I have read all of Jane Austen’s major works (meaning that I have not read Lady Susan or Sanditon.) Some of them I’ve read twice, and some I’ve read even more often than that. But back when I was reading Austen for the first time, Emma was my least favorite of her novels. I couldn’t sympathize with any of the characters, and Emma least of all. It seemed to me to be a narrow book about a self-satisfied, meddling, conceited, and rather stupid woman, and I didn’t enjoy it.
But later, I read that Jane Austen wrote about her own plans for Emma, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It struck me that if Austen liked Emma, my aversion might be my problem, and not the novel’s. I’ve just finished reading the book for the second time, and (no surprise here) my opinions have all turned topsy-turvy.
On my first reading, I thought you could probably title the book Emma: A Girl With No More Understanding Than a Walnut. Despite her high opinion of her own perception, she has virtually no capacity to see into anyone else’s feelings, romantic or otherwise, and her misunderstandings, flights of imagination, and lack of insight do harm. This time through, however, my list of walnuts grew longer. No one has any penetration into anyone else’s thoughts or feelings in Emma. The list of people who make mistakes about other people’s romantic leanings is long: Harriet, both Mr. and Mrs. Elton, both Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Mr. Knightley, Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax. Only a handful of people stay out of the mess. All the people in the book consider themselves wise and insightful, but even close friends make bad mistakes about each other’s feelings and ideas.
It is true, too, as I thought on my first reading, that Emma meddles annoyingly in other people’s affairs. She tries her hand at matchmaking with her friend Harriet, first turning away one suitor and then encouraging another. But indeed (as I saw this time), who doesn’t meddle, in this book? The person with her entitled fingers in the most pies is probably Mrs. Elton, but Mr. Knightley, Mrs. Churchill, Frank Churchill, and even Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse are not exempt from the accusation. It seems to be human nature to be blind to the real thoughts and feelings of others, and then to blunder in and try to arrange matters according to our mistakes.
And certainly, Emma is smug and self-satisfied, at first. But she has every reason to be. She’s a big fish in a small pond — her family “of the first consequence” through no merit of her own — and she’s been a bit spoiled all her life. She’s an intelligent woman trapped without much to do, and she doesn’t like either to believe she’s wrong or to do anything tedious. But who does? I don’t. And neither do the Eltons, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley, or Frank Churchill, to name only the most obvious. It’s a common enough complaint. Emma is in part the portrait of a small town — no spectacle except the people in the street; no activities except visiting each other — and it’s no wonder that the heroine takes up matchmaking as an alternative to embroidery, piano, or French.
And Emma, out of all those people, learns and develops. After all, she’s only twenty-one! When her matchmaking goes wrong, she sits and thinks through her actions:
The first error, and the worst, lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more.
Mr. Knightley may be wiser than Emma, but he is nearly twice her age: he has nothing like her excuse for self-satisfaction. Later, when he lectures Emma on her insult to Miss Bates at Box Hill, she takes his words instantly to heart, and changes not only her resolutions but her actions.
The true heroine of the book, in my opinion, is old Miss Bates. This is what Jane Austen has to say about her:
And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal good-will and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved everybody, was interested in everybody’s happiness, quick-sighted to everybody’s merits, thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother, and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to everybody, and a mine of felicity to herself.
This is, to some degree, a meditation on the possibilities of the single woman. Several of Austen’s books put marriage forward as the ultimate goal for a woman (or indeed a single gentleman of good fortune.) This makes sense both economically and personally, particularly for women of this class. Ask Mrs. Bennet: is it possible to be a happy single woman? She might (or might not) agree with Emma herself:
Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid, and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public. A single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid — the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else.
But Miss Bates stands out against Emma’s statement. She is poor, happy, generous, respectable, and well-regarded. If her conversation is sometimes silly or tedious, it’s also kind and harmless: nothing in comparison to the fretful, self-centered Mr. Woodhouse, or the presumptuous, vain, and sometimes vicious Mrs. Elton. Unlike many characters in the book, she does only good, and she is more perceptive than she seems, particularly about her niece Jane. When Emma thoughtlessly insults Miss Bates at Box Hill, we are as shocked as Mr. Knightley is.
Emma takes the blunders of a self-satisfied, slightly-spoiled young woman and shows them to be the property of human nature. Who among us is not blind to our friends and neighbors? Who among us doesn’t prefer the easy path? But Emma also shows us what we can do if we’ll learn from our mistakes and listen to our education and our better selves. It’s a wry, funny, true book. This time, I want to read it again.