wring all the depth and richness of her social commentary out of it. Small events have big consequences in her world, where it’s okay to be anxious over the little things. In any case, help is often at hand in the loving and supportive communities that Austen represents. This novel is about fitting Emma out to take up her role as a natural-born leader of one of them, conscious of her advantages and all the kinder and more charitable because of it. She is being groomed, if you like, to be an ideal member in a world that never existed outside of Austen’s imagination. Once she has learned her lessons, the story has to end because rather than being a delightful and enervating pain in the neck, she would be a paragon of virtue and too boring for words. But no matter, because the narrative focuses on her struggles with her own humanity: her jealousy, her competitive spirit, her need to be right, and it’s rather entertaining to watch her trying to be nice to Jane Fairfax and failing completely. I know of no textual world in which the characters try more strenuously to be good; which makes their lapses entirely sympathetic, and the textual world one of the most comforting to inhabit. Over the two or three days it took to read this, I actively looked forward to picking it up. If only there were more novels by Austen that I haven’t read – and I doubt I’m the first person to think that, either!