Book review: Emma by Jane Austen

And with Emma, I conclude my Austen adventure. (What’s the word for reading all the published works by an author? I know there is one.)

Besides Pride & Prejudice, Emma is the only one of her novels I’ve previously read — but several years ago, so I was nicely in suspense for most of the plot.

I actually found it the most satisfying Austen story and romance, second only to Pride & Prejudice.

Emma is a lively, carefree, and complacent twenty-year-old, and I believe the only one of Austen’s heroines who feels no need to marry. She’s perfectly satisfied as the mistress of Hartfield, caring for her elderly father and holding forth as one of the most respectable ladies of Highbury. The novel begins with her celebrating her matchmaking success for her former governess, and Mr. Knightley criticizing her high opinion of herself as well as her meddlesome ways.

This is also the only Austen novel where the heroine is also sometimes the villain. Emma is an awful, awful snob, casually informing her friend that she will no longer be able to receive her if she marries a farmer, then hoping to get an invitation from a family with an insufficiently long well-to-do history, just so she may refuse it. (As it turns out, the outrage of not even receiving an invitation is worse, so when she does finally receive it, she accepts.)

What’s interesting is that in the course of this book, Emma receives not just one, but multiple lessons after she overestimates her own prowess as a social juggler or has fun at the expense of those less fortunate. Sometimes she receives a reproof from Mr. Knightley; other times she’s directly mortified by the revelation of her own mistake. Elizabeth Bennett only received one significant rebuke of her initial pride and prejudice, in contrast; it didn’t deliver the same message that she needed to mature during the book’s timeline.

I should also note that nearly everyone in the book is an awful meddler and gossip, but in their defense, they didn’t have much else to do. Even Emma had never been to the sea. I’ll also forgive Mr. Woodhouse’s chronic anxiety over everyone’s health, given the state of medicine and general mortality rates at the time, but I do wonder at Emma’s saintlike patience with his over-protectiveness.

The point is, through the course of the novel, the reader witnesses the improvement of Emma’s character and maturity, and it’s quite rewarding — especially for the payoff of her and Mr. Knightley confessing their attachment to each other. There’s also a terrific comedy of errors as she repeatedly mistakes the object of affection in her circle of intimates, to the point that she first begs Mr. Knightley not to confess his love, thinking that it was for her lowly friend Harriet Smith.

Emma’s “friendship” with Harriet is actually the harshest indicator of her character. When Harriet confesses her yearning for Mr. Knightley, and Emma is barely able to hear her out and wait until she leaves the room before crying out, “Oh, that I had never laid eyes on her!” — ouch. This is the girl she had made into a bosom companion from the start of the book, but in truth, Emma just wanted to play with her as you do a pretty doll: plucking her up from lower society and placing her in a situation that did Emma the most credit.

But despite all the mishaps, this novel was especially effective in driving home the truth that Everything Turns Out Well in Austen novels. Even Harriet Smith marries Mr. Martin, for whom she was well suited after all (I don’t know if Emma held firm to her word about not visiting Mrs. Harriet Martin, but one gets the sense that they don’t see much of each other after the book’s end, anyway. Probably even Harriet grew to realize they hadn’t been well suited), and Frank Churchill’s engagement with Jane Fairfax is universally approved and granted permission, which never would have happened before his aunt’s abrupt passing a few weeks ago. This novel isn’t as satirically biting as Persuasion, but Austen gets in a few astute observations about how death restores a woman’s character in the minds of her acquaintances:

It was felt as such things must be felt. Every body had a degree of gravity and sorrow; tenderness towards the departed, solicitude for the surviving friends; and, in a reasonable time, curiosity to know where she would be buried. Goldsmith tells us, that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but to die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame. Mrs. Churchill, after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances. In one point she was fully justified. She had never been admitted before to be seriously ill. The event acquitted her of all the fancifulness, and all the selfishness of imaginary complaints.

I have a feeling that a modern editor would shorten the book significantly by excising or reducing many of the conversations by minor characters, but it does give you a nice immersion in that particular time and culture. Apart from Emma’s maturing and the romance, the novel also has quite a colorful cast of characters.

To conclude, let’s return to the doddering Mr. Woodhouse and the humorous contribution he made to the end, when Emma so gently breaks the news that she and Mr. Knightley are in love and wish to marry. He can’t deny that he is very fond of Mr. Knightley, can’t see too much of him, but “Why could not they go on as they had done?” and only becomes resigned to the idea of a marriage as a “distant event.”

If I were in Emma’s place, I would ask imploringly, “But don’t you want more grandchildren, Father? Mr. Knightley and I would very much like to start making them for you.” And then he’d probably expire from shock, and Emma would be free at last to visit the sea.

ETA: I forgot to discuss another important theme of this book: the Horror of the Working Class.

Jane Fairfax is Emma’s age, but her father was not rich and died early in her life. His good friend raised Jane with his own children, but he could not provide for her in adulthood. So, since she had failed to secure a husband before she reached maturity at twenty-one, Jane would be required to work to support herself — a tremendous step down from the well-off upper class in which she’d always been included before in her life. She would become a governess, which is the most respectable and upper-tier of service options available to her — nevertheless, it is a significant social demotion.

Her situation rouses a great deal of pity from all her friends and acquaintances, and some (like the odious Mrs. Elton, the only one who exceeds Emma in snobbishness) begin condescending to her almost unbearably, talking of how they’ll use connections with friends to find her “the very best of situations.” Mrs. Elton assures Jane that she’ll write to her friend immediately, over Jane’s protests that she’s not yet ready to start looking for situations. Of course, in Mrs. Elton’s mind, Jane’s already become one of The Help, second class, one of those lesser humans she can boss around and who must be humbly grateful for whatever scraps she tosses their way.

Emma’s governess, who just became Mrs. Weston at the start of the book, is an interesting parallel study of how governesses may migrate between social classes. After Emma finished her formal education, her governess continued living in their home (paid or not, I’m not sure) because she’d become a great friend to both Emma and her father, the latter of whom couldn’t even conceive of doing without her. Despite how happy Mrs. Weston was in her marriage, he always spoke of her sadly as “poor Miss Taylor.” After her marriage and removal to a home just a short distance away, her friendship with Emma continues, apparently no different than it had been since Emma became an adult.

There may still be circles of society that use a different tone to talk about acquaintances who must work to support themselves, but it does seem like a much rarer circumstance. On the whole, there is dignity in working, in being able to support yourself and loved ones. However odious it may feel sometimes to play the game of Corporate America, working all my daylight hours on weekdays until my mid-60s (or likely later), I still think it’s preferable to depending on a Good Match — i.e., with a husband — for survival. Especially considering the limited options for employment back then. (I would not be a good governess.)

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