“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” So said Jane Austen of Emma Woodhouse. True, she isn’t as virtuous as other Austen heroines; in fact, she is rather selfish, the root of all her faults. (And everyone’s faults, for that matter.) But she is so tangible, so human, in a loveable way, that more people than her crafter expected can say that they like her.
Would you say that she’s the second-most popular JA heroine, after Elizabeth Bennet? Readers like her boldness, her wit, her prosperity. Unlike the other girls Miss Austen has written about, this one need not fear for her future. She’s got everything going for her. Or does she?
Emma has never been crossed, so she’s certain that whatever she thinks is correct is correct. Her opinion matters more to her than any other, except for occasionally Mr. Knightley’s, an old family friend and the brother of her sister’s husband. This means that her acquaintances must be interpreted by how she sees them -- the spinster Miss Bates is silly because Emma thinks her silly; Miss Bates’ niece Jane Fairfax is likewise tiresome; Emma’s friend Harriet Smith is a dear; Harriet’s love interest Robert Martin is a bumpkin; and so forth. Emma sees circumstances the same way, there is no room for her to be mistaken -- until her mistakes flare up in her face. Emma’s slightly flawed character is endearing to readers, because it makes her just like us.
Much of the impact of Emma comes from the intimacy the narrator creates between us and the title character. The narration is most often filtered through Emma’s perspective, and we usually get to see her thoughts taking place as impressions are made: “She then took a longer time for consideration. Should she proceed no farther? Should she let it pass, and seem to suspect nothing? Perhaps Harriet might think her cold or angry if she did; or perhaps if she were totally silent, it might only drive Harriet into asking her to hear too much; and against any thing like such an unreserve as had been, such an open and frequent discussion of hopes and chances, she was perfectly resolved….” (chap 39) This is called free indirect discourse and novels did not always do this; our Miss Austen was one of the first novelists to make such strides in character and reader connectivity.
Emma teaches us the lesson that self-focus will sooner or later rear its ugly head for all to see, including you yourself. Emma thinks she’s being benevolent by arranging matches for Harriet Smith, but she’s really feeding her own ego and not taking Harriet’s true needs into consideration. She thinks she’s civil to poor Miss Bates, but eventually her real, contemptuous feelings come out and wound that lady -- earning a justified rebuke from Mr. Knightley. Emma sees herself for what she really is -- and repents. Her vanity ultimately brings her to the lowest point imaginable: the point where she believes she might lose the man she loves. After all, it was she who encouraged Harriet to think so high as to aspire to Mr. Knightley’s affections.
But Emma gets a happy ending. (And so does everybody else!)
I think Emma, published December 1815, is Jane Austen’s best-written novel. Everything contained in it she does well: comedy, a believable heroine, a well-drawn cast of characters, amusing subplots, an accurate picture of life in a small town, etc. It may be Miss Austen’s exact element: “3 or four Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on.” (A letter to her niece Anna Austen Lefroy) If I’m not mistaken, despite her rank, Emma is the only heroine who doesn’t travel in the course of her story. The result is a highly concentrated image of the small town of Highbury.
Mr. Knightley is someone Emma looks up to, and as I said before, about the only one whose opinion sometimes matters more to her than her own. He’s the only one who ever crosses her, and the fact that she ends up with him leaves us readers with the satisfaction that she’s in good hands. I think she’s a good match for him, too, because she has a strong, intelligent mind that will oppose him if he ever needs opposing. Their dynamic shows itself throughout the novel.
What is your favorite Emma movie? Who’s your favorite character in Emma, or who do you think the most amusing or well-drawn? I would be hard-pressed to give you my opinion -- every character is so distinct! Do you like or dislike Emma? She’s my least favorite JA heroine, but that’s not saying much, because I like them all so well ….