“My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry. I must find other people charming—one other person at least.”
I had to chuckle at that, since it so wittily expresses how single women feel sometimes. It’s just one of many clever, timeless, spot-on statements that appear frequently throughout Emma, the last novel that Jane Austen saw published. She died a year and a half later. It was published in December 1815; I read Emma this year in honor of its 200th anniversary.
Although Sense and Sensibility is my favorite, I think Emma may be her best novel. It certainly is her most mature work. She was older and more experienced when she wrote it than when she wrote all her other completed novels save Persuasion; and Persuasion, published posthumously, did not have the benefit of her final edit. Emma is symmetrical and tightly plotted. Every circumstance and character is tied off in probably the most satisfying ending of her novels (the others tend to finish too quickly for us romantics). The major characters, from Emma to Miss Bates, are so realistic and well drawn you can know them like real people; none of them are the least bit unbelievable or caricature-ish. Their dialogue sparkles. Emma’s character development is probably the most detailed of all Jane Austen’s heroines. The setting of Highbury is a living portrait of a small English village.
I seldom reread books, but I plan to always reread Jane Austen’s novels. This was my second time reading Emma. Just a few things I would like to draw attention to that I especially enjoyed this time around:
- Emma and Mr. Knightley’s delightful relationship and repartee: “Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me, you know—in a joke—it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another.” Their conversations are some of the best in all of Jane Austen’s works!
- The cohesiveness of the plot: Perhaps more than any other of Miss Austen’s novels, marriage is the driving plot of Emma. It opens with a wedding and ends with a wedding; a wedding shakes up Emma Woodhouse’s world in the beginning, and rectifies it at the conclusion. Emma’s character arc is bound to it—marriage removes her best friend and former governess, Mrs. Weston, causing her to commandeer Harriet Smith, a graduate of the local girls’ school, as a new constant companion. Matchmaking becomes her hobby as she tries to manage Harriet’s marital prospects. Marriage between her sister and Mr. Knightley’s brother defines Emma’s and Mr. Knightley’s friendship and blinds them to their own feelings for each other. Marriage, or the desire of marriage, brings three new characters to Highbury—Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, and Augusta Elton. One of Emma’s most prominent wishes is that she not marry, and one of her father’s most defining characteristics is that he dislikes marriage because it changes things. By the end of the book, we have met no less than six married or soon-to-be married couples, and most of them are the major characters. Only two other major characters are unmarried, Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates. Marriage, proposals, engagements, and romantic speculation propel the story. And at the end, marriage between the right pairs puts the world aright again.
- The beautiful theme: While marriage is the driving plot, the take-away theme seems to be truth. I’m indebted to Peter J. Leithart and his book Miniatures and Morals for pointing this out (highly recommended for all Jane Austen fans!). Mr. Knightley, the epitome of a truthful man (he won’t even tolerate any equivocation, but always speaks and acts decisively), is the only man who is right for Emma. Only when there is truth in all the characters’ dealings with each other is the story ready for conclusion. The biggest plot developments hinge on cleared-up misunderstandings (such as those that concern Mr. Elton, Harriet, and Emma; Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax; and Emma, Mr. Knightley, and Harriet). Although marriage propels Emma’s character arc, her growth is measured by the amount of truth she tells, learns, and recognizes about herself. She is ready for marriage when truth triumphs in her life. Takeaway point: Truth is essential for a happy marriage and really, for any wholesome relationship.
I know this is sort of an unconventional review, but I’ll end properly: Not only is Emma humorous and well written, it’s full of insight and rich character studies. It’s a novel that has lived two hundred years without losing any of its freshness or power. It will surprise and delight you with every read!
What do you think of Emma?