BY: Angie Haddock
“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.”
“Emma” is a classic, first published in 1815. Many of you have probably read it, maybe in a lit class at some point, but this was my first time tackling Jane Austen. A quick refresher, for those who read it too long ago to remember the details:
The story is broken into three parts. In Volume I we meet our main characters, including Emma Woodhouse, aged 21, who lives with her father near the town of Highbury. Their closest neighbors include the Westons and Mr. Knightley. Her older sister, who now lives elsewhere, is married to Mr. Knightley’s brother, referred to as Mr. John Knightley. The main story in this volume is that Emma tries to fix up a new friend, one Harriet Smith, with the new hot bachelor in town, Mr. Elton. Harriet is an orphan, attending a boarding school nearby, and comes off as somewhat simple. She is also a few years younger than Emma. Emma is convinced that her own good standing and knowledge of society rules will rub off on Harriet, and that she should “aim high” in finding a suitor – which is why she thinks Mr. Elton is perfect. Also of note is that Emma has sworn off marriage herself, presumably out of duty to tend to her father. Emma thinks her matchmaking plan is working, as Mr. Elton hangs around her and Harriet more and more, but is surprised to learn that he was actually interested in her, not Harriet.
In Volume II we meet a few new characters and get expanded views on other townspeople who were periphery to the story earlier. One of the key figures in this section is Jane Fairfax, who is close to Emma in age. Although she has family in town, she was raised with another, wealthier family elsewhere. Emma dislikes Jane, mostly because everyone else likes her so much and talks about her all the time. It’s a jealousy thing, from what I can tell. Another important figure is Frank Churchill, who was also raised elsewhere, despite being the son of Mr. Weston. Emma was predisposed to dislike him, because of his prolonged absence from his father, but finds that she actually likes him very much. And, she thinks he likes her. Mr. Elton, having been jilted by Emma, comes home from a vacation with a new wife, and Emma cannot stand her. Mrs. Elton talks incessantly and acts haughty, like she is too good for most people in the town.
Various society shindigs happen near the end of Volume II and into Volume III that celebrate these characters – the marriage of the Eltons, and the visits from Miss Fairfax and Mr. Churchill are both reasons for people to get together en masse, and frequently. One key tidbit is that, while at a dance, Mr. Knightley offers to dance with Harriet Smith. Mr. Elton was the only other male not dancing, and he refused to dance with her because of their past – so, Mr. Knightly wanted to save her from being embarrassed. Later, on her way home, Harriet apparently gets jumped by some would-be muggers, who are run off by Frank Churchill.
In talking afterwards about the night’s events, Harriet confesses that she has a new crush. Emma assumes she means Mr. Churchill, as he had saved her from the mugging. As Emma has refused to ever marry, she is supposedly ok with this turn.
The first big twist in Volume III comes when we learn that Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill were secretly engaged all along, even before their arrival in Highbury. Most people are convinced that Emma will be crushed, as it was obvious that she and Frank were close. She is worried, of course, that Harriet will be crushed – in her mind, she had already moved on from Frank so that Harriet could have him.
The next twist comes when Harriet confesses that her new infatuation was actually Mr. Knightley. Suddenly, and seemingly without any previous thought on the matter, Emma is not ok with Harriet aiming quite that high, and decides/realizes that she wants Mr. Knightley for herself. Just as surprising is the fact that Mr. Knightley wants to marry Emma, too!
The first thing I want to address is that, when I started reading this book, I heard a lot of people say they weren’t a fan of Emma – as in, the character. They thought she was spoiled, and meddled too much in everyone else’s business. I definitely see that, but also think – she’s 21. I see her as thinking she knows everything, and figuring out that she does not. That could be said of a lot of 21 year olds.
(Back when I reviewed The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, I gave Coriolanus Snow some similar leeway, for being young and naive. Am I just getting soft as I get older, or is the current state of the world forcing me to be more forgiving? Things to ponder.)
So yea, I had a head’s up that Emma is a bit of a meddler, and I didn’t let it bug me. The book on the whole is decent, and would especially entertain people who like hearing about society balls and the like. It’s not exactly action-packed, but I didn’t expect it to be. Some of the foibles and mix-ups I could see coming from a mile away, and other seemed to just pop out of nowhere.
I knew – again, because the book is part of the pop culture lexicon and referred to in other literature – that Emma would end up with Knightley. And yet, that is the part that seems to just appear, rather than develop over time. Her realization that she wants to marry him comes up about eighty percent of the way through the story. He’d certainly been around the whole time, and had shown himself to be a stand-up kind of guy, but they’d mostly disagreed on all sorts of things throughout the bulk of the book. It was almost like he was trying to correct her on certain things along the way as a method of molding her. She, being fiercely independent, felt free to disagree with him often. And yet, I guess that dynamic “worked” for them? Opposites attract, I guess!
A friend of mine* had said that Emma was her favorite Jane Austen book, and specifically that Mr. Knightley was her favorite love interest of Austen’s writings. Her reasoning:
“I think what I like about him is that he’s very tolerant, tends to do charitable things, doesn’t mind chatting with all sorts, is usually perceptive, and doesn’t mind checking Emma though no one else will. I like his tolerance.”
To which, I replied:
“I could get on board with that.”
Overall, the book was pretty good. And I don’t want to come off like I am against Emma and Mr. Knightley getting together – but I do wish that aspect of the story didn’t seem so hurried.
Do you have a favorite Jane Austen book? Or did you read a classic book this summer? Let us know in the comments!
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