Author: Jane Austen
Genre: Literary Fiction / Classic
Published Date: 1816
Why I wanted to read it: I am reading the book as part of Austen in August, but I’ve wanted to read more of Jane Austen’s work since reading Pride and Prejudice years ago.
Overview (Barnes & Noble):
Jane Austen exercises her taste for cutting social observation and her talent for investing seemingly trivial events with profound moral significance as Emma traverses a gentle satire of provincial balls and drawing rooms, along the way encountering the sweet Harriet Smith, the chatty and tedious Miss Bates, and her absurd father Mr. Woodhouse–a memorable gallery of Austen’s finest personages. Thinking herself impervious to romance of any kind, Emma tries to arrange a wealthy marriage for poor Harriet, but refuses to recognize her own feelings for the gallant Mr. Knightley. What ensues is a delightful series of scheming escapades in which every social machination and bit of “tittle-tattle” is steeped in Austen’s delicious irony. Ultimately, Emma discovers that perfect happiness, even in memory, is not common.
I need to begin by saying that I grew up watching Clueless. While I thoroughly enjoyed the movie at a young age despite not understanding it in parts, it was destroying brain cells, and worse, I had no idea it was a book first. I found it difficult to read Emma because of that fact. I hope everyone forgives me, and I’ll try not to mention Clueless again. Ever. Maybe.
The novel opens with a lovely young woman (let’s call her Emma, because that’s her name) who claims to have “lived in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” I call bollocks right there. Girl, please. Your mum died when you were young. I’d feel pretty vexed by that. But apart from that apparent minor detail, Emma has a fabulous life. Something that most intrigues me is how different she is from Austen’s typical heroine. Most of the leading ladies are modest and struggle, sometimes tremendously, before getting their man at the end. Emma is not modest, at least I don’t see her that way. I don’t think she’s overly proud or ridiculous, but she appears confident in her traits and abilities, and matchmaking is a greater priority for the sake of others more than for herself. This most obvious example is Emma’s dedication to helping Harriet find love, first with Mr. Elton, then again with Frank Churchill. Of course this leads to several failures along with the overuse of “Poor Harriet!” Poor Harriet, indeed, at least until the end when she marries Robert Martin.
Emma says that she wouldn’t marry unless she was in love, and because she hasn’t been in love she feels she will never marry. When Mr. Elton makes his affections known to her, she not only declines for the sake of Harriet, but also for the sake of herself. I can’t think her selfless enough to turn a man down for the sake of a friend if her feelings were genuine. In short, she was too busy “helping” others that she didn’t think to help herself. Of course Mr. Knightley steps in and the two confess their affections at last in true Austen form, but otherwise she would have never settled for anything less than true love for herself, and that has to be admired for the time period.
I was going to talk about Elton and Frank Churchill together, but I’ve decided the former isn’t worth more mention than he’s already received (loser), so I’ll stick with the latter. Frank Churchill really surprised me. I can usually predict an Austen novels ending, but with so many relationships happening (and not happening), dear Jane slipped away from me, as did her piano. I should have seen the relationship coming when Churchill was being unusually cruel towards Jane, but alas, I remained blind. Austen certainly pulled a fast one on me. The long letter of explanation on Churchill’s part doesn’t make me feel any better about his deceiving everyone else, even taking his reasons into consideration. Perhaps he’ll grow on me in time, but he still feels sketchy to me, and I don’t like sketchy people, which is unfortunate because I liked him at the start.
Now, a few brief remarks on other notable characters. I have an interest in people with hypochondria for some reason, so naturally I enjoy Mr. Woodhouse for that. While insufferable at times, he’s a sprinkle of necessary humor in a novel full of relationship woes and misunderstandings. Mrs. Elton humors me due to her assumption that she is above everyone else when it’s painfully obvious that nobody actually likes her apart from Mr. Elton, and at times I even question his true feelings (again, loser). And poor Miss Taylor! Okay, not poor Miss Taylor, but you know what I mean. She acts as a suitable mother figure to Emma, and she remains a constant ally to those she cares about, which is necessary in a novel full of characters whose opinions and emotions change based on the situation at the time.
Another lovely gentleman, I choose Mr. Knightley as my favorite character. He isn’t afraid to challenge Emma or put her in her place when he feels she’s in the wrong or has gone too far. They work well together and compliment each other when the situation calls for it. I don’t know how others feel about the age difference, but it doesn’t bother me. I question the close family marriages before letting age affect my opinion, and while Knightley could be considered an older brother type, or even uncle, he is in fact neither. Like Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston, he remains constant and true to himself. I’m not convinced Emma even deserves him, but at the same time I see them working well together once she’s over her meddling stage and is willing to focus on her own needs and wishes.
There are people, who the more you do for them, the less they will do for themselves.
Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.
How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!
There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.
Do you forgive Mr. Elton’s behavior towards Emma and Harriet?
Would you be able to look past Frank Churchill’s well-intentioned deceit as easily as Emma?