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!