Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: The Reader’s Digest Association Inc.
Publishing Date: 1994
Number of Pages: 383 pages
Genre: Comedy of Manners, Romance
“‘I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.’
Beautiful, clever, rich – and single – Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen’s most flawless work. (Source: Goodreads)”
A Sense of Propriety
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was among the first works that has gotten me started with the wonderful (albeit complex) world of classical English literature. It was a great start and since then I have delved in the works of varied English writers like Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot to name a few. Now, it is time to go back once again to my roots with my third Austen work, Emma. Sense and Sensibility was my second which I read last February.
In Emma, we meet Emma Woodhouse who just attended the wedding of her friend and former governess, Miss Taylor, to Mr. Weston. Emma took credit for their marriage as she was the one who introduced them. After her successful endeavor, she sets her eyes on her next “prospect”, her friend Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton, a local vicar. To do so, Emma must convince Harriet to refuse Robert Martin’s marriage proposal. But her plans didn’t go as designed and, in the swirl of confusion, Emma is confronted by malice and the shortcomings of her ways.
Emma, contrary to initial perceptions, is not just the story of one individual. It is a webbed tale of different and complex subjects with the main protagonist as its centrifugal figure. The narrative is an exploration of a plethora of subjects that transcends period.
“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.” ~ Jane Austen, Emma
Feminism, Parenting, and the Ideal English Gentleman
Emma Woodhouse is a very strong person, confident of her own. She is the epitome a strong independent woman. She is testy and very opinionated; she would often find herself engaged in friendly but subtly thought-provoking banters with her sister’s brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley. Emma is the projection of a modern woman in a period where the proverbial male voice drowns out all other noises. In a manner of speaking, Austen channeled her feminist ideals through Emma.
Vis-à-vis feminism, Austen carefully constructed her narrative in order to highlight, in very obscured instances, the glaring disparity between the male and female genders. As one trudges through the narrative, one can discern how most female characters are seen inside the houses while most male characters are seen outside. The drawing rooms of Highbury is an allusion to incarceration; social gatherings and outings are manners in which desires are satisfied.
Through the primary male characters, ideals of masculinity were explored extensively by Austen. Typical ideals of English masculinity such as sexual fidelity, leadership and parenting were carefully embedded in the tapestry of the novel. In dichotomy to Emma’s strong personality, her father is embodiment of parental incompetence; at times, Emma acted more like a father. Meanwhile, Mr. Knightley was the depiction of the true English gentleman. Austen aptly showed the different sides of masculinity.
“Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing; but I have never been in love ; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.” ~ Jane Austen, Emma
Wealth and class also played a key role in establishing an atmospheric narrative. While Emma need not concern herself with wealth in order to gain an advantageous marriage, but it is for this that the gold-digging Mr. Elton proposed to her. Austen vividly delineated the characters into different classes with the Woodhouses and the Knightleys on top. The line becomes clearer when Emma tried to pair Harriet to Mr. Elton. In many an instance, Austen satirized how the nouveau riche view those who belong to the lower classes, e.g. Emma’s unfavorable view apropos Robert Martin.
The highest echelons of Austen’s prose converge not just in Emma the character but Highbury the place. Austen captured the inanities and the nuances of small town living through the fictional town of Highbury – full of color, full verve, and full of characters. It is not only a microcosm of a bigger society, rather, it is, in itself, a living, breathing, character.
Uncharacteristically, Emma, unlike Austen’s other works, is bereft of the elements of romance. There are vestiges of it but the gap is perceptible. It did take a while before the disparity became apparent; readers are too engrossed on the story that this element becomes an afterthought. Hats off to Austen for doing so and showing her flexibility.
“There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart. There is nothing to be compared to it. Warmth and tenderness of heart, with an affectionate, open manner, will beat all the clearness of head in the world, for attraction: I am sure it will.” ~ Jane Austen, Emma
A Party of Characters
Austen is her usual brilliant self in conjuring and developing credible and believable characters. There is a healthy mix of caricatures and deep characters that constantly changes the landscape of the narrative. Their varying characteristics gave the narrative a different complexion.
Emma alone is a brilliant product of imagination. The fact that she annoys a lot of readers is a commendation on Austen’s part as she becomes ingrained in the reader’s mind. It is her story through and through and it was a pleasant experience reading about her journey and her growth. Yes, she is a flawed character so absorbed in herself, but aren’t we all?
Apart from Emma, there is a mix of damsels in distress, old maids, incompetent parents, social climbers, superficial characters, the personification of the ideal English gentleman, and even star-crossed lovers. All of these different and complicated elements swirls in a plot and a narrative that can only be creatively conjured and executed by a genius of a writer like Jane Austen.
“I lay it down as a general rule that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him. If she can hesitate as to “yes”, she ought to say “no” directly”. It is not a state to be safely entered into with doubtful feelings, with half a heart.” ~ Jane Austen, Emma
The seminal point happened during the novel’s conclusion, a fitting ending for a narrative that transported the readers to a different world. It is also this unexpected conclusion that made the reading journey all the more worthwhile. Austen made it sure that the readers are part of Emma’s journey. She laid the stage for an unconventional narrative that enabled readers to understand and appreciate different facets of English society and culture.
Jane Austen’s repertoire showcased the best of English literature yet again through her novel and her story-telling. More importantly, she took a step away from her usual romance-laden writing and showed a different facet of her writing. Emma, my third Austen, showed that she is capable of a lot of things. Emma is a satire, not just of Emma herself but of the behaviors that prevail in different societies.
Love her or hate her, Emma Woodhouse’s impact on the world of literature is undeniable. Emma is a gem that measures up to the best of its generation. Without a doubt, it is going to withstand the tests of time.
About the Author
To learn more about Jane Austen, click here.
The Reader’s Digest version of the book was a delight for it was complimented by illustrations such as the ones below. Placed strategically, they were diversions from the heavy words flowing from the work.