Emma by Jane Austen (1816)
Emma is the second novel by Jane Austen that I have read. I read Northanger Abbey earlier this year, and after reading it I have to say that I wasn’t sure what all the excitement over Austen was about. Now that I have read Emma, I finally get it. If you haven’t ever sampled anything by Jane Austen, I would definitely recommend starting with Emma.
Not surprising, the narrative follows Emma Woodhouse, a twenty-one year old young woman. The Woodhouses are at the top of the class structure of their little community of Highbury, and the only family on the same level is the Knightleys. Emma has a nice little fortune—thirty thousand pounds—making her a wonderful match for some eligible bachelor, and yet Emma is resolved upon not marrying, though she enjoys playing matchmaker. Everyone in Emma’s life—with the exception of family friend, Mr. Knightley—overlook Emma’s faults (specifically, her vanity and her arrogance) but its these faults that will lead her into making a series of miscalculations and errors that drive the plot and create tension and conflict in the novel. At the start of the story, Miss Taylor—Emma’s former governess and all around lady’s companion—has married and is now Mrs. Weston, and Emma is looking for someone to fill the gap. She settles upon Harriet Smith, a young woman whose parentage is unknown (making her less marriageable and much lower in social class than Emma), and begins to shape and mould Harriet and play matchmaker for her. Along with playing matchmaker for Harriet, Emma also becomes infatuated with Mr. Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston’s son. The cast of characters in this novel is delightful, but especially Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, who is a hypochondriac and does not like to have to leave home. There are lots of twists and turns in the plot, but it is certainly in the tradition of a comedy of errors that ends in marriage for all of the “good” characters. Readers who want a happy ending won’t be disappointed.
Austen’s usual themes are present in the novel. She’s interested in social class and the lives of the English gentry and middle class, and she locates the story in the English countryside. She offers us a coming of age story for her heroine, and that heroine is intelligent but naïve and must learn her place within the structure of society. I can see why readers would be tempted to call Austen a feminist—Emma is a strong female character who rejects the idea of marriage for herself, and because her father is somewhat of an invalid and a shut-in, she appears to have more power and agency than other 19th century female characters. But in the end, Austen reinforces the status quo of the patriarchal society she depicts in the novel. Indeed, the disorder and imbalance within the social structure occur because individuals do not accept or understand their place within that structure. Only when everyone accepts their position can the social order be restored and everyone get their happy ending. The characters who continue to resist their position and presume to a higher position are marginalized and ostracized within the community. So it’s hard for me to say that Austen was actively challenging the oppression of women in early 19th century England.
That being said, I think the novel is delightful, entertaining, and amusing. Emma may be a snob and selfish and self-possessed, but lots of twenty-one year olds are this way, and she does eventually “grow up” and see the error of her ways. I loved her character, and as I mentioned above the supporting cast of characters is also strong. I was interested in everyone’s story, and I was pulled into the various plot threads and invested in how everything was going to turn out. I have to admit that I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would, and I would definitely read it and teach it again if the opportunity ever arises.
Emma is certainly one of my recommended reads. It’s light and fun and entertaining, and sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a book.