In which I review Emma, Jane Austen’s 1815 social comedy about a headstrong young woman who meddles in her friends’ romantic lives.
What it’s about: Surrey, England, the early 1800s. Emma Woodhouse, a wealthy gentlewoman, lives in the village of Highbury with her elderly father, a renowned hypochondriac. Her former governess and companion Miss Taylor has recently married their family friend Mr Weston; bereft of her company, Emma makes friends with Harriet Smith, a beautiful if somewhat naive girl from a lower social background. Emma persuades Harriet to turn down a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, a tenant farmer, and attempts to match Harriet with Mr Elton, the new parish vicar. Their neighbour Mr Knightley criticises Emma for her influence over Harriet, and the two quarrel. Emma continues to encourage Harriet about Mr Elton; to her shock, Mr Elton proposes to her. Emma refuses him and he leaves for Bath, returning some weeks later with a pretentious nouveau riche wife. Meanwhile, the village receives two new visitors: Jane Fairfax, who is visiting her aunt Miss Bates and grandmother Mrs Bates; and Frank Churchill, Mr Weston’s eldest son. Emma finds Jane cold and reserved, but warms to Frank, who is friendly, charming and flirtatious. Emma attends a ball hosted by Mr Weston, at which the Eltons snub Harriet, who is later rescued by the gallant Mr Knightley. The next day at a picnic at Box Hill, Emma makes a cutting remark to the talkative Miss Bates. Mr Knightley again criticises Emma for her thoughtlessness, and a contrite Emma makes amends. Harriet confesses that she is secretly attracted to Mr Knightley, and Emma realises that she too loves him. Frank’s aunt dies and he comes into his inheritance. It is revealed that he and Jane have been secretly engaged and are now to marry. Mr Knightley declares his love for Emma, who gladly accepts him. Harriet becomes engaged to Robert, and the three couples prepare for their weddings.
Why it’s a classic: By the time Emma was published in December 1815, Jane Austen had already established a solid reputation as a novelist. Her celebrity fans included the Prince Regent (later King George IV), who instructed his servants to give Austen a tour of the court library and invite her to dedicate her next book to him. Austen dutifully took the hint and dedicated Emma to the Prince, but with some reluctance, as she disapproved of his louche morals and lavish lifestyle. Austen’s publisher John Murray offered Austen £450 for Emma, plus the copyrights of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility. Austen shrewdly refused the deal, and published two thousand copies of Emma at her own expense, retaining the copyright and paying Murray a 10% commission. It was her last novel to be published and reviewed in her lifetime – she died less than two years later, and her novels Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818.
Emma had mixed reviews on its publication. Some readers and reviewers praised the realism of Austen’s characterisation and the forensic detail of day-to-day life in Highbury. Sir Walter Scott, writing in the Quarterly Review, praised Austen’s “knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand: but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.” Others, including novelist Maria Edgeworth, to whom Austen sent a complimentary copy for her review, complained that there was too little plot and too much ponderous detail.
Despite Austen’s claim that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like“, Emma Woodhouse has become one of her most-loved heroines, and the novel has since been recognised as one of Austen’s most mature and accomplished works. The “lack of plot” in Emma is now widely viewed as one of its major strengths. Critic John McCrum writes that “Emma is [Austen’s] masterpiece, mixing the sparkle of her early books with a deep sensibility“, and a number of writers and critics have identified it as a key moment in the development of the novel as a way of describing its characters’ consciousness. John Mullen argues that Emma led to a sea change in the way novels were written, by “bending narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind“, influencing later writers including Charlotte Bronte, Henry James, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster.
Emma enjoyed a huge surge in popularity in the Austen revival of the 1990s, with two very different high-profile film adaptations: Douglas McGrath’s 1996 film starring the young Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, and Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, set in contemporary Los Angeles with Emma re-imagined as a spoiled Beverly Hills party girl named Cher Horowitz. In 2010, Indian director Rajshree Ojha followed suit with Aisha, re-setting Emma’s story in the upper-classes of modern-day Delhi. The most recent English-language film version of Emma, scripted by Eleanor Catton and directed by Autumn de Wilde, was released in 2020, one of the last films I saw at the cinema before the world was plunged into lockdown. There have also been innumerable TV, radio and theatrical adaptations and a Manga comic version. The wonderful English actress Juliet Stevenson, who played Mrs Elton in the 1996 film, recorded an hilarious pitch-perfect audiobook of Emma, which I highly recommend.
Bouquet or Brickbat: A huge bouquet of strawberries, though preferably not picked by Mrs Elton. I’m a little embarrassed to confess that I’ve not read Emma till now, especially as much of my university years and early academic career was focused on Austen’s work. (My first international publication, an essay called Janespotting, appeared in TOPIC: A Journal of the Liberal Arts in 1997, edited by the renowned Austen scholar Linda Troost).
In some ways, Emma is the perfect Austen novel to come to in middle-age, and particularly in the midst of a lockdown when the world is moving more slowly. Maria Edgeworth was partially right in that Emma lacks a thrilling plot, though this both states the obvious and misses the point. In many ways, the stakes are much lower in Emma than in Austen’s other novels. Emma Woodhouse is described as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition… and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her“, making her Austen’s only heroine for whom marriage isn’t an economic necessity or a high-risk gamble. There’s little of the Cinderella narrative, in which the plucky but impoverished heroine wins the heart of an impossibly wealthy gentleman, that makes Austen’s other romances so appealing. There also aren’t many sensational plot twists, other than Jane Fairfax’s secret engagement, and the last-minute (if highly predictable) reconciliation of Harriet Smith and Robert Martin. If anything, the novel goes out of its way to re-establish a strict social order: Emma marries Mr Knightley, her only equal in society, but as she is independently wealthy, her social standing is maintained rather than enhanced by the finale. Meanwhile, the illegitimate Harriet, who has been foolish enough to fall in love with her social superiors, marries someone more appropriate to her lowlier class – though Austen does throw her a bone in the final chapter, conjuring up a wealthy tradesman father to pay her an annual allowance.
Bereft of sensationalist plot twists, what’s left is a much quieter and more thoughtful novel, that focuses with forensic detail on life in a small village, and particularly on the growth of Emma’s character and understanding. Emma is an early and stunningly successful example of the “free indirect style” – an omniscient narrator who can dive in and out of her protagonist’s thoughts, showing us the world through but not only through her eyes. As in Pride and Prejudice, Austen is particularly interested in how knowledge is acquired, and the dangers in forming hasty and uninformed assessments of other people. In this sense, Emma is closer to a bildingsroman, in which Miss Woodhouse renounces her youthful hubris, corrects her own arrogant misunderstandings and learns how the world works.
If all of this makes Emma sound earnest and dull, then I’ve done Austen a disservice. Emma is hilariously, laugh-out-loud funny, with wittily etched comic portraits of the well-meaning imbeciles who populate Highbury: Mr Woodhouse, whose sole concern is his own and others’ impending poor health; Miss Bates, whose rambling stuttering monologues run for pages without drawing breath; and the memorably awful Mrs Elton, an arriviste whose snobbery and ostentation jars with Emma’s old-school sense of aristocratic refinement. While the characters are very much products of their time, Austen writes them so vividly and astutely that they have the timeless appeal of archetypes. Every family has an elderly hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse, just as every social set has a preening Mrs Elton, eager to show off her social connections and flashy new barouche-landau (the Regency-era version of a Mercedes Benz).
What’s especially impressive about Emma is how Austen walks a tightrope between her comic and serious modes. She lets us have all the fun of laughing at the silly supporting characters, but reminds us (without being overly didactic) that other people’s stupidity is a fact of life, and that good behaviour involves accepting and enduring one’s neighbours. Austen’s treatment of Emma and Miss Bates is especially interesting here. Miss Bates’ silliness goes on and on, building to a crescendo, to the point where we’re quite relieved when Emma finally takes a swipe at her. But Mr Knightley (and Austen) are quick to point out the wrongness of this behaviour. Miss Bates, though very silly and extremely annoying, is a well-intentioned and kind-hearted woman living in humble circumstances. For a neighbour of Emma’s superior standing to rebuke her so cruelly is, the novel tells us, both morally and socially unacceptable. Austen loves to reward good behaviour, and so it’s only once Emma regrets her treatment of Miss Bates and atones for her behaviour that she’s “rewarded” by Mr Knightley’s admiration and eventual marriage proposal. (Mr Knightley also mentions that he’s been in love with Emma since she was 13, which is deeply creepy, but let’s leave that alone for now).
Contemporary critics and cultural commentators have written extensively about the feminist aspects of Austen’s work, and her portrayal of a society beset by class struggle and gender inequality – something that’s frequently emphasised in film and television adaptations of her books. While Emma has much less turbulent angst than the other novels, it is in its own wry and well-observed way, a feminist text. Emma and Mr Knightley’s arguments about Harriet’s suitability for marriage is one of the most exhilarating scenes in English fiction – a sparring match between two intelligent and eloquent people of equal rank in which Emma declares “I always take the part of my own sex…. You will find me a formidable antagonist on that point. I always stand up for women.”
Rather annoyingly, Mr Knightley turns out to be right on every point, but Emma defends herself and her gender with remarkable insight. “[T]il it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty… [and] fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces,” she argues, “… I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess.” Burn, Mr Knightley! Emma shows here both an understanding of how society is constructed around men’s interests and offers a subtle critique of male vanity and shallowness. Their deliciously scratchy chemistry recalls the bickering of Benedick and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing and the fast-talking lovers of Hollywood screwball comedies like Adam’s Rib and His Girl Friday. As in those stories, we have the added pleasure of watching two perfectly-matched antagonists slowly setting aside their differences and coming together.
Clocking in at just under 400 pages, Emma is Austen’s longest completed novel, and can sometimes feel a bit static. Like Maria Edgeworth, I sometimes wondered if we needed quite so much coverage of the details of Mr Woodhouse’s gruel, or of the workings of the post office, or of every iteration of Emma’s Mean Girl rivalry with Jane Fairfax. But this pacing is, I think, a deliberate strategy. Austen is commenting on and critiquing the restrictive lives of women in her society. If the novel is about the acquisition of knowledge, it’s also about the social conditions that prevent Emma from knowing anything clearly. Unlike the men, Emma seldom leaves Fairfield, and has little access to the world of industry and culture in London. Knowledge in Highbury is circulated primarily via gossip, making it unreliable, and men like Frank Churchill conceal information that they fear may embarrass them. Like the riddles Harriet collects in her scrapbook, everything is relayed to Emma in a series of hints and implications.
Emma’s mistakes aren’t entirely the fault of others – her snobbery and eagerness to take control of other’s lives blinds her to the true nature of things, and we note that she lacks the discipline to apply herself to reading and music. Despite these faults, Austen still wants us to understand what it was like to be a woman in those constrained circumstances, and how much harder it is for Emma (as opposed to Mr Knightley) to be entirely correct in her own views. It’s also clear from the opening pages that Emma’s meddling in Harriet’s life stems largely from her sorrow at losing Mrs Weston as her best friend and confidante. Austen might have thought she was constructing a snobby rich girl who no one else would like, but Emma practises a quiet kind of feminist empathy that makes us cheer her on and wish her happiness – as well as enjoying watching her being taken down a peg or two. Of all the on-screen Emmas I’ve seen, Gwyneth Paltrow captures this dichotomy the most beautifully, bright and charming but with her nose firmly planted in the air, her long swan-like neck begging to be chopped off or at least pulled in a bit.
Ultimately, though, Emma resounds as a feminist classic because of Austen’s insistence on putting a woman at the centre of the novel, freed largely from the pressures of living in a patriarchal society, and makes the development of her mind the most important subject of the story. There are no wars, no deaths (apart from the much-longed for expiring of Frank Churchill’s aunt) and no intrigues – just the thoughts and feelings of a woman in a room – and that makes Austen, in her own quietly subversive way, a feminist icon.
I truly adored Emma, and send belated apologies to my English lecturer Jocelyn Harris for not taking her advice and reading it in my 20s. I can’t wait to revisit Highbury again, and hope sincerely that someone will write a sequel in which Mr and Mrs Elton crashing their barouche-landau into a ditch and get robbed by the local gypsies.
Quotable Quote: “Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.”
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