Note to all readers: I am passionately in love with everything Jane Austen has ever written, including her juvenilia. I try to re-read one of her six full length novels a year and this year is Emma‘s turn!
I own three copies of Emma – a beat up Penguin paperback, the leatherbound Easton Press collector’s edition, and the Penguin Threads version designed by Jillian Tamaki. I’m reading the latter and you can see the GORGEOUS cover I’ve included for your viewing pleasure. When publishers publish books that are beautiful to stare at – I buy them. So far, Penguin is Ruler of Book World in this regard.
Let’s get to know Miss Emma Woodhouse, shall we?
“The read evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.”
So, Emma’s a bit of a selfish, spoiled rich girl and for this reason many readers despise her. I love her. Emma and all her flaws are a product of the way she was raised and the societal rules that governed the land during the turn of the 19th century. She also has no idea how off-putting she can be and honestly believes she’s trying to do right by others in all her plots and schemes.
And oh, how she does scheme! Emma fancies herself a bit of a matchmaker and spends Volume I encouraging a very misguided match between her friend, Harriet Smith, and one of the village’s most eligible bachelors, Mr. Elton. Unfortunately, Harriet has grown up in a school for girls with no idea of her parentage and no fortune to speak of. Mr. Elton is of high birth with a consequential income and influence – far beyond what Harriet could ever hope to marry. But Emma is determined and convinces poor Harriet to turn down a marriage proposal to modest farmer, Robert Martin. Spoiler Alert: All goes awry because Mr. Elton is actually in love with Emma!
Our hero, although we don’t know it yet, Mr. Knightley is Emma’s oldest and dearest friend (16 years her senior). He’s the only close relation that sees through Emma’s plots and tries to reason with her willful blindness to the rules of who can and cannot marry. They have several fun, snarky battles that end with Emma’s nose turned up in rebellious stubbornness and Mr. Knightley storming off huffily like a boy instead of a grown ass man. I love Emma and Knightley – they are my favorite Austen couple for their refusal to act like lovesick puppies, for their mutual respect and ability to call each other on their bullshit, and the quiet, slow development of friendship turned to love. Their dialogue is some of the best dialogue EVER. Do not argue.
Despite Emma often being hard to love, she has moments of redemption. She visits the poor frequently, always willing to lend a helping hand or monetary assistance. She spends most of her time wanting to help those around her and not caring for her own marriage whatsoever. Her relationship with her father is endearing – she wants to always be by his side, despite his silliness (think Mrs. Bennett as a man). And when she tells Harriet of her mistake, she genuinely fells awful and spends the next few weeks miserable. Emma has the best of intentions, she just lacks in execution.
Volume I, and really the whole novel, can be summed up with the following quote:
“One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”
Regency England is divided by so many rules and social etiquettes – men/women, parent/child, rich/poor, those of high birth/those of low birth – I could go on and on. To me, Emma’s main faults are often found trying to overcome these precedents and so I’m thoroughly ‘Team Emma’ and can’t wait to dive into Volume II.
Also, the humor in this novel surpasses Austen’s other works – further proof of her brilliance and how much we missed by her dying so young.