Emma is Jane Austen's fourth published novel, published in 1815 - 200 years ago this month, in fact and I read it as part of Dolce Bellezza's read-along to celebrate this. So, I've now read the novel twice but, though it seems to be one of the more popular Austens, it's possibly one of my least favourite books (and I did try really hard this time to like it!).
Emma Wodehouse is, as the opening paragraph says,
... handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
|The dedication in Emma to the|
Prince regent, who was to become
George IV after his father's death
Jane Austen wrote of her character before the novel was started, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." With me, at least, Austen was successful! At the start of the novel we learn how Emma has successfully matched her governess Miss Taylor with Mr. Weston and having just attended their wedding she resolves to use her 'talent' again and set up her friend Harriet Smith with the vicar, Mr. Elton (against the advice of her friend Mr. Knightley). From here, the loves and lovers get somewhat complicated: Harriet is in love with Robert Martin, Emma convinces her to 'withdraw from his affections' so to speak, whilst Mr. Elton imagines Emma to be in love with him yet marries someone else, leaving Harriet in a rather distressing position. Then arrives Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax (it is suggested by some that Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre was inspired by Jane Austen's Jane Fairfax: I really can't see that, but I thought I'd mention it): Emma likes Frank very much indeed, but not Jane. Mr. Knightley defends Jane, and it's suggested that he feels some affection towards her, which doesn't go down well with Emma. Then, having seen that Frank Churchill is an unsuitable match for her, she decides to pair him up with Harriet. And so it goes on.
Despite best efforts, I struggled to find the plot or Emma herself interesting or engaging. But that's probably rather unkind of me, and Emma is certainly not a bad book. It's a good book about women and class in Regency England. A good marriage was crucial for women in that period, as it brought the very necessary wealth and status. The problem of who to marry was not merely a matter of who one was in love with - the right match was tricky, and, were it even possible, the lower class marrying into the upper class would raise questions (to say the least) - marrying 'up' was one thing, marrying 'down' quite another. Marriage in all its difficult forms was the focus of many women then - the goal, the raison d'être - other activities seem dull and trivial. All of this is compounded by Emma's rather disagreeable personality - her arrogance and snobbery, but despite this it is possible (for some) to find her likeable and sympathetic. And though these themes could be quite dark (I'd love to see Flaubert or Zola write this book!) Emma is a light and almost airy read - a perfect comedy of manners. Above all else, what I took from it, it's a novel about alleviating boredom. Though I didn't like Emma Wodehouse, she was quick and bright and her energies would have been best spent on something other than other people's marriages. In that climate, however, that would have been a challenge.
To finish, here's some of C.E. Brock's wonderful illustrations from the 1909 edition:
She only gave herself a saucy conscious smile about it, and found amusement in detecting - Emma as undetectable detective fiction | Wuthering Expectations
After a little more discourse in praise of gruel… - Emma's food, Emma's jokes | Wuthering Expectations