Fiction — eBook. Project Gutenberg, 2010. Originally published 1815. 731 pgs. Free download.
Before Austen began the novel, she wrote “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Emma Woodhouse is introduced as “handsome, clever, and rich” in the first sentence of the novel. She is also incredibly naive when it comes to understanding the meanings of others’ actions, affairs of the heart, and blindness to social standing.
Emma, raised to think well of herself, befriends Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown parentage, and attempts to remake her in her own image. Ignoring the gaping difference in their respective fortunes and stations in life, Emma convinces herself and her friend that Harriet should look as high as Emma herself might for a husband — and she zeroes in on an ambitious vicar as the perfect match.
In doing so, she encourages Harriet to reject the proposal of a man who loves her named Robert Martin. The rest of the novel presents the consequences of Emma foiling her friend’s first — and possibly only — option for matrimony due to her overestimation of her matchmaking abilities, much to the chagrin of her brother-in-law and neighbor, Mr. Knightly who declares that Emma has been no friend to Harriet.
Austen should not have worried she would be the only person in the world who would like Emma as I actually liked the young heroine. Reading other people’s reviews and thoughts of the novel make it clear that you either love Emma or you hate her — there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground. I fall in the first camp; Marianne Dashwood is my least favorite Austen female (so far).
So why do I like Emma so much? Of the three other novels by Austen I have read, Emma is the character I think learns the biggest lesson, learns the most about herself. She’s forced to confront her naivete, which absolutely resonated with me, and her flaws made her seem all the more “real” to me.
“With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing — for she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightly.” (pg. 621)
Compared to the other Austen novels I have read, my focus was not on the romance between the main female and male characters. Rather, I was drawn into the story of Emma and enjoyed reading about the social interactions that thrilled her, bored her, and aggravated her. Her journey of self-discovery was fueled by a man (or, really, men), but it was not centered around one particular man. Austen’s biting wit (mainly voiced through the opinions of Emma) also made me laughing out, which is actually something I cannot say about the other three novels of hers I have read.
Needless to say, I’m really glad I finally picked up Emma. Did it knock Pride and Prejudice off the top? No. But the novels are so different that it’s hard to compare them in my mind. On a strictly male character, Mr. Knightly will never make my heart flutter like Mr. Darcy does.
The Classics Circuit
I read Emma by Jane Austen for The Classics Circuit’s Dueling Authors: Austen vs. Dickens Tour (Go Austen!), which continues through May 21, 2011. Also on the tour with me today are A Fair Substitute For Heaven with Great Expectations by Charles Dickens and Cellophane Dream with The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.