Review: Emma

Written by Jane Austen
Published by Penguin Books, 1996, 474 pp.

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses . . . .

The real 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. [p.7]

We all hate to admit when we’re wrong about something, so I’m not happy to have to say I guess television isn’t the complete waste of time I was beginning to think it is. Just when I’m ready to slap the “vast wasteland” sticker across the screen, PBS comes up with something like the Complete Jane Austen series they showed last spring. All my ranting and raving down the drain. Because without the PBS shows, I might never have had the pleasure of rediscovering Jane Austen’s books.

Before I started reading Emma, I had read only one other Austen novel. In high school, I read Pride and Prejudice for senior English class, and had a terrible time with it. I’m not sure why. I had read other 19th century English novelists and enjoyed them. In fact, I was already a real Brontë enthusiast. So it seems like Austen would have been an instant hit with my teenaged self. But that was not the case. I found the doings of the Bennett girls and their families, friends, and foes indescribably silly and mind-numbingly tedious. By the end of the book, I was ready to throttle the entire lot of them, along with the teacher who was putting me through the horrendous ordeal.

Well, confession is good for the soul, right? In the immortal words of Bugs Bunny: What a maroon! But now I’ve come to my senses, and fallen in love with Miss Austen and her books, as any normal Anglophiliac bookworm should do.

Jane Austen published Emma late in 1815 (it’s dated 1816), when she was 40 years old. It followed the earlier novels, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. None of them were published under her own name. After she died in July 1817, her brother Henry oversaw the publication of two more books, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, which were brought out together in December 1817. Henry included a “Biographical Notice,” for the first time identifying Jane as the author of all the books. Since then, Jane Austen’s novels have never been out of print.

Emma tells the story of Miss Emma Woodhouse, a young gentlewoman who lives with her widowed father at Hartfield, in the small English town of Highbury. As the book begins, Emma’s governess and friend, Miss Taylor, has married a neighbor, Mr. Weston, and gone off to live on his estate, leaving Emma to her own devices. And since she fancies herself an expert matchmaker (she predicted the match between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, after all), Emma soon gets herself into hot water.

In spite of the warnings of her friend Mr. Knightley, Emma befriends Miss Harriet Smith, a poor but genteel young woman of unknown parentage. Harriet looks up to Emma and is ready to agree to anything she suggests. And very soon, this worship on Harriet’s part coupled with Emma’s love of matchmaking and meddling in the affairs of others lead to near-disastrous consequences. Emma’s attempts to influence Harriet’s love life nearly ruin the poor girl’s one real chance at happiness, and set up a few romantic mishaps in Emma’s own life.

Emma is said to be one of Austen’s most openly satirical works, and humor certainly plays a major role. So although circumstances may seem precarious at times, in the end everything is very neatly and satisfactorily worked out. And along the way, we’re introduced to many other entertaining characters. There’s Mr. Elton, the town’s attractive and eligible Vicar; Frank Churchill, the even more attractive and eligible son of Mr. Weston – Frank has been adopted by a wealthy aunt and has taken her name; Miss Bates, a sweet and well-loved but constantly chattering woman who Emma finds most annoying; and Jane Fairfax, the beautiful but penniless orphaned niece of Miss Bates. To name a few. In fact, this is one novel in which the plot really does seem less important than the characters themselves.

Jane Austen’s novels are not for everyone, of course. Not a lot of action, and the language takes a bit of work if you’re not familiar with 19th century styles. But if you want a witty, beautifully written comedy of manners, Emma is a book you’ll treasure.

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