Tuesday, June 30, 2009

CLASSIC REVIEW: "Emma," by Jane Austen

Alternate Title: How to Lose A Match in Ten Days

The Chick:
Emma Woodhouse. Firmly established (in her own mind) as the reigning social queen of the village of Highbury, she takes it upon herself in true noblesse oblige fashion to find suitable matches for all of her friends and followers - particularly her slavish devotee, Harriet Smith.
The Rub: Her longtime friend Mr Knightley disapproves of her manipulations, and believes Harriet has very few realistic chances. Also, for all her ingenuity and energy, her romantic guesses can often fly far short of the mark.

The Dude: George Knightley. A close family friend of the Woodhouses (and brother to Emma's sister's husband), Knightley has known Emma her entire life. Everyone else spoils and pets Emma but he's always been honest with her about her faults.
The Rub: Does his disapproval of Emma and grumpiness towards Emma's crushes mask a more sentimental emotion? Also: age gap!

The Plot:

Emma: Harriet should marry Mr Elton!

Knightley: You're wrong.

Mr Elton: *marries Bitchy McMapleGroveBitchFace*

Emma: ... Harriet should marry Mr Churchill!

Knightley: Wrong again.

Frank Churchill: *announces secret engagement to Jane Fairfax*

Emma: GRRR! This is so unfair! Harriet is much more genteel then people realize, they think she's lower in status just because she's illegitimate! It's degrading to women! She deserves a highborn husband!

Harriet: I heart Knightley!


Knightley: You were saying?

Emma: Fine, go ahead and marry Harriet if you love her so much, see if I care...

Knightley: Wrong again.

Harriet: *marries Robert Martin*

Emma: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist

1 Age Gap Between Protagonists (16 years!)

3 Wrong Guesses

4 Romantically Lacklustre Rivals

1 Selfish Hypochondriac Father

1 Secret Engagement

Several Stolen Turkeys

1 Chatty Kathy

The Word: It was very interesting to read Emma when my last Jane Austen novel was Mansfield Park. And considering what I know of the plots of Jane Austen's other novels from their wonderful adaptations, Emma herself seems to be the odd one out in Austen's stable of heroines. Why?

Because she's perfectly comfortable and holds a high standing in society. Unlike Elizabeth who is threatened with poverty thanks to an entailment (Pride & Prejudice), Elinor who's living in reduced circumstances (Sense & Sensibility), Fanny who is the poor relation (Mansfield Park), Anne who is an unmarried spinster (Persuasion), and Catherine who is one of many children of a financially-strapped clergyman (Northanger Abbey), Emma is not only not in any economic danger, but in no social danger either.

She's rich and she's spoiled and she's popular and can get away with doing just about anything, really, which might explain why some readers find her to be the most annoying of Jane Austen's characters, although I strongly disagree.

Emma is essentially the social belle of the small town of Highbury. Comfortably furnished with a handsome fortune, she cares for her needy hypochondriac father and attends parties and nurtures her favourite hobby: matchmaking. The novel opens after the wedding of Jane's governess Miss Taylor to a Mr Weston. The whole town talks about Miss Taylor's advantageous match, and Emma prides herself on the belief that the match was partly her own doing.

However, now that her best friend and confidante has married, Emma needs a new BFF and social project, so she settles on Harriet Smith - a parlour-boarder at the local school with uncertain parentage but extraordinary beauty. Harriet is pretty and good-natured (if a bit dim), and Emma, convinced that Harriet is the daughter of a gentleman, believes Harriet deserves better circumstances than she's had handed to her and starts planning a match between Harriet and the local vicar, Mr Elton.

Mr Knightley becomes involved when he discovers his upright, if lowborn, tenant Robert Martin proposed to Harriet and was refused thanks to Emma's advice. Knightley and Emma enter into an argument about Harriet's future that essentially outlines both characters' strengths and faults and sets the stage for how they change and adapt throughout the novel.

Knightley thinks that because Harriet is illegitimate and stupid, she should take what she's offered and be grateful she was lucky enough to receive an offer at all. He thinks that Emma's ambitions are only setting Harriet up for a fall and that she's trying to pass off a sow's ear as a silk purse. Emma, meanwhile, thinks that Harriet is pretty and kind, that these qualities make her perfectly suited to be anyone's wife, and that she deserves a chance to play the field the same as anyone else (well, almost anyone else).

What makes this argument interesting is that Emma's rejection of the social strictures that make Harriet inferior doesn't mean she rejects all social boundaries. The truth is that Emma sets and abides by her own social standards - in her mind, anyone who is her friend is automatically worthy of status, while those who annoy and frustrate her are lower in status. And, naturally, this makes Emma the highest in status of all, in her own mind. This explains how she believes Harriet's illegitimacy shouldn't pose an obstacle to her match with Mr Elton, but when Mr Elton reveals his affections for Emma, she's outraged that he'd presume to believe a clergyman worthy of marrying the great Miss Emma Woodhouse. While it seems to be a very hypocritical view at first, it's consistent.

However, most of Knightley's predictions do come to pass. When Mr Elton turns out to be a dud, Emma fixes on a number of other matches (such as Mr Weston's son Frank Churchill) only to be proven wrong again and again. However, even though Emma turns out to be frequently wrong it doesn't mean that Knightley's character remains unchanged.

Emma is an engaging and refreshing 19th century character. She can get away with distorted and personalized views of Society because she's in no position to be cast out of it - she's wealthy, landed, and established. This also means, of course, that she's often haughty, conceited, spoiled, and self-important. I adored her.

I found myself relating to her on a number of levels, for all her flaws. Why I mentioned Mansfield Park at the beginning of this review is that Emma is the exact opposite of MP's Fanny Price - she speaks her mind, often far too much, and loves being the centre of attention (and resents when she isn't). Her dislike of Jane Fairfax is childish and entirely believable - even Emma can't come up with a really good reason why she hates Jane, other than the fact that Jane is a bit of a cold fish, socially speaking, and that everyone who's making a fuss over Jane is not making a fuss over Emma. I've sometimes found I dislike and attempt to avoid people who have certain tics that annoy me, and I do resent not being the centre of attention sometimes. I found that while Emma is haughty and often oblivious, she's honest about herself and will go to great lengths to help those she loves.

What Emma essentially learns at the end of the novel is that her own special view of the world is not always accurate or helpful. Her assumptions about Jane, Harriet, and herself have to be modified by the book's end. Her biggest change comes with her view of Robert Martin - she initially wants to keep him and the Martins away from Harriet because she believes their society would be degrading to Harriet. She thinks him a dirty, unmannered farmer and is honestly surprised that his letter of proposal to Harriet is well-written!

However, as Emma gradually realizes when her plans for Harriet and Elton fall through - her own level of society isn't exactly beneficial to Harriet either. Harriet's tossed about like an emotional rag doll quite a bit in this novel, and Emma comes to recognize that higher-class doesn't always mean better. Her actions result in severe emotional pain and humiliation for Harriet, and force Emma to admit that she might not know what's best. At the end of the novel, when Harriet marries Robert Martin, Emma is relieved, because she finally realizes that marrying a man who adores her is the best thing for Harriet, rather than marrying a man who could elevate her in a society that didn't treat her well to begin with.

Amusingly enough, Knightley comes to the exact same realization (higher class isn't necessarily better), but through a different chain of events. Just as Emma has to rethink her assumptions about Robert Martin, Knightley has to reconsider his assumptions about Harriet. He initially dismisses her out of hand because she's poor, illegitimate and dim. However, because Harriet is always around Emma, Knightley has to get to know her as well.

His epiphany hits home when Elton returns from Bath with a nasty, arrogant, and vulgar wife. Despite Mrs Elton's extreme unpleasantness, she's Harriet's social superior - but Knightley has to concede that Harriet would have made Elton the better wife. Throughout the novel Knightley gradually warms towards Harriet and treats her with greater respect, culminating in a wonderful scene where he asks Harriet to dance after Mr Elton publicly snubs her.

But, whatever Harriet might eventually think, Knightley has eyes only for Emma. Despite the age gap between the two, they are well suited for each other and while Emma's realization about her feelings for Knightley occurs rather suddenly and late in the book, Jane Austen does a good job of setting up how close the two are and how poorly they'd do without each other. Emma needs Knightley because he's the only one who's honest with her - he doesn't spoil her or placate her like her other friends do, and if she acts out of turn he will take her to task for it, while loving her anyway. Knightley needs Emma because oftentimes he can be too cynical and distrustful of people at the outset, and he requires a shot of Emma's tendency to see the best in people every once in a while to hold his pessimism in check.

That being said, while I enjoyed this book more than Mansfield Park, and was much more satisfied with the ending, this book did become a bit of a slog. It's very long (the longest of Jane Austen's novels), the plot tends to meander, and I felt it could have done with some editing. After the halfway point I admit I found myself in the "reading really fast to get to the end already" phase, and the pacing sagged up until the end.


  1. Excellent review! I actually did a "re-read" of this on audiobook a few months ago. It's funny, 'cause it had been a very long time since I read Emma --at least 20 years-- and it was the film productions on which I drew for my memories of it. (Both the Gwynneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale versions.)

    I do have such a fondness for Emma, because in a lot of ways she is the most human (and least "noble") of JA's heroines. I love an imperfect heroine, and god knows Emma has lots of room to grow over the course of the book.

    I totally agree on Emma's need of a good editor. That was something I really noticed while listening to it. :-)

  2. Vorkosigrrl12:55 PM

    Thanks for reviewing an old classic. I do enjoy Emma. It's great how much you can learn about Regency-era mores and manners from the interactions between all the characters.

  3. Renee --> well, it's the longest of Austen's novels and since I still enjoyed it, her other novels will probably be a snap in comparison.

    Vorkosigrrl --> Exactly. While reading historical romance always gives me ideas, it's nice every so often to go straight to the source.