Emma by Jane Austen: First Impressions

Emma has long been a favourite novel of mine. It was the first Austen I ever read; I have since read it about ten times. Each re-read highlights the cleverness of Austen’s characterisation, the multi layered, intricate plotting and the hilarity of her arch wit. I know some people can’t stomach Emma Woodhouse, but I absolutely love her. She is a fantastic heroine because she is so human; she makes catastrophic errors of judgement, is a dreadful snob, thinks she knows best about everything, and can be very unfeeling towards those less fortunate than herself. For me, it’s like looking in the mirror!! However, Emma manages to be all of these things and yet remain utterly endearing. This is down to Austen’s skill in drawing three dimensional characters. Emma could be insufferable; she has all the ingredients to be the most odious heroine ever created (apart from Fanny Price, obviously). However, Austen’s narrative voice is wonderful at revealing Emma’s softer side. Emma has frequent moments of doubt and regret; she never fails to recognise when she has done a wrong and she is the first to criticise herself and resolve to do better when she realises that she has stepped out of line. Her heart is always in the right place and she never intentionally means to wound; she acts in what she genuinely believes to be the best interests of others. If she occasionally has a lapse of judgement, can she be blamed? She is only ‘one and twenty’, after all, and a very sheltered and spoiled one and twenty year old at that. As the novel opens, Emma has only just lost the company of her adoring governess, who has never uttered a cross or corrective word to her in all her formative years. Her father thinks she is perfect, as does her sister. The fact that she is so self reflective and quick to admit her own faults is actually quite remarkable, considering her upbringing.

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, influence on Emma’s moral development is that of her brother in law, Mr Knightley, who is sixteen years her senior, owner of the considerably larger neighbouring estate of Donwell Abbey and a much respected and admired member of the local community. Mr Knightley does not approve of the way Emma has been pandered to all her life and is always quick to bring her up when he feels she has behaved wrongly or erred in judgement. He is sensible, forthright, clear sighted and fair, and he truly values Emma and wants to bring out the best in her. Every time I re-read this book, I see the symptoms of his love for her earlier and earlier; this time around, I could see it even in their very first dialogue, after Miss Taylor’s wedding. “Emma knows I never flatter her,” says Mr Knightley (and you can just imagine the wry smile on his face as he says it!), but this is actually a compliment rather than a criticism. He doesn’t flatter Emma because he knows flattery does her no good. He cares so much for her that he risks her displeasure in attempting to make amends for Miss Taylor and Mr Woodhouse’s indulgence. Mr Knightley sees Emma exactly as she is; a clever, warm hearted, generous and witty girl, whose tendencies for laziness and an inflated ego have been allowed to go unchecked and to marr her better qualities. The fact that he sees her faults and loves her regardless is knee-weakeningly romantic and I love how cross he gets when Emma irritates him with her inability to see her errors, and how jealous he is when Emma praises other men. Their disagreement over Harriet’s refusal of Robert Martin was particularly enjoyable to read; what a sparring match! In standing up to Emma, Mr Knightley provides her with her only true intellectual and moral challenge. I have spent pretty much the entire time I have been reading this novel with my hand pressed to my chest in glee at how much I fancy the pants off Mr Knightley. Sorry to bring down the tone, but seriously; I want one!

This time around, I have been particularly intrigued by the sheer number of periphery characters who have a key role in events. Gossip is a major player in Highbury life; news of even the most trivial nature gets passed around like wildfire and everyone knows everyone else’s business within minutes of said business occurring. There is no privacy, no escape; if Miss Bates doesn’t pin you down to talk about the latest news from Jane Fairfax, Mrs Goddard will stop you in the street to inform you of what she overheard Mr Elton telling Mr Cole in the lane that morning. There is no discretion and no real divide between the classes; Emma Woodhouse’s personal life is no more sacred than Miss Bates’ when it comes to topics for tea-time chat. This environment of gossip is actually very important, as we are able to see beyond Emma’s rather unreliable viewpoint and have events related to us by third parties on a frequent basis. This not only allows for a wider perspective, but also gives us our first clues as to Emma’s inadequacies. I am so used to the story of Emma that I can no longer be hoodwinked by her, but I remember on my first reading that I had no idea of Mr Elton liking Emma and was totally convinced that he was in love with Harriet. Mr Knightley and his brother might have seen the truth of the matter, but they had access to Mr Elton in more informal settings where they had the opportunity to learn more about his character. As such, Emma’s lack of judgement and misunderstanding of Mr Elton’s behaviour can be excused, to a point. However, when we realise that Mrs Cole had been aware of Mr Elton’s regard all along: “A Miss Hawkins! Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever – Mrs Cole once whispered to me – but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr Elton is a most worthy young man, but -‘ ” (says Miss Bates), we begin to question Emma’s judgement. There is no smoke without fire, after all. Austen ensures that we are exposed to the wider community’s viewpoint so that we can make a balanced judgement on events. Though, like Emma herself, we are ultimately left to our own devices to make up our minds, and Austen makes it very easy for us to only see what we want to see.

The cleverness of Emma‘s plot cannot be underestimated; there are so many meanders up garden paths that it is very easy for the reader to find themselves hopelessly wrong about the intentions of the characters and shocked at the turn of events. Austen leaves enough clues for us to come to the right conclusions, but she masks them with the help of very unreliable characters. Mr Elton’s preference of Emma over Harriet is actually quite obvious on a second reading, but on the first reading, we have no idea that Emma is not to be trusted and we find ourselves unable to think outside of her reasoning. When Frank Churchill arrives on the scene, it is only with hindsight that we realise he has turned up directly after Jane Fairfax has arrived. He has been putting off his visits to Highbury for years, but all of a sudden he finds himself with two weeks to spare? Obviously he has another motive, but we don’t think about that until all is revealed much later on. This is because Mrs Weston has laid a very interesting booby trap across our path; she has sown the seed of a potential romance between Mr Knightley and Jane. In the scene at the Cole’s, Frank, again in hindsight, is quite obviously working to manoeuvre his way over to Jane at every possible interval, but we don’t see this because we are too busy trying to work out whether there is any truth in Mrs Weston’s conjecture. Emma’s shock and consternation at such a suggestion is enough to make us worry; Emma surely wouldn’t be so bothered if she didn’t see any truth in it. So, we are deliberately sidetracked, even though the romance between Jane and Frank is going on right underneath our noses. How clever Austen is; in writing the plot in this way, she creates a novel that gives much more pleasure on subsequent readings than the first, building in richness the more times we return to it.

I think Emma is the cleverest and most intricate of Austen’s novels. She really makes the reader work hard, and that is a major part of the immeasurable pleasure that I find in reading it. We must unravel the partialities and prejudices of Emma’s mind, weigh them up against the evidence we hear from the other residents of Highbury and come to our own conclusions on the myriad of mysteries and intrigues that arrive to tease us. Who does Mr Elton love? Is Emma doing right in warning Harriet off Mr Martin? Why did Frank Churchill take so long to come to Highbury? Why is Jane Fairfax so reserved? Is Frank Churchill a little too good to be true? Why has the lovely Mr Knightley never married? It’s just simply wonderful. I love every second of reading Emma, and frequently laugh out loud at the characters, who come alive off the pages with their perfectly nuanced dialogue accompanied by the always pithy narrative voice. There is so much more to discuss and explore and I’m really looking forward to digging deeper as I continue reading. I hope some of you will join me!

45 comments

  1. Oh Dear! ‘Emma’ was one of my set texts for ‘A’ level and was taught by someone who should never have been allowed to become a teacher. As a result it took me the best part of a year to read it and the fact that I was still reading ‘Emma’ became a standing family joke. Of course I’ve been back and read it since and I can appreciate what an excellent book it is, but I shall never love it as I do the others I’m afraid. However, I am definitely with you where Mr Knightly is concerned. I want one too!

    1. I had to do Emma for A level as well, but thankfully my teacher was wonderful so I was very lucky!

      I’m so sorry that your experience of Emma has been tainted – maybe in the future you will grow to find an affection for it as last!

      I’m glad I’m not the only one…if only I could meet a Mr Knightley, my life would be perfect!!

  2. I love your reviews. I read Emma over thirty years ago and it was a disappointment so I’ve never gone back to it. But your review describes a book that I barely recognise – and that’s not all down to failing eyesight and the ravages of time on my part! I clearly didn’t pick up on so much in this book – you bring it alive and make it sound like a geniine pleasure to read! So, while I might be thirty years late, I’ll give Emma another go.

    1. Thank you, Col, what a kind compliment! Emma is definitely a book that gives its richest rewards on second and subsequent readings so I would highly recommend you going back to it- I hope you’ll see more of the magic next time around!

  3. I completely agree with you! I find Emma to be one of the most relatable of Austen’s heroines. She means well, but she makes really terrible errors. Who among us hasn’t done the same thing? Thanks for your lovely review. I want to revisit this book now! Of course, I really ought to read the other Austen novels – can you believe, despite being a huge fan, I’ve never read Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey?! So many books, so little time… ๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I’m glad to hear it, Samantha! I know – exactly. We’re all Emmas on the inside! Well if you ask me, Emma is streets ahead of Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey…you’ll get far more enjoyment from re-reading Emma than reading either of those two I am sure!

  4. Wow, you’ve made me want to read Emma now! I’ve yet to read anything by Austen and have been meaning to get to P&P for a while now. Actually I think I’ve started Austen before, when I was younger, and just couldn’t understand or appreciate it. So reading it now is probably for the best. I’m starting to understand though how the writers of classics put so much thought and effort into their books. There are so many layers and so much thoughtfulness and that’s why these novels have endured for so long. What a great review!๐Ÿ™‚

    1. Good! Never read anything by Austen?! Surely not! I think you definitely do appreciate the classics more as you get older, as your life experience adds so much to your understanding. Once you start Austen I’m sure you’ll fall in love – Emma is a wonderful place to start! Glad you enjoyed the review๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Oh, I do enjoy it when people do wonderful reviews of books that I love! Emma is such an endearingly human heroine, who gets hold of the wrong end of the stick,and makes wrong decisions, but always admits her mistakes. And the secondary characters are all so well drawn.I can read it over and over again, and get something different from each time.

    1. I’m so pleased you enjoyed it, Christine! I know, she is wonderful, and so are the other residents of Highbury – you can’t help but love them and feel involved and interested in their lives. I always notice something new every time I pick Emma up – it’s such a gift of a novel.

  6. I love Emma too, it’s somehow more ‘edgy’ than other Austen novels, maybe due to Emma’s flaws and her unpleasant side!

  7. Flying home this evening to Melbourne after two weeks in the North Queensland tropics. I’ll ransack my bookshelves to find my copy of Emma this week as I’d love to join in on the discussion. I’ve been reading Villette and can’t wait to hear your thoughts on Lucy Snowe!

    1. Lisa I need to FIND my copy of Villette – it’s gone walkabout. I look forward to hearing your opinions though, and your thoughts on Emma!

  8. I’m with you all the way here. It is a brilliantly constructed novel and as you say, all sorts of things appear on a second reading that you miss on the first. It’s really like a detective novel in that way, I think — the clues are there but it’s so cleverly done that we are constantly following red herrings instead. Lovely review.

    1. Yes exactly – it’s so cleverly constructed. Perhaps there is an argument for it being a detective novel – just without an actual detective! The reader becomes the detective, and so multi layered is the plot that even the most astute can get hopelessly lost!

  9. ‘Persuasion’ is the first Jane Austen novel I ever read and it’s still my favorite. But ‘Emma’ is definitely on my list of the books I’ve re-read most often.

    I adore Emma, she’s so funny and misguided. I think she really is a good person but she makes mistakes because she’s a terrible judge of character. And aren’t we all, at 21? Give her a couple of years, and she will be a good and intelligent woman, without this ridiculous mania for match-making. I think she will make Mr. Knightly a very good wife indeed.

    In every Jane Austen novel, there are characters that – I think – deserve a novel all to themselves. In ‘Emma’, Jane Fairfax is one of those characters. She really needs to star in a story of her own. And I’m afraid she is much too good for Frank Churchill. (I never liked him.) I think Jane Fairfax’s story would be a lot like Mansfield Park (poor girl in a difficult position trying to stay true to herself and the man she loves) but I think there would be no ‘wars’ about Jane, as she seems to have a much stronger personality and I think she would be heroine that everyone would like.

    Have you seen the adaptation with Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma? I think that film gets the tone of the book just right. And Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightly …. Need I say more?

    1. There is a book about Jane Fairfax called “Jane Fairfax” by Joan Aiken. I have read it twice and do like it. Austen in Boston read it and most seemed to like it as well. (Disclaimer: I’m a Jane Fairfax fan, although I do prefer an open temperment(per Mr. Knightley Emma 09, my favorite Emma).

      1. Thank you for pointing out this book. I usually think it’s a bad idea for a writer to go where Austen has gone before, but this one seems to get a lot of good reviews so I might give it a try.

    2. Hi Elke, I’m so pleased you are such a fan of Emma!

      I completely agree with you about Jane Fairfax. She’s such a mysterious character and one with a lot of depth that could have been explored further. Her story of being brought up in another family’s home, with the constant knowledge that she will never be able to have the life her best friend enjoys is so touching and as you say, has many parallels to Fanny in Mansfield Park – and also to Jane Eyre. I’d have loved it if Jane Austen had written a stand alone novel about her and I quite agree – she’d be much more likeable than Fanny!

      Yes I have – I have always very much enjoyed it. The recent TV adaptation – I think by the BBC – was excellent as well, though, and I think I may have liked it even more.

  10. Aw, Emma. I really identify with Emma for thinking she knows what’s best for everybody. Bless her heart. I might possibly like Emma better than Pride and Prejudice — not saying I DO, just saying I MIGHT. I get a kick out of all the mistakes Emma made, and plus, Clueless exists, which drags Emma up another notch.

  11. Emma was my least favourite Austen – not for any particular reason really except that I just liked the others, particularly P&P and Persuasion, better – until I reread it a few years ago and I fell in love with it. Now I’m not sure what my least favourite is!

    This is a lovely review, btw, and captures the things that grabbed me on my latest read. The plotting is superb … reading it when you know the story is such a delight because you can see what she is doing while loving it at the same time.

    I have just read and reviewed another section of her letters and in this group has to be the inspiration for Miss Bates – an old lady who gets in the way but she recognises (as Emma doesn’t until almost too late) that she deserves respect (if only because we could all be there one day). I love how her letters illuminate her ideas and attitudes.

    1. I’m glad you gave it another chance and have no fallen in love with it – Emma is definitely a grower and needs a second read at least for its true brilliance to be appreciated!

      Thank you! I’ll have to look at your review – I need to get a copy of her letters. I did have one but I had to leave it behind when I moved!

  12. I think ‘Emma’ is the most fun Austen novel to read. It’s just pure pleasure and always makes me laugh and become completely absorbed in the little world of Highbury. Emma’s flaws add to her likeability – she is definitely far from perfect but in many ways she is so innocent and just wants everyone to be happy. She’s so involved dreaming up perfect lives for others, it leaves her completely blind to her own feelings and desires. I love that she is so full of life and always coming up with ideas (even if they are rather misguided). Can’t wait to reread this one!๐Ÿ™‚

    1. I quite agree, Lucy – it is pure fun. Nothing bad happens to anyone and it really is just an entirely pleasant and positive reading experience. I love Emma and her exuberance, and also her ability to see her own faults. She is marvellous! I hope you can re-read soon!๐Ÿ™‚

  13. What a wonderful review. I love ‘Emma.’ Like you say, it’s a tremendously fun and witty book. I haven’t reread it in ages, but I have such fond memories of it and consider it my favorite Austen novel. I completely agree with your assessment of Emma Woodhouse. I just adore herself–she is so endearingly oblivious and such a sparkling personality. Wow, you’ve really made me want to revisit this book now! It’s just such a gem!

  14. Emma was my first Austin and loved it too. I have reread it several times since plus dramatisations and never tire of it. Emma laid the foundation for the rest for me and which has also given me much pleasure.

  15. ‘I have spent pretty much the entire time I have been reading this novel with my hand pressed to my chest in glee at how much I fancy the pants off Mr Knightley. Sorry to bring down the tone, but seriously; I want one!’

    Amen, sister! Where are all the Mr Knightleys lurking?๐Ÿ˜‰

    Emma is, strangely enough, one of two Austen novels I have read only once (the other being MP). But along with P&P, I watch adaptions of this story the most often — it’s so dear to my heart. I really like that you’ve pointed out how Austen fans tend to take the nuances of plot and how it unfolds in her texts for granted. At this point, we know them so well, we forget the magic of coming to one of her stories for the first time.

    It does me good to remember the wonder I felt on my first readings. I already knew Lizzy and Darcy married, but the agony of wanting to know just how it all came about led to, ahem, reading at a funeral. Willoughby broke my heart with his betrayal of Marianne. Captain Wentworth’s letter to Anne left me weak in the knees (still does!) and has the distinction of being referred to amongst my literary group as The Letter — as if it were the only one! And, like you, I remember being shocked by Elton’s seemingly sudden proposal. How could I have allowed myself to be just as blind as Emma?!

    Jane Austen: Magic.๐Ÿ™‚

    P.S. Even though George Knightley is the brother to Emma’s brother-in-law, does that make Emma and Knightley in-laws? I was always confused by this point and what their exact relation was?

      1. Yes, agreed – Mr John Knightley is Emma’s brother in law but Mr Knightley is technically no official relation to her, though he is part of her extended family through his brother’s marriage to her sister and also the shared interest they have in their joint nieces and nephews.

    1. Oh, Diana! There needs to be more Mr Knightleys in this world, doesn’t there?!

      I love your descriptions of those magical moments on first reading Austen – sometimes I wish I could go back to my first time and enjoy being surprised again. However, in a way, I am surprised whenever I re-read, because I am still always finding new details I didn’t notice before and I can’t help but be on tenterhooks even though I know there will be a happy ever after!

      They are not in-laws, no – but extended family nonetheless.

  16. Rachel, I am so happy that you wrote a post about rereading “Emma.” It is my favorite Austen novel, and like you I have reread it many times. I love Emma because she is so real. She learns from her mistakes and she grows as a person, something we all do throughout life. Austen is endlessly appealing because her books are filled with truths about human nature and life in general. I think I am now inspired to reread this book again!

    1. Sunday, it’s always a joy to hear people say Emma is their favourite – I think for pure enjoyment, it’s my favourite too. There’s so much going on and I just love her and I love the world she lives in. Austen brings Highbury completely to life and it is pure bliss to be immersed into that environment and get to know the myriad of eccentric residents! You are quite right – Austen is so timeless because her books contain so much essential truths about human nature. Times change but people don’t!

  17. Emma was my first Austen novel as well and I agree with you on all counts. It’s one of my favorites (with P&P and Persuasion rounding out the top three) and I think of all Austen’s novels, it’s the one I would most like to step into and live within, and not just because Emma’s one of the most well off of all her heroines! I’ve always had such a vivid image of Highbury in my mind. It seems like one of Austen’s most charming settings.

    1. I’m glad to hear it! I think Emma is definitely not given the attention it deserves. Yes – now you mention it, Highbury does seem to come alive in a way that her other settings doesn’t. We really are invited to become a part of the community and there is a wide cast of interesting characters from all different walks of life – it’s a wonderful novel and one you really do feel like you could live in!

  18. What a delightful review, thank you – and it’s so good to know how many other readers actually like Emma, too! I only started reading Austen’s novels a couple of years ago, but Emma has fast become my favourite, for exactly the reasons mentioned above. I imagine Emma and Mr Knightley to be the strongest of Austen’s couples (yes, even counting Darcy and Lizzie!), simply because they are equals who know each other better than they know themselves – married life for them will be interesting, but always ‘perfect happiness’!

    1. Thanks for your lovely comment, Sarah! I’m glad that Emma has become a favourite and I agree with you entirely – they are a very strong couple because they have had years of getting to know one another and have a deep friendship that will be the foundation of their romantic relationship. I love them, though I am rather jealous of Emma!

  19. A minor footnote, but have you noticed that this is the only Austen novel that describes what they’re eating … penny only dropped for me when I got hold of Persephone’s Mrs Rundell, don’t know whether there was a copy in the Austen household but I did once sit down and check and all the recipes are there! Of course, it was typical food of the day so that’s not to say that Mrs A owned a copy.
    PS Don’t marry a Mr Knightley … you will soon be biting his head off when you get fed up with him correcting your flawed character.

    1. Now you mention it, Mary, yes! I was quite intrigued by all the dishes mentioned…I will have to have another look!

      Well yes that is true…I have far too many flaws to have them constantly picked upon!!

  20. What a wonderful review, this was very elegantly written. I have recently finished Emma, and have fallen in love with Jane Austen’s works, I completely agree with you about Emma, despite her being a dreadful snob I absolutely love her, and she’s my favourite character (although Mr Knightley comes a very close second).

    I will be aiming to read more Jane Austen books in the future. Is there any you would personally recommend?

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