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!


18 thoughts on “Emma

  1. Isn’t it sad to have read all of Austen’s novels? You could always try Mansfiedl Park again since you didn’t technically get all the way through it the first time back when 🙂 It’s been a long time since I’ve read Emma but I never really liked her. Maybe when one is young it is more difficult to sympathize? But I have to say Mr. Knightley’s age and fatherliness is kinda weird and a bit uncomfortable.

  2. I really love Emma. Once I reread Persuasion (I keep meaning to and then not doing it), I will be able to say for sure, but Emma might be my favorite Jane Austen novel. I just find Emma such an enjoyable heroine, partly because (don’t judge me) I always think of adorable Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, and partly because (still don’t judge me) I know I have a lot of those same bossy make-all-the-arrangements tendencies that Emma’s got. So I can identify. I don’t care for Mr. Knightley, but then I don’t care for most of Austen’s heroes, so that’s all right.

  3. I’ve read many of Austen’s novels but not this one! I really need to remedy that. I’m happy to say I’ve never seen any of the movie adaptions either so I will do things in the proper order and read the book and then see the movies. Austen never fails me!

  4. I really must read this one–I’ve seen the adatations, too–numerous times even. I know some readers don’t get on well with Emma, but busybodiness aside she does shape up well in the end and learn her lesson. I hadn’t thought about her being Austen’s only heroine with no money concerns–so she obviously has more free time to stick her nose in other people’s lives! This and Mansfield Park are my unread Austens–I’m looking forward to both immensely. Lovely post–it brings it all back how much I like the story.

  5. Stefanie – I didn’t like her for the first 50 pages or so, and then she really grew on me. I know what you mean about the disconcerting age gap, but I suppose these things don’t trouble me because I never think of Austen’s world as a real one, if that doesn’t sound too weird? I mean, I couldn’t possibly put up with Miss Bates or Mrs Elton in reality and I don’t expect too many people would have either, anywhere outside the covers of her work. So I didn’t really think about it. But I will definitely read Mansfield Park again one day – better be next year or I will have nothing at all to look forward to!

    Jenny – you and me both with the bossy traits – but only to good friends and only with the best of intentions, right? 😉 Never fear, your image is completely untarnished in my eyes. I’ve never seen Clueless, though, and should. Do reread Persuasion – I read that last year and enjoyed it enormously too.

    Kathleen – even better – Emma lies ahead of you with no preconceptions! Ah, that sounds wonderful! Do tell us what you think when you read it – I’d love to know.

    Danielle – The matchmaking only affects the first few chapters, because it all blows up quickly with Mr Elton and Emma feels absolutely terrible about what she’s done. I rather like the fact that Austen dared have a female heroine with a truly dislikeable trait – and she does cure her of it and cause her no end of chagrin, so it all works out with a sense of justice in the end! How interesting that we should both have Mansfield Park ahead – Stefanie read it recently and it was reading her posts that decided me to go ahead and break into Emma. I can’t wait to read your reviews of either book when you get to them!

  6. I’ve just started Emma but I’m glad it’s so satisfying. I’ve enjoyed the adaptations so I am looking forward to it. I’m trying to go slowly through the Austen repertoire. I still have most left to enjoy!

  7. “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.” Tee hee! Methinks there’s a wee bit of Ms. Austen in you, too, litlove! I’m torn between Emma and Persuasion as my favorites, but of course I haven’t gotten to Northanger Abbey. Yet. You make me want to forget about it, and get back to that fateful picnic on the hill…

  8. My favourite adaptation of Emma is Clueless – beyond the LA setting, it’s pretty faithful to the book, and completely faithful to the spirit, while the script is stunningly sharp on language and social niceties.

  9. Litlove, I have Emma on the bookshelves next to Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey (haven’t got Mansfield Park) purchased all at one time when I was determined to read my way through Austen. Got through Persuasion and S&S, but then went on to other authors. But I want to read all of them. Actually, I wanted to comment on your prior post about blogging. It was so true! Only difference with me is I was never very prolific, even in the early days. Time is such a cruel master. Anyway, you were spot on with that post.

  10. Rebecca – oh I so wish I had them to read for the first time! Delighted to know you are enjoying Emma. I did love it.

    ds – I’m a fan of Northanger Abbey, too. I really love Austen when she writes about false friends, those people who hang off your arm and speak in saccharine tones and are ready to stab you in the back. The PERFECT one of those features in Northanger Abbey and the hero’s pretty good, too. I wish I could write like Austen! How great would that be?

    Plashing Vole – you are my second vote for Clueless; I really will have to try to get it out on DVD!

    Grad – I’m glad you liked the previous post and envious of you with all those lovely Austen’s still ahead. Personally I think you are sort of in a delayed second stage with your own blog, which is a pretty good way to do it. I burned through that bit way too fast! 🙂

  11. I’m weird in that Emma has always been my favorite Austen. I often wonder, though, if I wasn’t just overly influenced by my mother (she of the “I’d rather be reading Jane Austen” bumper sticker that adorned her old car for years) who when I was reading it for the first time told me it was her favorite. As always, you’ve portrayed the book (and Emma) beautifully (and made me want to reread it).

  12. I like seeing so many bloggers express their love for Clueless – so adorable and I think Cher really is also a character who has a gloss about her that keeps you from seeing her as a spoiled brat.

    I’m looking forward to my first read of Emma this year, but when it comes to the adaptations I always have trouble with how Frank and Emma are practically brother and sister (same problem with Clueless, but I really noticed how odd it felt to me in the recent BBC adaptation where the characters really seemed to interact like blood brother and sister, rather than people related by marriage). I imagine Austen will apply her gloss to that as well though and it will all feel charming and right.

    I really like your point about how Emma could have become Mrs Elton if left unchecked. I never thought about that before – do you think it’s the same with the Bennett sisters, like Elizabeth could have become her stubborn, unconcerned with society father and Kitty shows how their mothers influence can come out if the sisters are left unsupervised?

  13. I think I have finally read all of Austen’s novels, although, like you, I believed I had done this far before I actually had! Emma was the last to finally get moved over to the “Read” stack. I also wish there was an unpublished Austen novel to be discovered out there, but until then at least I enjoy rereading them.

  14. I think Emma may well be my favourite Austen too (although Pride and Prejudice was my first and I still love it). I listened to this one on a long car trip with my parents and enjoyed it none the less for that. I always expect to be slightly bored by Austen’s small, contained world but she’s such a master of her craft that I never am.

  15. I reread Emma earlier this year and enjoyed it greatly. Austen is just so satisfying, for the reasons you mention here. I love the care the characters take over little things. It’s those little things that matter so much most of the time! I watched the most recent BBC adaptation of the novel too, and it was excellent. I loved their version of Mr. Knightley — he’s more sprightly there than he’s usually portrayed.

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