“Better be without sense than misapply it as you do. ”
With Emma, I have now read all of Jane Austen’s completed novels. When I learned about Austen in August, I decided the time was right to read a book I had been meaning to for quite some time. Austen never ceases to impress me as I find a particular aspect with each novel that separates it from the others. Trying to rank her novels has become an exercise in futility. Each time I read Pride and Prejudice, it immediately jumps to the top of the list. When I went back and reread Persuasion, I raved about the reasons why it was my favorite. Truthfully, each Austen tale brings something new to the table. I love Northanger Abbey for its humor and satire of Gothic literature. Persuasion takes the award for most mature with its theme of regret. Emma stands out among the other novels because it presents Austen at her most revolutionary in style with a strong heroine that is quite different from the others.
Emma Woodhouse is a dichotomy within herself. She is lovely yet quite snobbish. She is caring yet an incorrigible meddler in the love lives of her friends. Emma believes herself to be quite knowledgeable regarding the affairs of the heart yet suffers from horrible self-delusions. Despite her shortcomings, we cannot help but fall in love with dear Emma. The reason why she is in our affections is because Austen manages to carry us along throughout all of her romantic delusions. Also, Emma is quite charming and always has her heart in the right place. The book itself is written in what could arguably be considered Austen’s strongest narration as she manages to compose a completely third-person narrative but distorts the language in such a way that we are going right along with Emma’s delusional thinking.
Consider these two early scenes from the first volume. Our heroine has befriended a sweet and naive girl named Harriet Smith. Emma has taken Miss Smith on as her latest matchmaking project. Bolstered by the confidence of her previous successful pairing of her former governess to the wealthy Mr. Weston, Emma believes it her purpose to play matchmaker between Harriet and the wealthy Mr. Elton. When Harriet comes to Emma with the news that Mr. Martin, a successful gentleman farmer, has offered a proposal of marriage, our heroine quite carefully constructs her wording in order to persuade her gentle friend to reject it as she believes that Mr. Elton is a much better choice due to his high rank in society. Later, when confronted by her friend Mr. Knightley, Emma manages to convince us that Harriet’s refusal of marriage is the right choice. First time readers of Emma will find themselves believing in this delusional thinking creating a significant amount of surprise when the truth to a situation is revealed. This free indirect style Austen employs throughout Emma is a precursor to modernism and the stream of consciousness style of later writers such as Virginia Woolf. This is not a bad feat for an author criticized for merely penning silly romantic novels.
“I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.”
Another reason why I love the protagonist so much is that she stands apart from other Austen heroines. Emma claims no desire for marriage herself. Independently wealthy, she is quite content to live out her days as a spinster while taking care of her anxious hypochondriac father. Of course, Emma is already quite in love with someone but has not come to that realization. Instead she focuses her energy on others around her. Although all her heroines share certain traits with their creator, Emma without a doubt is the best representation of the voice of the author herself. One would think that a more appropriate choice of heroine in this case would be either Harriet or Jane Fairfax. However by presenting the story through the unique eyes of Emma Woodhouse adds another layer to Emma that allows it to stand out. I love her rebelliousness against male-dominated society feeling that a woman doesn’t need to marry a man simply because the man says it should be this way. How about that for early feminist literature?
As with her other novels, Emma is filled with several memorable characters. Mr. Woodhouse is hilarious but also serves an important role as the resistance to change. How often do we become set in our ways and become afraid to take risks? Everyone has a “Miss Bates” in their lives who is quite chatty but in a good-natured and well-meaning way. In the second volume, we are introduced to one of Austen’s most memorable characters in Augusta Elton, new bride to rejected suitor Mr. Elton. Some of her social faux pas had me genuinely laughing out loud. Then we have Mr. Knightley, the one character who isn’t afraid to call Emma out on her judgments. All of the scenes between her and Mr. Knightley are handled with a smart dialogue that has become Austen’s trademark.
I love the moments when Emma begins to understand herself. During a scene when all of the characters are gathered together, Emma insults her friend Miss Bates. In her eyes, she is merely joking. She becomes quite devastated when she realizes how her “innocent” remarks truly hurt someone so close to her. How many times have we made an “innocent” comment only to learn that our words truly hold power over how someone feels. This is one of two powerful scenes where our heroine begins to scrutinize herself more closely. The next scene occurs a few pages later when Emma has her epiphany moment of who has taken possession of her heart:
Emma’s eyes were instantly withdrawn; and she sat silently meditating, in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress: she touched-she admitted-she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with ____________, than with ____________? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her with the speed of an arrow, that _____________ must marry no one but herself!
This is such a powerful scene. Sometimes all it takes is a few moments of reflection to understand yourself a little better!
Personally, I think there is a little bit of Emma Woodhouse in all of us. We think we know what our loved ones need. Sometimes we are a bit “clueless” (see what I did there) to the love that is right in front of us (I know I was). Maybe we miss little details. Emma serves as a cautionary tale to perhaps look a little closer.
Of course, everything works out well in the end. Personally, I have always enjoyed the predictable happy endings. We know that Jane will make everything alright in the end. I’m glad I waited to finish my original Austen run with Emma. It contains all of her usual ingredients but blends them together in a slightly different way providing a much richer experience. In addition to a contribution for Austen in August, this review will also cover my classic by a female author for the Back to the Classics 2017 challenge.
I cannot wait to visit (or revisit) another work by Jane Austen. Her insights into human behaviors are timeless.
“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.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!