The Classic: Emma by Jane Austen (1815)
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” So begins Jane Austen’s comic masterpiece Emma. In Emma, Austen’s prose brilliantly elevates, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “the trivialities of day-to-day existence, of parties, picnics, and country dances” of early-nineteenth-century life in the English countryside to an unrivaled level of pleasure for the reader. At the center of this world is the inimitable Emma Woodhouse, a self-proclaimed matchmaker who, by the novel’s conclusion, may just find herself the victim of her own best intentions.
Was it what I expected?
I’m familiar with Pride and Prejudice, like a lot of people are, and I recently did a rewatch with friends of the excellent BBC miniseries. I’ve also read Sense and Sensibility, and seen a few movies, but I hadn’t gone much further into the Austen canon and it was on my mind to do so because of P&P exposure. Then I read Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, and she mentioned Austen repeatedly and Emma in particular, and then those friends wanted to watch an Emma movie so we did, and here we are. (I’d actually read it once early in high school, but remembered so little about it that it doesn’t really count.)
So, I went in with knowledge of the plot. It’s about an irritating young matchmaker who isn’t very good at it, okie dokie. But what I actually found was a remarkable coming-of-age story, not about taking on responsibility or realizing that parents are fallible, but about realizing that your impression of a situation may not be accurate. That’s something a lot of people never learn at all, so “coming of age” may not be the right term for it, but it’s subtle and real and fascinating, and such an interesting theme to bring out over a story the length of a novel.
Emma is also known as the Austen book where she makes the town a character. It’s a book about nothing in which very little of note actually happens, but it reveals the inner lives of characters in a much more realistic way because of that, especially the female characters. It’s got more pointed satire, but it’s also more realistic than Pride and Prejudice in a lot of ways, because it focuses on the class relations in one small town. Everyone knows everyone, but the politics of how they interact are fraught. Most impressively, you can track rumors and suppositions from one character to another, but it’s all quite deftly shown so that it builds on itself and it takes no exertion to keep track. There are some moments where it became quite clear to me that something else was going on, based sheerly on Emma’s belief in the first thing, and that’s masterful writing. I doubt I’ll ever see another book with such incredible group characterization, honestly, and the quality of the writing is entirely pleasant to read, moving you along with no effort at all.
Lastly, in the “was it what I expected” category, I was surprised and pleased to find that Emma is almost definitely asexual. A lot of these older romances are asexual-friendly since they were bound by rather narrow ideas of propriety, but usually you can read between the lines to see when people are sexually attracted to each other, or it comes up more overtly with characters who don’t behave properly. Emma, on the other hand, shows no interest in marriage, doesn’t seem to entirely understand that physical attraction plays a part in others’ attachments, and is entirely fine with not marrying her beloved along as she remains his closest friend.
This is Regency England, of course, not yet Victorian, so the social expectations are different from what we’re kind of “used to” in recent history. There’s not a lot of concern about chaperones or men and women being friends, but rather a clear difference in how one is expected to treat a friend or acquaintance who’s attached versus a single person. (Of course, a major theme of the book is how leaving everything unstated leads people — particularly women, who have the most at stake, but men too — into serious misunderstandings, which is fascinating too.)
Did I Like It?
For the most part. There’s an odd Taming of the Shrew sort of theme, in which (almost) everyone learns their place and marries someone of an appropriate class, and Emma learns that she should’ve listened to Mr. Knightley all along. It’s undercut by the lesson that Emma should respect people outside her own class, though, one cross-class marriage considered to be a raving success, and the general motif that good personal qualities can “make up” for lack of money or pedigree. Based on Joanna Russ’s comments about Austen, and how much of the book is obviously satirical, I’m willing to believe there’s more at play here than a simple reinforcement of class divisions.
(What’s more, I’ve got to say how utterly frustrating it is to read commentary on the book and find everyone denigrating Emma as either a child or a bitch, when she’s portrayed as a person. The fact that it’s a book about women, and about a woman with flaws, means no one wants to like it or admit that it’s good or relate to the main character. She has to be irrelevant and trivial, or if we have to talk about her, she has to be bad. Even looking at the Wikipedia page gives a very different impression of the book than what it actually is. Russ ruined me for literary criticism, I swear.)
And finally — if you’ve seen the (fine but not amazing) Kate Beckinsale movie, well, the book is a bit less weird about the whole “I’m seventeen years older than you and helped raise you and fell in love with you when you were thirteen” thing because it was less strange at the time, company being limited, but to modern eyes it’s still kinda gross so I thought I should warn you.
Is it worth reading?
It’s a layered, complex book about nothing, and an entirely pleasant reading experience. If you’re only going to read one Austen, read Pride and Prejudice, but if you have room for another, Emma is fascinating, and because it’s so subtle, I can’t imagine any movie doing it justice.