Jane Austen’s Emma was supposed to be my January classic of the month, but I ended up reading this classic romance around Valentine’s Day instead. It’s the fourth Austen novel I’ve read now, but even after experiencing three others I was unprepared for the unique masterpiece that is Emma.
About the book: Emma Woodhouse is the highest-standing woman in Highbury’s society. She’s twenty years old, the mistress of her ailing father’s grand house, and the whole town dotes on her. She’s got reasonable talent and insight, but not enough worldly understanding yet as her governess moves out to be married and leaves Emma to her own devices. Confident that the marriage of her governess and close friend was partially her own doing, Emma sets out to make matches for others– first and foremost, a young lady of unknown parentage that Emma longs to befriend and raise in society. Unfortunately, after pulling Harriet from a promising marriage that Emma deems beneath her, Emma learns through a series of unfortunate events that she may not be as wise and helpful as she thought. Along the way, she also discovers the truths of her own heart just in time to worry that she’s lost the man she didn’t realize she’s been in love with from the start.
“Dear Papa, you cannot think that I will leave off match-making!”
While I’ve enjoyed every Jane Austen novel I’ve read thus far, it’s always been the content that impressed me most. Although Austen’s style of writing and the charming details of bygone days are lovely to read, it’s generally the plots that stay with me in the end.
Not so with Emma. Although amusingly plotted, it’s the master crafting of this novel that stands out. Indeed, most of the plot will not surprise the reader at all because Austen allows the reader to know these characters better and sooner than they know themselves. Much of the novel consists of dialogue that reveals the characters’ secrets, motives, and duplicity. The reader is shown the disparity between thoughts and actions, between words spoken to one party and words spoken to another. The pleasure of the novel exists not in the matches being made, but in observing the various characters as they fall into their own blunders and attempt to grow out of them. Before they find their proper relationships, they must first discover themselves.
“A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.”
The power of the writing is such that the characters’ growth remains interesting to the reader even when the characters themselves are unpleasant. The novel opens on Emma as a spoiled girl with unreasonably high opinions of herself as she first enters society as an adult. Her errors in judgment are almost immediately obvious, between crediting herself with a marriage that she no more than guessed at, and pulling Harriet out of what would obviously have been a happy life befitting her station. Mr. Knightley just as blatantly refuses to accept that any opinions but his own may be valid. Mr. Elton is selfish and petulant, Frank Churchill careless and rash, Jane Fairfax suspiciously secretive, Harriet shockingly suggestible, and so on. The reader sees the characters’ faults, knows when their choices will backfire, predicts who will be to blame for the various scenarios, and yet can’t help reading onward to watch it all play out.
“A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.”
That said, this novel may not appeal to all of Austen’s fans. With the plot more transparent, the commentary on personality and perfecting oneself makes this book a heavier read than some of Austen’s other works. The reader must be interested in the multi-faceted conversations and nuances of perspective more than on which gentlemen will end up with which lady. Emma is, invariably, a romance, but it is so much more than that. Personally, I found the dialogue and the little ironies completely engrossing, but a reader who lives for plot will probably not be as entertained.
A side note: the beautiful vintage classics edition that I read (pictured above), which looks so nice on the shelf and is such a pleasant shape and size to admire while the covers are closed, was surprisingly hard to actually read. The spine is so stiff (and I didn’t want to crack it, obviously) and the book is thick enough that it’s a two-hand read all the way through; even then it was uncomfortable to hold and difficult to manage at times. I was disappointed that this copy wasn’t as functional as it was decorative, so if you’re looking for a good copy to read, be aware that this edition is better to look at, though reading it wasn’t completely impossible.
My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I wish Austen had found a way to keep the powerful writing techniques she utilizes in Emma without pairing it with transparent plotting. I never considered DNF-ing this book, but there were times when I was growing a bit bored of knowing what was coming. That’s the only thing that holds me back from giving this book 5 stars, because in all other regards the writing of this book provided me with a new level of respect for Austen’s works. While none of the novels I’ve read from her so far have seemed frivolous, this one definitely seemed more serious and mature. It’s the last book Austen saw published in her lifetime, and the experience with writing and understading her world shows more clearly in this novel than in the others that I’ve read. I’ll definitely be reading the two novels of Austen’s that I haven’t yet (Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility), though I’m not in too big a hurry because I already know how sad I’m going to be when my first experience with each of Austen’s books is behind me.
- If you like a classic romance that also turns an eye to personal growth, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is an obvious but rewarding choice. Jane’s strength of character is steadfast and inspiring, and the love between two wise but unfortunate people is delightfully dramatic.
- My current favorite Austen novel is Persuasion, a lovely reminder that matters of the heart must be decided upon first and foremost by the couple who will be most affected by them. It’s a beautiful book about making one’s own choices.
Do you have a favorite Jane Austen novel?
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