And so we shoot up the list for a book in the top 100, one I have long wanted to read: Emma, by Jane Austen. I really enjoyed it. It was everything that I felt was missing from The Breakfast of Champions in my reflection on it – it had a stable plot with characters I could get invested in and it was of a romantic genre which I simply enjoy more than a science fiction one. I knew from my reading of Pride and Prejudice that I also quite enjoy the free indirect discourse which is a cornerstone of Austen’s writing, and so reading the book was a very pleasant experience for me.
I was first and foremost intrigued by Austen’s claim that she is “going to make a heroine whom no one but [herself] will much like.” Emma Woodhouse is described at the opening of the novel as “handsome, clever, and rich,” but has an incredibly rich characterization that goes far beyond those three terms. Her being an unlikable heroine made her a much more dynamic and realistic character than those featured in other romance novels as the reader is able to see the more negative aspects of her personality, but still feel favorably towards her because they can see the positive ones as well. They can understand her more completely than for other characters as they get both the plot line of her actions and the thoughts she has as well.
To give as succinct a summary as I can, the plot is driven by Emma’s belief that she is a wonderful matchmaker. She doesn’t want a husband of her own as her father is ill and she is determined not to leave his home during the remainder of his lifetime. Instead, she befriends Harriet Smith, a young woman of questionable lineage, and determines to assimilate her into the high society to which Emma belongs by way of her friendship/mentorship, and a very well-to-do husband. She convinces Harriet to reject the proposal of Robert Martin (someone who she cared for and who was well within her class) and instead set her sights on Mr. Elton. Emma believes that she has orchestrated a good match and that Mr. Elton is to propose to Harriet, only to be shocked at his proposal to herself instead. She rejects him but the proposal breaks Harriet’s heart (and then continues causing her pain as the woman he soon marries is vicious to her), yet Harriet is so devoted to Emma that their friendship remains strong. Next enters Frank Churchill into the picture, an extremely rich young man Emma’s age who is the stepson of Emma’s dear friend and former governess Miss Taylor/Mrs. Weston. They become friends and are quite flirtatious, though for a period of time Emma believes herself to love him, she decides this is not the case and is happy to discover that Harriet has actually fallen for him – Emma tries to keep herself from actively matchmaking this time, but still strongly encourages Harriet to pursue her unnamed love. Now a man who has been in the novel from the very beginning is Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law. He is 17 years her elder and has always been a good friend to her, many times serving as her moral compass and guiding her to be a kinder individual as he seems to be the only person capable of noticing her flaws and inclined to point out their existence to her. The plot thickens once more: Churchill reveals a secret engagement he’s had with Jane Fairfax, a woman who Emma didn’t much like and was unknowingly hurting through her flirtatious relationship which occasionally targeted Jane as the object of a joke. Everyone in the town is concerned about Emma, but Emma is concerned about Harriet being hurt, only to realize Harriet never loved Churchill, but rather meant Knightley to be the object of her affection! This tragic miscommunication leads Emma to realizing that she could not bear Knightley and Harriet being together because she was actually in love with him – good thing for Emma, he was in love with her too! Her joy is bittersweet, however, as she has to once more break the news to Harriet that the man she is in love with as encouraged by Emma, actually loves Emma instead – this time their friendship cannot quite survive the news. Emma is also faced with a dilemma, she cannot marry Knightley and leave her father (and to her credit, she never does even consider doing so for more than a moment, and never does). Luckily Knightley is incredibly understanding and already thought of this, and gives up his home to move in with Emma and Mr. Woodhouse. And Harriet too gets her happy ending, marrying Mr. Martin who she rejected so long ago at Emma’s insistence. Happy endings all around.
Unfortunately that summary which I tried to keep as to the point as possible still lasted ages, but the novel was certainly not at a loss for content. To be honest, I rather liked Emma. I certainly disliked her obsession with social class and the fact that she tried to act as a puppeteer of relationships without much consideration for the fact that she may be wrong and hurt someone, she is without doubt headstrong to a fault, and her folly may be that she is blind to her existence as a character who can be influenced or considered by other characters, but rather sees herself as an influence alone. But I am incredibly sympathetic to the fact that her intentions were almost always good ones. She genuinely believed that Harriet underestimated herself and would be happiest by her side in the upper class, and truly only saw the men as potential suitors who were interested in her friend and not in Emma herself. Further, she was truly attentive to Knightley’s criticisms and always felt genuine guilt when becoming aware of her wrongdoing.
Something I really enjoyed in this book outside of the characters themselves and their abilities to seemingly come alive on the page (like Miss Bates and her droning on and on), was the fact that Austen really managed to transport me to another era. Here I was, accustomed to the free and thoughtless speech of the 21st century, and feminism, and less rigid class formalities, suddenly beside Emma 200 years ago. Something as simply as referring to Mr. Knightley only as “Knightley” was seen as unfathomably rude, and being polite in any and every situation was required. Emma, however, was quite a progressive female character, all things considered. Because of her wealth she did not need to consume herself with worries of finding a husband and is quite independent as compared to the other women whose young lives were focused on developing skills like playing instruments in order to attract a wealthy man. It was refreshing that Emma was a character who truly had a lot of wit and spunk to her, but these qualities were certainly the products of the privilege she had in being born into such high society with a guaranteed large inheritance. She was allowed the freedom to have these qualities because the primary constraints of being a woman who is beautiful and elegant and proper were already satisfied by her birthright.
I am a little bit critical at this day and age of the love story presented by Austen both in Emma and similarly in Pride and Prejudice. This seemingly classic story of the woman falling for a man (the only man) who is critical of her, after spending the large majority of the novel presenting a romantic attachment between the two as unthinkable. The happy ending of all loose ends being tied up: Harriet still marrying the kind man who proposed to her so long ago and who she brutally rejected, Emma getting to marry the richest man in town without having to compromise on her values of staying with her father and without any effort of courtship of her own, even Churchill being forgiven by both Emma and Jane for his actions during the unseemly secret engagement so far below his class and getting happily married regardless. A perfect fairy tale by any account. Moreover such because even in spite of every criticism, this novel has remained such a classic and so highly acclaimed since its publishing in the early 1800’s. So there must be something there, something that people across generations can connect to. So what do Jane Austen and her greatest proponents, the Knowers in question, know that has so touched thousands, perhaps millions, of lives?
Knowers know that we must be willing, and eager, to at times suspend our belief or rationality to allow instead for a trust in the fantasies of love, and passion, and a good story.