Publication Year: 1815
Book Description: Emma Woodhouse is one of Austen’s most captivating and vivid characters. Beautiful, spoilt, vain and irrepressibly witty, Emma organizes the lives of the inhabitants of her sleepy little village and plays matchmaker with devastating effect.
Note: Yes, this is out of order. I blame the quarantine and general craziness of watching over a one-year-old, but I finished reading “Emma” about a week or two ago, and only then realized that I had skipped “Mansfield Park.” I probably could have banged “Mansfield Park” out in this last week, but I didn’t want to rush my read of that rather hefty book. And then when I would finally get to “Emma,” around July, I’d be several months removed from my actual read through. So, I think this is better than doggedly sticking to my original order. It is what it is!
History – “I read it a little as duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.”
Jane Austen wrote “Emma” between early 1814 and the spring of 1815. Once she was ready to publish, she decided to switch publishers and went with the well-known London publisher, John Murray. It is thought that she hoped to get a better copyright deal with this publisher and had been put off her previous editor after he refused to publish a second run of “Mansfield Park.” After originally being offered a fixed copyright price for “Emma, “Mansfield Park,” and “Sense and Sensibility,” Austen opted to go with a commission option instead for both, taking on printing and advertising prices. “Emma” had an original first-run of 2,000 copies, Austen’s largest first-run to date.
The book also included dedicated to the Prince of Wales. A fan of her previous books, her identity had been made know to the Prince Regent and his librarian dropped the not-so-subtle comment that she was free to dedicate any future books to him, a hint Austen didn’t feel she could ignore even though she didn’t personally care for Prince Regent
The book was met with middling success at the time, but has grown to be one of her most popular titles with modern audiences. And, despite the author’s fear that readers would not like Emma herself, many fans have connected strongly with the character, faults and all. (source)
“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” – Jane Austen
Part I – Volume 1, Chapter 1 – Volume 2, Chapters 11
Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Emma Woodhouse is the wealthy second daughter of the eccentric Mr. Woodhouse. Her family and their good family friend, Mr. Knightley, share the role as the most prominent families in their small community. A new family group is about to come on the scene, however, with the marriage of Emma’s good friend and former governess to Mr. Weston. Though sad to see her friend go, Emma takes credit for the match herself. Mr. Knightley scoffs at this idea, but Emma is sure of her own abilities.
The marriage also brings up a new topic of gossip, that Mr. Weston’s son, a young man who grew up with his aunt after the death of Mr. Weston’s first wife when the son was young, will likely have to come to visit finally. Mr. Frank Churchill has been long looked for, but due to the sickly and ill-spirited nature of his guardian aunt, he’s never actually visited his original home. But it comes to nothing, and he doesn’t come. Mr. Knightly is the only one to raise an eyebrow at what he sees as poor behavior of an independent man who must know what is due his father on the occasion of a wedding.
To make up for the loss of Mrs. Weston’s daily presence, Emma makes a friend of Harriet Smith, a young boarder at a nearby school. Her parentage is not known, but Emma sees her as a great project. She is dismayed, however, to find that Harriet has already formed a connection with a local farmer family, the Martins, and in particular with the son, Mr. Martin. To ward off the evil of Harriet marrying below what Emma has in mind for her, Emma sets her eyes on Mr. Eldon, the local parson as a better marriage option for Harriet.
Soon enough, however, it comes to a head when Harriet shows Emma a letter from Mr. Martin in which he asks her to marry him. Emma deftly maneuvers Harriet to what she deems the appropriate response: a resounding no. When Mr. Knightly hears of this, he is appalled and he and Emma fight. He says that she is playing with people like they are dolls and that Harriet had a happy future ahead of her with Mr. Martin. Now, Mr. Knightley worries she will look too high and be disappointed by the lack of men who will want to risk a marriage with a girl whose family is unknown. Emma counters that Harriet is beautiful and pleasant, two qualities that are the most important to men, seemingly. And that since Harriet associates with gentleman’s daughters, it is only right to assume that Harriet is a gentleman’s daughter as well. Mr. Knightley also warns that if Emma is thinking of Mr. Elton instead, he’s not all that and it will come to nothing. The two part in unhappy spirits.
Over the next several months, Emma makes great work to throw Mr. Elton and Harriet together, thinking she sees many signs of attachment. He praises, almost to a ridiculous degree, a painting that Emma does of Harriet. And later contributes a riddle to Harriet and Emma’s collection of romantic ditties. The riddle itself makes out the word “courtship,” and though Emma is confused by his references to Harriet’s “ready wit,” she still sees this as a good sign.
Around Christmas, Emma’s older sister and her family, who is married to Mr. Knightley’s younger brother and lives in London, come to visit. They entire group is invited to a party at the Weston’s; Mr. Elton and Harriet are invited, as well. Harriet, however, comes down with a bad cold and has to miss the party. On delivering the news to Mr. Elton, Emma is confused by his seeming lack of real concern for her friend. John Knightley, on seeing the exchange, warns Emma that Mr. Elton seems particularly interested in her. Emma scoffs at the idea. But at the party itself, where Mr. Elton makes a nuisance of himself trying to ingratiate himself with her, Emma is forced to begin to worry about her plans for him and Harriet.
She ends up in a carriage alone with him on the ride home, and her entire plan crashes down around her when he proposes to her. She is appalled, but soon learns that all of the signs she had thought were directed to Harriet were instead meant for her. Worse, Elton reveals himself as an arrogant, rather scheming man who looks down on Harriet for being too much below him but doesn’t seem to equate the situation with himself and Emma, an equally un-equal match. Emma sees it for what it is: he’s only in love enough to see the his gains in a marriage with her. She turns in down soundly. The next day she learns that he has left Highbury, and Emma has to break the terrible news to Harriet.
Around this time, Highbury gains a new person in the form of Jane Fairfax, the niece of Mrs. and Miss Bates. While Miss Bates is rather silly and prone to talking excessively, Emma knows it is her duty to call on Jane. She finds Jane to be too reserved to appeal as a potential close friend and is content not putting much effort into the relationship. Shortly after, Mr. Churchill finally arrives on the scene and Emma is much more struck by his charming, open disposition. The two quickly form a friendship, and it is clear the Westons would like nothing more than an even greater attachment in the future.
As they all circulate within each others’ circles and through various dinners and parties, Emma and Mr. Churchill find great amusement in coming up with scandalous histories for Jane Fairfax that would explain her shutting herself up with her less appealing relatives. Jane receives a piano as gift from an anonymous giver and this only adds to Emma and Mr. Churchill’s fun, trying to guess who would have given her such a great gift. Mrs. Weston suspects Mr. Knightley, but Emma laughs at this and says Mr. Knightley would never do anything in secret.
Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”
It is easy for readers to understand why Austen was worried fans might not connect with her character. For one thing, Emma is anything but an underdog, very unlike previous Austen heroines. She is wealthy, charming, beautiful, and has no material concerns before her, with a future secured by an independent income and a beloved place in a loving family and happy neighborhood where she is highly esteemed. What she says to Harriet, that a lack of income is all that makes spinsterhood so abhorrent, isn’t quite true in that she is underselling many of the other privileges that make up her existence. On top of that income, she has friends in Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. She is highly valued as a connection to the general public of Highbury. And, of course, she is loved above anything by her father. Compared to Austen’s other heroines so far who have all been held back by finances to some extent, and by family members in other ways, Emma is sitting pretty.
But it’s also easy to see how this very distinction is one of the things that makes Emma such a popular character to modern audiences. Marriage is by no means the goal and, in many ways, Emma herself sees it as more a hindrance than anything. Instead, she’s fully independent and takes joy in the various roles she plays in her community. Her love story is purely based on the joys of a long friendship discovered to be more with no aspects of gratitude, luck, or necessity sprinkled on top to lessen the romance for modern readers who like their love stories to be “pure” like this. Even “Pride and Prejudice,” the most romantic of the previous three books, has a few pretty straightforward lines about Elizabeth feeling a lot of gratitude towards Darcy for taking any interest in her. Joined with the rest of the romance, this is fine. But to modern audiences, again, there is something appealing about Emma’s story having zero strings attached to it other than mutual affection and love. Neither Knightly or Emma need the other, and it is easy enough to see them living out the rest of their lives single and happy.
The other obvious turn-off is Emma’s meddling, the main focus of the entire story. But I think Austen under-estimated how many good qualities Emma has and how much they balance out much of her nonsense. Beyond which, I think many readers like their main characters to have flaws that they overcome throughout the story. Elizabeth Bennet, the other most beloved Austen heroine, definitely has a story arc that involves her overcoming a personal shortcoming. Emma’s flaw hurts more people than Elizabeth’s, however. But like I said, we see important moments that help counterbalance this. Particularly in the way she truly loves and cares for her father, putting forth a lot of effort to fill his days with activities and people he enjoys and attempting to keep family gatherings cordial and not upsetting for him. We also see enough of Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston to know they are sensible, kind people and that if they can vouch for Emma’s worth as a friend, there is more to her than the blatant meddling we also see.
This first half, of course, sees Emma commit probably her biggest sin: persuading Harriet to turn down Robert Martin. Beyond that, we see the pain that is caused by her major error with Mr. Elton and the lasting hurt it inflicts on Harriet who falls into a fairly deep depression for several months over his “loss.” But we also spend a lot of time in Emma’s head and do see that she is genuinely distressed over the way this situation unfolds. If still not distressed enough not continue in her ways to some extent throughout the rest of the book.
Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”
I love Mr. Knightley; he’s one of my favorite Austen heroes. But, I’ll be honest and say that after watching the 2009 “Emma” with Johnny Lee Miller as Mr. Knightley, I have a very hard time not simply picturing him and his performance for all of the Knightley portions. But beyond that, I do always like romantic heroes like his character, those who are stable, reliable, and always there for the heroine, even when she doesn’t know she needs him.
There are none of the dramatics of Mr. Darcy, and none of the indecisive weirdness of feelings for other women, like Edward Ferrars or Edmund. (Technically, I should have read “Mansfield Park” before this, so Edmund gets thrown in the list of Austen heroes who came before Knightley, even if we haven’t covered him in this reread, yet.) No, Mr. Knightley is that long friend of Emma’s who has always been there. He clearly cares about her welfare, worrying to Mrs. Weston about Emma’s friendships and future. And he understands her family, seeming to be pleased to spend quiet evenings at her home with her and her father.
He also is completely spot-on with his views on people. Unlike Emma, we’ll see in the second half that Mr. Knightley is the true match-spotter in the neighborhood when he catches on to the Jane/Frank thing before anyone. But in this half, we see that he values hard-workers like Mr. Martin and sees him as a good match for Harriet. Unlike Emma, Knightley is aware of the precarious situation that Harriet is in and sees all the good in her marrying Mr. Martin. He also is spot-on with his estimation of Mr. Elton, a fact that Emma herself will have to admit to later on in the book.
We also see Mr. Knightley make an effort to befriend and care for Jane, understanding the strains that must be on her living 24/7 in the Bates’ house. He is empathetic and kind, sending his carriage to bring that household to local parties when he knows they’d have to walk anyways. Emma sees all of this and appreciates it in the sense that “of course, that’s what he’d do!” but doesn’t really stop to think how rare of qualities all of these are and how much they should not be taken for granted.
Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
In many ways, Emma herself is the biggest villain in this first half. We see the entire arc of Harriet’s tragic love story play out, all at the hands of Emma. And while we do believe that she was honestly confused by Mr. Elton’s behavior, truly thought she was doing right by Harriet, and felt terribly once the truth came out, there’s no denying the real harm done here. We know how it turns out for Harriet in the end, but things could have went a very different way and followed the dark path Mr. Knightley laid out in which Harriet ends up at the boarding house forever, a spinster living her days at the mercy of others. Turning down the genuinely nice-sound Mr. Martin could have had lasting consequences, and it is clear that, coming form her own privileged position, Emma has not thought about these dangers to her friend whatsoever.
Further, Harriet suffers for quite some time after the loss of Mr. Elton. We know enough about her character to see that she doesn’t have the same resources of self that Emma has, and therefore it is very difficult for her to move past the depression of finding herself not preferred by Mr. Elton. Emma had her fully convinced of a happy future with him, and its loss is felt wholly by poor Harriet.
The other main villain would be Mr. Elton himself at this point. Villain is probably too strong of a word for him, but he still fits best in this category. As readers, we take more heed of Mr. Knightley’s warning about Mr. Elton and his search for a wealthy wife, so it’s less of a surprise when he fully exposes himself. It’s also easier to see how ridiculous and over-the-top Mr. Elton is from the very start. To her credit, Emma sees much of this too, but figures that he’s just so in love with Harriet that his senses aren’t quite right. She’s even more horrified when she realizes that these obnoxious flirtations had been meant to attract her, not Harriet. And, of course, Mr. Elton doesn’t make himself look very good in proposal scene itself. He’s cruel to Harriet and clearly not really in love with Emma at all. Again, knowing how it turns out, and with future Mr. Knightley’s words in our heads, that “Emma chose better for [Elton] than he did for himself,” we know that Mr. Elton will create a punishment of his own by marrying the obnoxious Mrs. Elton.
Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.
Other than poor Harriet’s tragedies, there is really no romance in this first half. Knowing the outcome and knowing the secret hearts of characters who aren’t even aware of themselves, it’s easy enough to see romantic tension between Emma and Mr. Knightley, but there really isn’t anything on the page itself to justify it. There fight is the sort that could be had between any good friends, and the compliments that Mr. Knightley pays Emma when speaking to Mrs. Weston about his concerns about Emma and Harriet’s friendship are, again, of the sort that don’t really raise eyebrows. Mrs. Weston herself doesn’t bat an eyelash at it.
There are other small indicators here and there for Mr. Knightley’s attachment. His dislike of Frank Churchill from the very start is a pretty clear sign, before Frank is even on the scene in person. But, at the same time, Mr. Knightley seems to also be the only one objectively seeing some of the fairly questionable missteps in Frank’s behavior, all the way from the start when Frank failed to visit the new Mrs. Weston. So, it’s kind of half and half to see his dislike as motivated by the knowledge that many people are matchmaking Emma and Frank in their heads or to see it as just another example of Mr. Knightley’s good sense about people and their behavior.
One small moment that stood out was when many of the main characters are gathered at the Bates’ to view Jane’s new piano. Miss Bates sees Knightley riding by and asks him up. Once he hears that Emma is there, he seems to be about to come up, but makes a quick about-face when he hears that Frank is also there. Emma is the temptation, but Frank is the deterrent, especially when Frank is around Emma herself.
Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Mr. Woodhouse is just the kind of lovable fool that Austen does best. His concerns and worries about health add the perfect levity needed to some of Emma’s more serious failings. Not to mention, he’s a main source of good in showing Emma’s loving side. There are bunch of small lines thrown in here and there about some of his worries: his concern about the cake at the wedding and dismay at the doctor’s children eating much of it, his worry about the hassle of his driver having to get a carriage ready for this and that small trip, endless frets about the temperature. As a reader, it’s very amusing. But we also see how it could be trying for family members, especially in-laws. During their visit, we see that Emma’s brother-in-law, John Knightley often struggles to deal with Mr. Woodhouse’s eccentricities. Mr. Woodhouse is clearly not aware of how intrusive some of his “concerns” can be into the choices of another person’s family. But we also get to see a lovely example of Emma and Mr. Knightley working in tandem to keep their respective family members polite and to avoid familial conflict.
The other main source of comedy comes from Miss Bates. Austen doesn’t hesitate to devote paragraphs and paragraphs to the dialogue for this character so that readers can truly understand what it would be like to be the listening party, trapped in a one-sided “conversation” with Miss Bates. She’s clearly well-meaning, but man, it can be exhausting just reading her unfiltered, scattered speeches. While Emma clearly over-steps later in the book and could do better in general with regards to Miss Bates, it’s also easy enough to sympathize with her desire to avoid getting trapped in long visits with Miss Bates.
Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”
Mrs. Goddard was the mistress of a School – not of a seminary, or an establishment, or anything which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality, upon new principles and new systems.
This quote stood out to me as yet another example of Austen’s wit striking on aspects of life that still hold true today. Having worked for many years in academia, the line about “refined nonsense” in the way that colleges and universities try to sell themselves is spot on.
“And till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after…”
While wrong overall, Emma does makes some good points in her argument with Mr. Knightley about Harriet’s future prospects. This then leads, of course, to a general favorite quote when Mr. Knightley comments that it might be better to be without wits than misapply them as Emma does here.
“I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him.”
Again, this is a rather wise line being used in service of a poor scheme overall on Emma’s part. And I think there is a bunch of wiggle room to be made with the word “doubt.” But, in general, if there are doubts, that at least is a sign that more thought needs to be given before the “yes.”
In two weeks, I’ll review the last half of “Emma” and share my final thoughts on the book as a whole.