Emma by Jane Austen

emma austenBig fish in a small pond…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Emma Woodhouse is unusual amongst Austen heroines in being independently wealthy and therefore with no need to marry. When we meet her, she is twenty-one, still untouched by love, and determined to remain single. This is a small society with a tiny number of gentlefolk, so that everyone knows every detail of each other’s lives, and the main interest of the book is in the descriptions of the society – in this case showing the very limited and somewhat dull life of young gentlewomen in small towns where they are socially superior to all their neighbours. Emma lives with her elderly father and, as the book begins, has just lost the constant companionship of her long-time governess, Miss Taylor, who has married Mr Weston, another resident of the town. The only other person in the neighbourhood who matches the social standing of the Woodhouses is Mr Knightley, owner of the neighbouring estate and friend of Emma’s father. He has known Emma all her life and has taken it upon himself to guide her intellectual and emotional development since her early childhood.

Jane Austen
Jane Austen

The plot, such as it is, is a simple comedy of manners. Although she still sees Mrs Weston nearly every day, Emma feels the loss of female companionship, so takes under her wing young Harriet Smith, the illegitimate daughter of a father of unknown identity. The small cast of characters is further enhanced by the arrival of Jane Fairfax, niece of the impoverished but voluble Miss Bates. Soon after, Mr Weston’s son Frank also comes to visit – after his mother’s death, Frank was adopted by his wealthy aunt so, despite his relationship to Mr Weston, he is a stranger in Highbury. These young people are to be the pawns in Emma’s matchmaking games, leading to many misunderstandings and much heartache all round before we reach the traditional Austen happy-ever-after.

* * * * * * *

Any regular reader of the blog will be aware of my ardent devotion to Jane Austen (not to mention my even more ardent devotion to Mr Darcy). So it might come as a surprise to know that I really don’t get along with Emma. Let me try to explain why.

NB There be mega-spoilers ahead…

Apparently before beginning to write Emma, Jane Austen said “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” And this is the fundamental problem. The delicacy with which Austen normally handles the subtleties of class seems to have deserted her almost entirely in this one – Emma is an arrogant, self-satisfied snob who expects everyone to toady to her, not because of her own talents or character, but simply because she is the daughter of the richest man in town. And none of the other characters are much better.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma
Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

There’s the annoying Mr Woodhouse, a selfish hypochondriac, whom everyone kowtows to because he is rich. Frank, a selfish pleasure-seeker, whose behaviour to Jane and Emma shows a complete disregard for anyone else’s feelings, but still isn’t as bad as his unconcealed delight at the death of the wealthy aunt who brought him up. Jane, who has to be the most boring character in all of English literature. Harriet, who has fewer braincells than the average amoeba and about as much personality. (Why would Robert love her? It’s inconceivable…)

Then there’s Mr Knightley. He’s thirty-seven. Emma’s twenty-one. He has shown an interest in her since she was a child, so let’s say since he was twenty-four and she was eight or thereabouts. He has brought her up to be what he wants a woman to be, and now he’s going to marry her. I know middle-aged men married young girls back then, but young girls they had been involved in bringing up? Yes, Colonel Brandon and Marianne had a greater age difference, and yes, Mr Jarndyce was way too old for Esther, but at least they both met these girls once they were women. Colonel Brandon and Mr Jarndyce leave me a little uneasy, but Mr Knightley makes me positively queasy. And did, even when I was seventeen.

(Mr Elton and Mr Collins…or is it the other way round?)

And that just leaves us with Emma. Fans of the book may wish to look away now, because I’m going to say something you may find shocking – it is my belief that by the time she is fifty, Emma will have transmogrified into Lady Catherine de Bourgh. What is different about them other than that Emma is young and pretty? They both think themselves above the need to learn the skills that other young women have to master in order to secure a good marriage. They both think they have the right to interfere in the lives of the people around them because they consider themselves to be intellectually and socially superior. They both expect the local parson to suck up to them (is Mr Elton really significantly different to Mr Collins?). They both resent anyone who shows any kind of independent spirit or who outshines them at any skill. (Is Jane Fairfax not the closest the book has to my beloved Lizzie? Except Jane is insipid and dull, where Lizzie is strong and witty. And look at Emma’s reaction to her…)

Lady Catherine de Bourgh...or future Emma?
Lady Catherine de Bourgh…or future Emma?

All of this would be fine if Emma developed during the course of the book and learned from her mistakes, but she is still just as egotistical and condescending at the end as she is at the beginning. Thrilled to get rid of the now inconvenient Harriet to the farmer she once despised, but determined to drop her friendship as soon as she does because the connection will be too lowly for Emma’s exalted position. Still expecting Jane to toady to her despite Emma’s appalling behaviour to her throughout. Still as dismissive of Miss Bates as ever she was (one visit after the Box Hill incident can’t be seen as a serious attempt to make amends). If only Austen had made Emma suffer – cast her into poverty or broken her heart. But no, she gets everything she could possibly desire and is left basking in a glory that Austen seems to think is as deserved as I think it undeserved.

Emma and Mr Knightley lead the dance...
Emma and Mr Knightley lead the dance…

The book is as well written as all of Austen’s, and is therefore eminently readable. There is some humour, though not as much as in some of her other books, and her characterisation and depiction of society is as insightful as always – all of which explains my four-star rating. But the fact that in this book Austen openly upholds the strict class and wealth divisions in society makes me wonder what happened to her since she taught Mr Darcy not to look down on other people because of their position in society. Is this the same author who had Lizzie declare “He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal.”? Is Miss Bates then not equal to Emma? Apparently not, and there is the main reason that for me Emma is not equal to Austen’s other books.

Please feel free to tell me why I’m wrong… 😉

Aah, that's better!
Aah, that’s better!

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

57 thoughts on “Emma by Jane Austen

    • I’ve read it many times too, and I do enjoy it – just not as much as her others. I don’t mind an unlikebale character, but only if there’s someone else I can root for, or if the main character is given some trials that allow her to learn or else gets her comeuppance. I’d love to see Emma lose her money and her man – see how she copes if she ended up like poor Miss Bates…

  1. FictionFan – Now, how did I know, right from the start, that there’d be a ‘photo of Mr. Darcy somewhere in this post?? 😉 – As to Emma, I agree that she’s not easy to like. I’ve met ‘Emmas’ in real life, and they’re just as annoying as she is. It’s hard to fall deeply in love with a novel if you don’t care about at least one (or better yet, more than one) of the characters. So I’m not surprised that Emma isn’t tops on your Austen list. As you say though, it’s well-written and I do like Austen’s wit. And Austen at her weakest is heaps better than a lot of people at their best. And she created Mr. Darcy.

    • Haha! Well, I’m not going to miss an opportunity like that, eh? 😉 Yes, I suppose Miss Bates is the one I sympathise with most in ‘Emma’, but even she is too much of a toad-eater to be likeable. How I’d love for her to give Emma a piece of her mind! But I agree – still loads better than most books, and if I didn’t have P&P and S&S to compare it with, I’d probably like it better. Emma would despise Lizzie, I feel, and be determined to win Darcy for herself…grrr!

    • I’m glad you said that, because grooming was the word that was running through my mind all during this re-read. The very fact that Emma can’t bring herself to call him anything other than Mr Knightley even once they’re married makes me feel a little ill. Different times, I know, but still…

        • Good point! I’ve just started the new version of Emma by Alexander Mccall Smith and it’s interesting to note he’s completely omitted Knightley from Emma’s upbringing, and reduced the age difference to a more bearable twelve years, so I don’t think we’re alone in finding it all a bit…euch!

  2. Emma is not my favorite of Austen’s books, but I hadn’t actually considered the whole Mr. Knightley molding her to become his bride. Ew. It’s been a long time since I read it…and now that you’ve reviewed it, I won’t need to read it again for a long time.

  3. Agree with Portergirl and yourself re the “grooming”…it’s been a long time since I’ve read this, and I’m not in a huge hurry to re-read. Great review though! And Mr Darcy’s always good to see…:-)

    • Thanks! Yes, it makes it a slightly uncomfortable read, even though I do usually try to make allowances for different times. Darcy makes fairly regular guest appearances here… 😉

  4. You reassure me that I am not the only one who has a problem with ‘Emma’. I have always put my difficulties down to the appalling way in which it was taught while I was at school, but maybe there is something about the book itself as well.

    • I would actually find this quite a hard one to teach in school, because of the whole Knightey storyline. Probably back when I was at school (eighteenth century) it might have been OK, but kids are so much more aware these days – I doubt the ‘grooming’ aspects would pass without comment. I also felt the structure was a bit off – two of the main characters, Jane and Frank, aren’t even introduced until about the second third of the book… the first third is almost exclusively about Harriet.

    • Despite all I’ve said, I like it very much – I just don’t love it the way I do Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. But I’ve got no doubt I’ll read it again…and again! 🙂

    • It’s a nice one, isn’t it? I’m pretty sure it’ll appear again…

      Haha! Well, you can’t blame me this time – I did my best to put you off! 😉 Seriously though, I do think it’s well worth re-reading – I might tut-tut about aspects of it, but overall I still find it very readable.

  5. Ah, that IS better. I’ve watched this (of course), but never read it. Maybe one of these days I’ll start an Austen marathon!

    • I’m sorta doing an Austen marathon this year because they’re issuing all these updated versions of the books in the ‘Austen Project’. So even if the new ones aren’t great, at least they’re encouraging me to enjoy the old ones again…. 🙂

  6. I’ve always enjoyed reading Emma, but mainly for the writing as i agree I found Emma an insufferable snob, but that being said it’s like Scarlett in Gone with the Wind a heroine you love to hate.

  7. *laughing* Stellar Review, for sure, FEF! Well, I suppose, perhaps, you’re quite right.

    This is how I always figured it: JA wrote P&P, and then wrote it again about a thousand or so times. By that point, she was quite sick of the dadblamery, so she wanted to write a story that was quite different. Therefore, Emma. (Now, I probably have the time element all wrong, but still…it’s a compelling argument, I think.)

    Maybe you’re a bit too hard on Mr. K, too… Perhaps he wanted the perfect wife, and he couldn’t find one. So, he set out to create one! *laughing*

    Darby is ugly–as usual.

    • Thanks – I thought you might enjoy this one!

      Definitely a compelling argument – but I think you’ll really need to read all her books just to check you’re right. Only five to go.

      Why do Frankenstein and his monster spring to mind?

      The Professor is jealous – as usual.

      • I”m actually surprised to the bottom of my boots that you sorta-semi ripioed it!

        Nah, then I’ll be a full-fledge JA supporter, and we can’t have that.

        *laughing* That happened for me as well.

        Is not!

        • See? I can be unpredictable too…

          I know you secretly are, anyway! Why else would you have a kiss curl?

          I think she’d be improved by bolts through her neck.

          *whispers* Is too!

            • Ha! It was still better than Huck Finn….

              You will be once you read Northanger Abbey. (Can’t be! Dadblameit has far more letters than that!)

              *gnomish face*

              Whose?

            • Ah, you can’t say that till you’ve read Emma! You can start it straight away since you already own it…

              Bet you do! Bet forty years from now, when you’re even more ancient than you are now, you’ll suddenly want to read it – and then you’ll remember me and realise that I was right!

              So glad!

            • A likely story! I hope you had your fingers crossed when you said that…

              Hah! Even I wouldn’t be that wicked! Anyway I quite like the idea of an elderly Professor suddenly remembering me sometime in the 2070s…

              *chuckling* You’ve just put all kinds of strange images into my mind…

            • Well, at your advanced age that’s to be expected…

              Oh yes, I think so – they should have invented immortality by then anyway.

              *chuckles wickedly* Mainly it made me think of the Ferengi…

  8. Of all the Austens, Emma is my least favourite, so I won’t be reading it or McCall Smith’s update, so the TBR is safe this time. Great review though, it reminded me of all the things I dislike about it!

  9. Just to comment on the photos: the Paltrow version is pretty awful compared to the Romola Garai version from 2009. She actually made me feel a bit of sympathy for Emma. I read the book even longer ago so my memory is a bit fuzzy.

    • I haven’t seen either version but I admit I was a bit shocked when looking for images to see that Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma seemed to have taken up archery! I’ll look out for the 2009 one… 🙂

  10. OH MY GOSH EMMA AS CATHERINE DE BOURGH JUST MADE MY DAY SO MUCH BETTER.

    Seriously, though?! They are EXACTLY ALIKE.

    Emma is such a twerp. Every time I reread the book I think I’m going to like her better, but she just annoys me all over again!

    • Haha! I know – they really are! I could just imagine her with that sour face looking down her nose at everyone… Vive la Revolution!

      Yes, I keep hoping I’ll find a redeeming feature, but actually I think I dislike her more each time I read it. And yet I still read it…

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