Emma by Jane Austen.

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
in 1820.
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.



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Further Reading
Emma by Jane Austen Read-along: Volume 2 | Dolce Bellezza

♔ Jane Austen's Major Works ♔
 Sense and Sensibility (1811) | Pride and Prejudice (1813) | Mansfield Park (1814)
Emma (1815) | Northanger Abbey (1817) | Persuasion (1817)

Comments

  1. Prof. Stuber wrote a terrific post about Part I earlier today. Lots of people are writing interesting things about Emma!

    The problem of Emma's boredom - of the boredom of talented women out in the provinces (all of 16 miles from London) - is really quite desperate. It was a far more significant theme than I had remembered.

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    1. Thanks for link Tom, I enjoyed reading that! And yes, lots of Emma posts - I think Dolce Bellezza's read-along was very popular!

      It's odd to think they were 16 miles from London because all the places mentioned ARE in London now, the city has swallowed it all. Had to keep reminding myself of that fact.

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  2. It would be quite interesting if you place Emma next to Jane Fairfax, who is handsome, clever and not rich. Compare the 2.

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    1. It would be, but afraid that's beyond me - I couldn't get into it enough. Someone else would make a better job of it, and I'd like to read that :)

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    2. I wrote about that idea last year:
      http://thelittlewhiteattic.blogspot.com/2014/01/jane-fairfax-jane-eyre-other-thoughts.html
      Quite carelessly and badly written, more like a draft, but I'm too lazy to rewrite it now. The general idea is that when you compare the 2, Jane Fairfax makes you realise what advantages Emma has and how spoilt she is and what the consequences are when a young woman has too much time in her hands and nothing to devote her energy to; whereas Emma Woodhouse makes you realise what a different situation it is for another woman, also handsome, also clever, and not rich, in that society, and at the same time, forces you to wonder if Jane's marriage to Frank Churchill would be happy or she only chooses him to escape the governess's life.

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    3. Thanks Di, I'll read that this evening, it sounds very informative. I wish I had have gotten into this novel more and I could share my own ideas, but I just couldn't so my knowledge as you see is very superficial indeed :)

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  3. I quite agree it's a book about alleviating boredom! Although, I found it charming and entertaining. :) I definitely think Emma needs a better outlet for her intelligence. When I read the book, I felt like that was the point. I think when Emma is older, she's going to end up like Lady Catherine de Bourgh!

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    1. Lol, yes, she could! I wish I had enjoyed it, but my re-read of the Austen novels, except this one, was successful - I did love Sense and Sensibility and I hated it the first time!

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    2. That's good enough for me! Sense & Sensibility is the very best of them! :)

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  4. Great points, especially about Emma's boredom. I remember being fascinated by all of the food in the novel. I wrote a college paper on that topic back in college. I believe the thesis had something to do with Austen sending a patriotic message through the motif. It seems so long ago; I forget a little.

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    1. Yes, there did seem to be a lot. Tom (Wuthering Expectations) wrote a post about the food (I've linked it at the top) and one of those illustrations (3rd down on the right) mentions the gruel "You and I will have a nice basin of gruel together"!

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  5. Emma is not an easy book to like and honestly I did not like her at all the first time I read her. However over the years and re-reads I have found much to like in the book, and even become tolerant of Emma who to me is the very epitome of "scatterbrain"; but I like the book for the ensemble cast and I really enjoy the wit. True there is not much plot and it does seem like women have very little to do; but then considering the then society, like you said, it is as honest a picture as it can get!

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    1. Indeed. Maybe one of these days I'll give it another go. I did *try* to enjoy it, and I know it's a clever book :)

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  6. Great review! I've never heard about Emma supposedly inspiring Jane Eyre - I always just assumed it was mostly inspired by Bronte''s personal history as a governess.

    The theme of boredom is an interesting one, I've never thought about it before. Your review has definitely given me a lot to think about when I do my re-read of the book! :)

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    1. On Jane Eyre - I read that on Tumblr I think but I can't find the link. I really don't see it, and I'd say you are completely right - it *was* inspired by her personal history as a governess!

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    2. You might find this interesting:
      http://ariel.ucalgary.ca/ariel/index.php/ariel/article/viewFile/1557/1516
      The author doesn't conclude that Emma inspired Jane Eyre, however. That essay is just a comparison.
      Look at this line:
      "It is a commonplace of criticism to remark that behind the brilliant comedy of Emma lies a much darker novel which was never written, the story of Jane Fairfax, intelligent, beautiful, a gentleman's daughter, who grew up surrounded by love, yet under the shadow of the necessity of earning her bread."

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    3. I'll look at that as well - thanks Di :)

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  7. I'd like to offer another outlook ....... I didn't see Emma as trying to alleviate boredom; instead she was trying to grasp onto life, to do, do, do, only her projects and the manner in which she accomplished them, was a result of an undeveloped (or perhaps underdeveloped is a better word) character. She has passion and is industrious but these qualities are misplaced through a mistaken perception . Once she has some experiences and learns a few lessons, we see her begin to change.

    I also think that Emma is not much liked as a character because she reminds us of ourselves. She is going through an "ugly duckling" stage, which at times can be uncomfortable and painful; who of us haven't gone through that and have had, generally, the same types of experiences. It's something to think about, huh?

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    1. It is, and I'd agree with you - mistaken perception is a major part of the novel most definitely. You're probably right - I do see boredom being a little bit of a problem at least, though :)

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    2. I remember once reading somewhere that if, roughly speaking, Mr Darcy is Pride and Elizabeth Bennet is Prejudice, Emma embodies both.
      I pair Emma with Catherine Morland. They're very different characters, but have 1 thing in common- both have very active imagination and therefore become delusional. Catherine sees Gothic plots everywhere, Emma sees romance plots everywhere. But she means well, that's an important point- why are some readers so hard on Emma? (I think Emma and Mansfield Park are Jane Austen's finest novels, and they're often disliked because of the heroines).
      "I didn't see Emma as trying to alleviate boredom; instead she was trying to grasp onto life, to do, do, do, only her projects and the manner in which she accomplished them, was a result of an undeveloped (or perhaps underdeveloped is a better word) character. She has passion and is industrious but these qualities are misplaced through a mistaken perception . Once she has some experiences and learns a few lessons, we see her begin to change."
      I like this.

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    3. With regard to boredom, I think one could read boredom into Emma's character if one makes her a modern young woman, with the same general desires and worldviews as we have. But she's an early-19th-century woman, and I think, very different. But mostly I didn't see boredom because I didn't see any evidence in the novel that alludes to it. There are comments about a faulty indulgence by those closest to her, and allusions to her stubborn willfulness in her own opinions and views, but I didn't see boredom. In fact, Emma is quite industrious and appears to relish her life instead of having a disinterest in it or a languidness about it.

      Di, I love your pairing of Emma and Catherine Morland (I just finished Northanger Abbey too). And your point about Emma meaning well is well-place. Why do people dislike Emma? Her intentions are to make her friends and family happy. She obviously loves them and wants the best for them, she simply goes about it in the wrong way. In spite of her outcomes, I see that desire as a wonderful quality in her character. As for Mansfield Park, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it. I read it (again, this year for my Austen Project) and gained somewhat more of an appreciation for it. I think it's one of Austen's more mature novels, but some of the characters lack a life to move the novel along. I did appreciate Fanny Price much more than I had previously. When I put myself in her place, to understand her character and the deep respect she had for morality and obedience, I suddenly had an epiphany. She goes against her benefactor and refuses his wishes. Just wow! The courage and fortitude it took to make that decision made her a true heroine in my eyes. She was actually going against her own nature to do what she believed was right.

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    4. Speaking of boredom, Emma Woodhouse is in some ways similar to another Emma: Emma Bovary. She's better, of course.
      Regarding mistaken perception, check out this post: http://petergalenmassey.com/2012/05/30/what-massey-reads-emma-by-jane-austen/
      Mansfield Park is my favourite Jane Austen novel.

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  8. The boredom theme is definitely in the text, especially clearly stated in the first few pages, e.g. "she was now in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude" etc.

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    1. Hmmm ..... I guess I simply didn't read it that way. I've experienced intellectual solitude and longed for stimulating conversation, but it didn't mean that I was bored. And the "intellectual" indicates an inner sort of desire, whereas it's Emma's actions that are the focus in the book. In any case, I'll have to go back and see if I can dig up something more.

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    2. Follow the hilarious "resources" theme.

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