Monday, 25 July 2011

'Emma' by Jane Austen (1815)

Synopsis: Emma Woodhouse is a beautiful, rich and clever young woman. She lives with her father in the village of Highbury, Surrey. Emma is convinced that she's always in the right about everything and the only person who is ever critical of her is her long-time friend Mr Knightley. When Emma convinces herself that she's responsible for setting up a marriage between her former governess Miss Taylor and a local gentleman called Mr Weston, she decides that she quite likes matchmaking. She ignores the advice of Mr Knightley by trying to set her new friend Harriet Smith up with the village vicar Mr Elton. Emma's careful plans go disastrously wrong. When two new people arrive in Highbury - the dashing Frank Churchill and the mysterious Jane Fairfax - Emma's life becomes even more interesting. Emma begins to see her flaws and is forced to realise that she doesn't know as much about life and love as she thinks she does. 

Although Pride and Prejudice is the most popular of Jane Austen's books, Emma is the one that is generally preferred by the literary critics. Emma is a truly wonderful book and it's either my joint favourite Austen book (along with Pride and Prejudice) or my second favourite Austen book. However I have to admit that it took a second read for me to realise just how wonderful Emma actually is. 

I wasn't too sure about Emma the first time I read it. I thought it was brilliantly-written and I did find it funny of course - but I found Emma Woodhouse herself really annoying and her romance with Knightley made me uncomfortable (he fell in love with her when she was 13?!). But when I read the book for the second time, about a year later, I took it all back. Now I absolutely love this book! I still think Emma is annoying at the start of the book and she is the most obviously flawed out of Austen's heroines. In the opening chapters Emma comes across as arrogant, snobbish and manipulative. I clearly remember wanting to slap Emma the first time I read these opening chapters! However when I read the book again I understood Emma's character far more. Much to my surprise I really did myself warming to her and appreciating her more likeable qualities. Yes, Emma herself has many flaws and she can be really annoying near the beginning of the book. But she has so many likeable qualities as well! She's such a caring and kind person. Her intentions are good and she's devoted to her father. She's also vivacious, compassionate, independent, intelligent and funny. She sees the error of her ways and she tries so hard to mend her faults and become a better person. Also, it's obvious that Austen herself really loves and cares about Emma and that really helps you to love and care about her. I realised that Emma's main problem at the beginning of the book is that she's lacking in self-awareness and maturity - and that can probably be put down to her upbringing and situation. You get the sense that Emma was spoilt by her father and was treated as an only child. Oh, Emma does have an older sister of course but Isabella got married and moved out when Emma was still relatively young. Also, Emma is quite clearly her father's favourite. But Emma's character development in the book is terrific - by the end of the book she's a much more humble and mature character and is far less meddling. Despite Austen's claim when she was writing the book - that she was creating a heroine whom only she could love - Emma is in fact very loveable. I think Austen was either joking or simply underestimating just how much people would love her. I love Emma Woodhouse now. I still think that Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet is the most instantly likeable and appealing of Austen's heroines but Emma Woodhouse strikes me as being the most realistically flawed and "normal" of Austen's heroines. Emma's faults initially make her the most annoying of Austen's heroines but ultimately make her one of the most endearing and likeable in my opinion.

Another big factor in my loving the book the second-time around was that I realised that Knightley wasn't being serious about falling in love with Emma when she was 13. Thank goodness! I really love Knightley's character as well and he's definitely one of Austen's best heroes. Knightley is charming, handsome, kind, honest, sensible, dashing, witty and a true gentleman. He and Emma make for a fantastic couple and I love the romance of the book.

There are so many other things to love about Emma as well. The writing is of course brilliantly witty and sharp and you really get a feel for the village that the characters are living in. Emma is also such an incredibly charming and funny book. There's so much humour in it. Sometimes people criticise this book by saying that there's not all that much drama, and that it's really just people talking and planning parties and outings, and that it's just Emma meddling in other people's lives. Now I suppose that's kind of true. Unlike Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park there's no real drama or scandal in Emma. There's no real danger of Emma not getting her man. But - I love Emma for this! As much as I love exciting and suspenseful books with gripping plots, at the same time it can actually be really nice to read something where people simply go about their daily lives and do things - even trivial things - and live. Especially when all the dialogue between the characters is so wonderful. The characters are fantastic in this book. Some you love and some you dislike but they're still fantastic. They're all memorable, believable, realistic and interesting.

I also feel that Emma is the Austen book that has the greatest amount of social commentary. You get given a glimpse of poverty in the form of Miss Bates and her mother. You see how much disdain the rich had for people who were lower-class or of illegitimate birth (see the Elton's treatment of Harriet Smith). There are some digs at the slave trade and at how poorly governesses were often treated back then. There's even a great mystery subplot in Emma with a conclusion that I genuinely didn't see coming. Who sent Jane Fairfax the piano? What secret is she hiding? Emma isn't a detective novel of course but there's still the sense that things aren't quite what they seem. For this reason Emma is often cited as being an early pioneer of the mystery novel. Of course when you re-read the book you know exactly what's going on with Jane Fairfax but it's fun to go back and look for the clues that Knightley picks up on and Emma is completely oblivious too. And Emma herself is often cited as being one of literature's first unreliable narrators.

Just like Pride and Prejudice, Emma is absolutely wonderful and has become one of my favourite books.

Rating: 5/5    

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