Emma, Jane Austen
I have a goal to read more Jane Austen this year (and I have an Austen reading challenge as well!). I have always loved her novel Sense and Sensibility and wanted to expand into her other works. This one did not disappoint! It is a fantastic tale with all the usual Austen humor and wittiness that work so well in her stories! In fact, it is now up there with Sense as my favorite Austen work!
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.
The first sentence in the novel really sets the stage for all the mistakes the main character makes throughout! This novel tells the story of Emma Woodhouse, a privileged young lady who, with nothing else to occupy her time, loves matchmaking among her friends. She loves it so much that she doesn't pay any attention to her true love right under her nose! Of course things don't go the way Emma would like and there are the usual misunderstandings but things work out in the end and everyone ends up with who they are destined to be with.
This had been called one of Austen's best works and I can agree with that. I really loved this story. This certainly is the "lightest" of Austen's novels as you will not find any lives ruined or huge scandals that ruin reputations. It is simply (and wonderfully so) the story of a small, English village where the inhabitants really have nothing substantial to occupy their time; none more so than Emma. I think one of the things Austen is so marvelous at is her ability to really focus on her characters and their everyday lives and none of her novels do this as well as Emma. As there is no serious "action" the story must therefore focus on everyday occurrences. You could call this a comedy of manners as the characters revolve within a very strict code of behavior and etiquette where everything should move along very smoothly but of course, because of meddling (mainly Emma's) things always go completely wrong! The novel is full of the usual, heavy Austen dialogue and description which I'm sure can get tedious for some readers (I did find myself skimming over some of Miss. Bates' extended ramblings) but, as in her other novels, it does not get in the way and can really help the reader come to terms with a time very foreign from our own. Many modern readers find the "elitist" attitudes in Austen's books a turn off and condemn the novels. However, Austen is not intending to make these attitudes seem wonderful; if some readers would look closer they would realize that she is really satirizing these attitudes and showing them for the silliness they really were. The main character, Emma, can be a bit annoying at times, but she is so open about her own faults and weaknesses that its hard to dislike her. In fact, you do see her acknowledging in several places her mistakes and is able to laugh them off and learn from them. Austen herself said that Emma was a character that nobody would really like but herself; I disagree.Yes, she can come across as snobbish, arrogant, and overly conscious of her place in society but what can you expect from a girl who has been raised by a doting father and governess? Mixed with those slightly irritating qualities, though, is a sweetness and a true desire to be helpful which really makes her endearing. I highly doubt Emma's personality is that much different from other young ladies of the time. I think the true shining star in this novel, though, is Mr. Knightley, Emma's close friend and true English gentleman (supposedly this was Austen's favorite hero as well and created her ideal gentleman in him; his name is no accident). He is kind and thoughtful, witty and intelligent, but blunt and always ready to bring Emma back down to Earth. Their bantering back and forth is really charming. I only wish we knew more about Mr. Knightley's background and that we could see more of him in the novel! The rest of the characters in the novel are all brilliantly drawn and even though they are not the focus of the story, you come to know them as well as the two mains: the eccentric and hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, sweet and naive Harriet Smith, the kind Westons, slightly foppish Frank Churchill and the very reserved Jane Fairfax, the kindly Miss. and Mrs. Bates, and the exceedingly arrogant Eltons.
This is a wonderful and delightful story and I would highly recommend it to anyone. It is a light and charming story about a slightly flawed but kind young lady (and who among us is not flawed?) who, through a series of blunders, grows and matures. It is also a humorous story poking fun at the strict code of behavior and the social classes of the day.
*There have been several movie adaptions made including my favorite starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma and the drool-worthy Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley. The movie Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone is a modern adaption of the story.