Review: Emma by Jane Austen

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I am re-reading all of Austen’s work because of the Austentatious Goodreads Group started by Read by Zoe on YouTube – or @zoeherdt on Twitter, that will be re-reading all the Austen books. Here is a video by Zoe about it. Again, I’m not seriously reviewing the books – I’m just sort of rambling my feelings about it. I feel others have done better, more serious in-depth reviews on these books.

My favorite book by Jane Austen are Northanger Abbey and Pride and Prejudice. Persuasion is next… then the others fall into 4th place. I am sometimes reticent to pick up this one in particular, because the first time I read it, I just hated Emma so much. My opinion had softened towards her by the middle, and I liked her by the end. The thing I love about Jane Austen is that every time you read her books, you can have a difference experience. At least that’s how it’s been for me. The 2nd time I read Emma, I didn’t see why I’d disliked her so much… but this time… I remembered. Man is she a nightmare. She has to be the first in consequence, she delights in being everyone’s favorite and abhors anyone below her rank. She’s almost insufferable.

As I’ve said before, there are plenty of reviews out there on these books – I’m just rambling about my thoughts. I won’t be keeping the plot a secret  – since it’s over 200 years old. It doesn’t really matter if you know what happens – the joy of Austen is in the reading of it –no plot point, no review, no matter how thorough as to plot, is going to give you all the feels of reading an Austen book. Emma is usually referred to as a satire –and I agree. The humor in this – Miss Bates’ dialog alone is worth the price of admission. However, it also has intense moments of pathos.

I think the most moving part of the whole novel… – ok, wait, strike that, because now I can think of 4 really moving parts. Not like as in cogs and wheels, but moments when your heart breaks a little for the ice queen that is Emma Woodhouse. The one that breaks my heart the most, and usually makes the most moving part of any film adaptation, is the lecture Emma receives at Box Hill. She and Frank Churchill (more on him later) have reigned supreme all the afternoon, and a flippant barb she threw out stuck rather deep in the bosom of the person she lobbed it at. And Emma doesn’t think the old girl even understood it. Being a poor woman, dependent on the goodness of her neighbors for any comfort, Miss Bates lives on sufferance. Any criticism from those who supply those comforts strikes twice as hard. “Badly done, Emma!” is Mr. Knightley’s criticism. It really strikes her hard and “cuts up all her peace”. The next day, she goes to make amends as soon as she can. Luckily, it takes far less to smooth Miss Bates ruffled feathers than it does to injure them, and everything’s back to status quo. But Emma learns a really good lesson. One thing you have to say for her – she doesn’t need to learn them twice.

The principle plot is that Emma is a meddler. She involves herself in a young girl’s life – a “Natural daughter of Somebody” (which means an illegitimate child) who has been set up with Mrs. Goddard, the woman who runs a very respectable school for girls. Emma wants to bring Harriet along into society, thinking all she needs is a little polish. All the polish in the world probably won’t make up for the lack of substance between her ears… but besides being a little silly, there isn’t any harm in Harriet. Unwilling to leave well enough alone, Emma gets to matchmaking, hoping Mr. Elton, the young vicar, will fall madly in love with Harriet. This causes a bit of a stink with Mr. Knightley. He and Emma have a weird argument. On one hand, you want to be on Emma’s side. She encouraged Harriet to refuse the proposal of Mr. Martin, a respectable farmer, claiming he was beneath what was due her friend. However, for all her good intentions, and saying that a woman doesn’t have to take the first comfortable home offered to her (Go Emma, you wanna say) she then goes on to argue that there are plenty of men willing to marry a pretty dummy with no name because she is pleasing. Yeah. So… is this or is this not a feminist position?

For all that Emma thinks she knows the ins and outs of relationships as far as women and what they are offered, there is one way in which she is blind. She doesn’t know men. She thinks she does, but being an unmarried girl herself, it’s not as though she is privy to their conversation. Mr. Knightley warns her that Mr. Elton knows how handsome he is, and won’t sell himself cheaply. When only with men, Mr. Elton boasts about snagging a daughter from a family full of them, all with twenty thousand a piece. However, he’s set his goals even higher.

In trying to put Mr. Elton under Harriet’s spell, Emma has accidentally encouraged him to think that she would be open to his advances. When Elton finds out about Emma believing him to be in love with Harriet, the first thing he does is throw the girl’s illegitimacy in her face. Which is funny…. Emma is very sure of herself and what is due to her person. In doing what he does, Elton just shows how much like Emma he is. All along, it’s Mr. Knightley who has seen the real evil in what Emma has done. She’s brought Harriet into her circle, has her practically living at Hartfield at one point, but she has only improved her enough to be too good for her equals. A marriage to Mr. Martin would have not only given her a good home, but a happy, comfortable one, with love and respect all around. Of course, as I said, spoilers abound, she does indeed come around, through no help of Emma’s, and they do marry, and Emma snob to the end, slowly ends the friendship, no doubt because Harriet’s relations are finally revealed. Emma recoils in horror to find that the girl she had championed as the secret daughter of nobility was in actual fact the daughter of a tradesman. I mean – is there anything stupider under the face of all creation? Harriet was dumb and pretty before, she was still dumb and pretty after… how did finding out who her parent was make any difference?

Then there is Frank Churchill. There are men who do far worse in Austen’s books, but I still think Frank is one of the worst. In an effort to throw everyone off the scent of the relationship he is in, he appears to be pursuing Emma. What he is doing is torturing the poor woman who wants to marry him. I just can’t forgive him for what he does. I wish the woman he really loves would find somebody better… but who knows, may she will improve him.

Those are my thoughts. I really enjoyed this read this time. Let me know – what do you think of Austen?

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