Emma is the first book of Jane Austen’s that I read that was not Pride and Prejudice. This past summer, my boyfriend gave me all of his Jane Austen books so I would have something to do when I wasn’t working (believe me, I had a LOT of downtime). I picked Emma at random; I had no idea what it was about, but I thought the cover was pretty, so I went for it.
Emma Woodhouse is the beautiful, intelligent daughter of a rich estate owner, who, as the first line says, “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” When her governess marries the popular Mr. Weston, the owner of a smaller estate close to Emma’s, Emma takes credit for the marriage; and, believing she has a talent for matchmaking, soon embarks on her next project: finding a husband for her friend Harriet Smith. What follows is a story of love lost, love gained, and finding your place in the world…which Emma, of course, finally does.
I love Emma. And no, I didn’t forget to italicize there; I love the character Emma. I love the novel, too, but there’s something about Emma—maybe it’s her true intelligence but lack of common sense and penetration—that endears her to me. (I feel a lot like that sometimes: I’m decently smart, but I often lack common sense.) She’s kind, but not to a fault; she can be cold and snobby when she wants to be, but she has good intentions and a good heart.
Another thing I love about Emma is that she recognizes her own limitations—to a point. She knows she isn’t super talented at music or drawing because she doesn’t practice, and she doesn’t expect to suddenly get better without doing anything. She often laments her inability to stay focused on one area of study, but realizes she probably won’t do anything about it; and I like that! Like her common sense issue, I feel that way about a lot of things sometimes: my own piano playing, for instance. I took lessons for several years and was never very good at all, but at least I know why: I never practiced.
We’ve talked a lot in class about how Emma is Jane Austen’s most “technically perfect” novel, and there I would have to agree. The Jane Fairfax plot hides in the background the first time you read it, but suddenly, the second or third time, you realize that it’s not just a minor sub-story; it’s really being told the entire time, even though you don’t see it when you’re not looking for it. The twists and turns are all masterfully crafted, and (of course) everyone ends up exactly where they should be. But boy, do they have to jump through hoops to get there!
Something else I enjoy specifically about Emma is that there are no truly detestable characters. Yes, Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates are annoying, but they’re harmless; Mrs. Elton is a little less harmless, and I definitely dislike her, but I don’t have such blind hatred for her as I do for, say, Mrs. Norris from Mansfield Park. The villains in Emma are really just sort of annoying, uncouth people who believe they are above their station, and I’d rather deal with that than deal with a Mrs. Norris, who is just downright mean.
Emma is definitely one of my favori—oh, no, I’m doing it again, trying to call every Jane Austen novel my favorite. But seriously, I think it’s almost tied with Sense and Sensibility. Almost. But Pride and Prejudice is up there too, of course. And I haven’t reread Northanger Abbey or Persuasion yet…tell you what, when I finish them all, I’ll do a comparison of all six major novels and then decide, once and for all, which is my favorite. But not until then!
Anyway, I really do love Emma. If you’ve ever seen Clueless, you should read Emma. And if you’ve ever read Emma, you should see Clueless. And if you’ve never seen Clueless or read Emma, you should do both!