Emma by Jane Austen, Part 1

I recently uploaded a blog post about Pride and Prejudice. I had the same dilemma when writing about Emma. Namely, what is there to talk about? Surely we have exhausted every angle there is to write about when discussing Jane Austen novels.

I couldn’t help but feel I’m inundating the web with something people are already overfamiliar with. Jane Austen is part of the standard education curriculum in the West and the entertainment world can’t stop churning out adaptations of her work (not that I’m complaining). Just look at Emma. We’ve had a major film/TV adaptation of it in every decade.

And yet the final word count for this blog post is 4,100+ words. I decided to split it into three to make the content more readable. It says something that a novel published more than 2 centuries ago could still elicit such frenzy. Not just from me, but also readers, academics, and the entertainment industry.

Disclaimer: I discuss the plot of Emma extensively. As Jane Austen novels are so well-known and well-loved by bibliophiles around the world, uploading a general book review seemed redundant. If you haven’t read Emma and don’t want to spoil the experience, you may want to stop reading.

This is a thorough, if personal, dissection. I want to focus on three things:

  1. The novelistic structure of Emma,
  2. Emma the character, and
  3. The themes and values in Emma.

As in Pride and Prejudice, matrimony in Emma is only half the story. Stopping at the romance when assessing Austen’s fiction is reductive as Austen never forgot the big issues surrounding love and marriage. Money has always loomed large in her work. So did values and character. In Emma, the social status of potential love matches suffuses all discussions of romance.

The heroine of Emma is a snob. No adaptation can ignore this side of her – even if one wanted to make her more likeable. You just can’t. This is a novel obsessed with one’s standing in society, and as Queen Bee of its setting, Emma the character may be most obsessed of all.

From the very first sentence of Emma, readers are accosted by its titular character:

“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.”

Such a strong introduction. And little wonder! Emma rules social life in her village Highbury. Part of the landed gentry and the second family of consequence in town, the Woodhouses are outranked only by their neighbor and close friend Mr. Knightley. Smarter than any of her family members, Emma is made spoiled and a little lazy by her natural cleverness, social instinct, status, and her family’s adoration of her. Only Mr. Knightley challenges her and provides her with constructive criticism.

When Miss Taylor, Emma’s live-in governess and dear companion since childhood, married Mr. Weston, a well-regarded widower of some success, a large hole is created in Emma’s day-to-day existence. Though Mr. Weston’s estate was very close to the Woodhouses’, Emma’s anxious and hypochondriac father is never keen on travel, no matter how short the distance. To cope, Emma began a fast friendship with Harriet Smith, a local student. Emma desired to make a good match for Harriet, and her misguided attempts along with the various romantic intrigue in Highbury fueled the storylines of the novel.

Emma, the novel

Prior to Emma, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion; Emma is without a doubt the most technically accomplished of them all. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion are fairly simple stories in comparison. Not that Emma’s plot is complicated, but its structure is masterful – aided by secondary characters more interesting and with richer stories than in, say, Pride and Prejudice (despite my undying love for it).

Emma is essentially a mystery novel where the resolution is finding the right romantic partner, not who committed the crime. A whoisit, not a whodunit. Some people may scoff at the “mystery” at the heart of Emma, but when you think about it, whether or not your love interest reciprocates your feelings is one of the biggest mysteries you will be most invested in during your lifetime.

So what mysteries are there in Emma?

  1. Emma Woodhouse’s big project, aka Harriet’s love life. Emma wanted to match her new friend with Mr. Elton, Highbury’s popular young vicar. Would Emma’s matchmaking efforts succeed? Were Mr. Elton and Harriet compatible in the first place?
  2. Frank Churchill’s visit: Frank is Mr. Weston’s son from his previous marriage and had been fostered by his very wealthy aunt and uncle since he was a small boy. Since then, Frank had never visited Highbury. Yet at the start of the novel, he indicated that he would soon visit. Why the sudden trip?
  3. Jane Fairfax’s return: beautiful, elegant, accomplished yet orphaned and poor, Jane is a local girl brought up away from Highbury with Colonel Campbell, her father’s former commander, his wife, and their daughter. She was given a good education by the Campbells, but they had no means to provide more so it was always expected that Jane would become a governess to fend for herself. Jane is dearly loved by the Campbells and vice versa, so why did she opt to return to Highbury when the Campbells had the opportunity to extend their last stretch of time with her? What caused her premature return?
  4. Emma herself: would she have a match of her own?

Remarkably for a novel of the time period, its POV, while not first person, is very much attached to Emma Woodhouse. We are privy to her thoughts, ideas, and discoveries – and little else. Readers have a limited viewpoint and scope, which restricts how much we know and creates something of a claustrophobic feeling.

Moreover, all significant plot strands are constrained within Highbury, a hierarchical village, and there is very little travel undertaken by Emma Woodhouse. In fact, it is revealed that she had never traveled outside Highbury all her life at the start of the novel. Her father, ever anxious, would not bear the health “risks”. There’s a feeling in Emma that life doesn’t really move forward without letters, news from a neighbor, or some gossip from the shopkeeper. Life feels stifled and inactive. Little wonder Emma was so enthusiastic about her matchmaking. She was probably bored out of her mind. And of course, all this amplified the claustrophobic feel of Emma the novel.

Because we are stuck with only Highbury as location and Emma’s perspective as viewpoint, Emma the novel is squarely about a local community, its diverse cast (we get to meet so many inhabitants of Highbury: from the apothecary to the boarding-school mistress to the rising merchant class), and Emma Woodhouse as our undisputed star – and I will explore more of her character in another post.

When it comes to writing and structure, every plot and subplot in Emma are tightly contained and perfectly executed. All plot threads culminate in Volume II, Chapter VIII of Emma.

I consider this chapter a literary masterpiece: it is compilation, set-up, and climax all at once. The mysteries have been properly established and here, Austen raised the stakes. Set in a party where many Highbury folks gathered, it is revealed that Jane Fairfax received a mystery gift of a pianoforte. Speculators pounced. Who was the anonymous giver?

The general assumption landed on the Campbells. In a gossipy chat, Mrs. Weston (née Miss Taylor) theorized to Emma: what if it was Mr. Knightley? He was, after all, fond of Jane. Emma had her own ideas.

But that was not the only fuel for the Highbury rumor mill in this soirée. Frank Churchill and Emma were visibly and obviously flirting. While we are closely following Emma throughout, the villagers were also invested in Highbury’s romantic intrigues. Emma’s own love life was a chief topic, despite Emma not always picking up on it when she conversed with others.

Volume II, Chapter VIII is a compilation of the major unresolved mysteries in the novel (excepting Mr. Elton and Harriet – which had been resolved but substituted with another conflict at that point), an introduction to more possibilities that either serve as clues or to lead us astray, and a climax gearing up for resolution. The setting of Emma may be domestic, but reading it felt as delightfully tense as reading a mystery novel at times. I wanted more hints and information.

Emma’s perfect structure is, of course, delivered with Austen’s signature sparkling wit. It’s Jane Austen, can you expect anything less?

In Emma, Austen found the perfect vehicle for her delightful dialogue in our titular heroine. Witness the scene where Harriet wondered why Emma had no marital interest of her own despite being so charming. Emma’s response?

“My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming – one other person at least […]”

Reader, I laughed.

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! But I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want. I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”

I love the above statement. It’s witty and pointed while showing you that for all her faults, Emma is self-aware and cognizant of societal reality. She knows that her privilege of choice came from her wealth and the social status she was born into. She is also aware of standards in society, saying next that a spinster living in poverty is an object of ridicule, “but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable […]” With such luck, Emma could afford to try the road less taken. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

Typical of Austen’s work, Emma is not only replete with arch wit, it is full of memorable comic scenes. Austen truly was the QUEEN of excruciating family meals. She loved the torment inherent in awkward society gatherings, but the ensuing hilarity is manna for readers! Remember Mr. Collins eating with the Bennets in Pride and Prejudice? (Also known as the “excellent boiled potatoes” scene in the 2005 film adaptation.) Well, dinner between the Woodhouses and the Knightleys in Volume I of Emma is even more awkward.

Awkward conversations in awkward family dinners. Source.

Strong scenes and lively wit are propelled by great literary characters – of which Emma is filled to the brim. But none is as unforgettable as Emma Woodhouse, whose character I will delve deeper into in my next blog post.

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