Having read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I decided that for the Austen in August event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader, I would re-read the only one I didn’t really like the first time – Emma. I didn’t hate it on my first reading, but I definitely enjoyed it less than the others, and the problem I had with the book, unfortunately, was the character of Emma Woodhouse herself. I was curious to see whether, on returning to this book after a gap of a few years, my opinion of her would have changed.
Emma is the youngest daughter of Mr Woodhouse of Hartfield and is “handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition”. The story begins just after the marriage of Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, to a widowed neighbour, Mr Weston. Although Emma is sorry Miss Taylor is leaving Hartfield, she is pleased that they have married because she was responsible for introducing them to each other. She decides to continue matchmaking by finding a husband for her new friend, Harriet Smith, but it seems that the man she chooses, Mr Elton, has other ideas. As Emma continues to meddle in other people’s lives, she slowly becomes aware of who she herself is in love with.
Jane Austen herself once said that in Emma she had created a heroine nobody apart from herself would like. This is obviously not true, as I’ve seen so many people name Emma as their favourite Austen novel and talk about how much they love Emma despite her flaws. But the first time I read this book I found it difficult to see past her treatment of Harriet Smith near the beginning of the story and I remember having such a negative reaction to Emma’s character that it spoiled the rest of the book for me.
As several years have now passed since that first read I wanted to give Emma another chance. And guess what? This time I found myself really liking Emma! Her snobbish attitude and superiority still irritated me but I was able to be more tolerant of her faults and to admire the way she learned from her mistakes and grew as a person as the story progressed. Yes, she can be insensitive at times and yes, she causes a lot of trouble by interfering in her friends’ lives, but she does eventually accept that she was wrong.
Although it has been a while since I read this book, I was surprised to find how many little details of the plot I remembered: Harriet’s book of riddles, for example, and the mystery of Jane Fairfax’s piano. Yet this is a very character-driven story, even more so than Jane Austen’s other novels. Nothing very dramatic or exciting happens, but the story is never boring and this is due to the wonderful collection of characters. Mr Knightley is one of my favourite Austen heroes, and who could forget Emma’s hypochondriac father and his obsession with his own health and everyone else’s, the obnoxious Mrs Elton and Miss Bates, who never stops talking. The last three characters I mentioned make this one of Austen’s funniest novels, at least in my opinion! As well as the humour, Emma is filled with clever, sparkling dialogue and insightful observations. I posted some of my favourite quotes last week for the Classics Challenge I’m participating in so won’t repeat them here.
Finally, I liked the way Austen took the time to tie up all the loose ends in this novel. I was happy with the way Emma’s story ended and with Harriet’s – I think everyone probably ended up with the right partner!
Have you read Emma? What is your opinion of Emma Woodhouse?