emmaI 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.

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28 Responses to Emma

  1. whatsheread says:

    You just summed up everything I love about Jane Austen. All of her books have a depth to them that is not self-evident upon an initial read. I think this is especially true of Emma as it is one of those books where readers really have to delve a little deeper to discover what social commentary Ms. Austen is making in it. I’m so glad you enjoyed it the second time around!

    • Jenny says:

      One time, I was on a three-week pilgrimage, backpacking (though not tenting.) I took only two books with me: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Pride and Prejudice. I probably read that book five times during that trip. It makes for some in-depth reflection!

  2. Jeane says:

    It’s lovely that rereading a book you didn’t like much the first time was so rewarding! I admit I haven’t read this one yet myself, will remember your pointers when I do.

    • Jenny says:

      I think all her books reward re-reading, so a first read is fun just for that reason alone — you get to look forward to the re-reading.

  3. Yay. I had to try a few times before I loved Emma, but it’s become maaaybe my favorite Austen book (it vies for first place with Pride & Prejudice; I go back and forth on which I love best, depending on which I’ve read most recently). I do like Emma as a heroine, because even though she is bossy and overbearing, I really respect that she’s able to hear criticism of herself, take it to heart, and alter her behavior in response to it. That is a good way to be.

    • Jenny says:

      I think that’s one of the big things I caught this time through, that I didn’t catch the first time. Also, how funny it is. I always think of P&P as “the funny one,” but this one and Northanger Abbey are an absolute hoot. Persuasion — my own favorite — isn’t really terribly funny, though there are some moments.

  4. Christy says:

    I am definitely an Emma fan, though I’ve heard from many that couldn’t stand the novel because of Emma the character. I like all that you say regarding Miss Bates – I hadn’t recalled that passage describing her.

    • Jenny says:

      I think she’s easily dismissed because she’s so humble, but if you keep your eye out, she’s a wonderful character. And, again, funny!

  5. Lisa says:

    The last time I read this book, I was surprised at how positively Jane Austen describes Miss Bates, because I was so used to the way that Emma finds her boring and tries to avoid her, and makes fun of her. But Austen’s view is much more positive, as you point out.

    I’m so glad that you connected with Emma this time, both the book and the character. It’s one of my favorites as well, though I have a hard time choosing between this and Persuasion.

    • Jenny says:

      A Miss Bates might be easier to live with than a lot of people, don’t you think? And Persuasion is my favorite, closely tied with Pride and Prejudice.

  6. Sanditon is so good, if only for the butter scene. What a loss.

  7. JaneGS says:

    Like you, I disliked Emma (the character) the first time I read it, but with each rereading I like it and the novel more, until now I can say that both are among my favorites (characters and novel). What saves Emma, as you rightly point out, is the goodness of her heart. And yes, I agree that Emma is a dissertation on how much we collectively misunderstand each other.

    • Jenny says:

      I think the fact that I’m older helped me appreciate that more. As a young woman (like Emma) I tended to think I could understand people fairly easily. Life (and copious reading) have taught me that people are very complex and hard to understand.

  8. Stefanie says:

    I used to dislike Emma too but having also just recently reread the book I like it so much better. I was surprised how much more I liked it actually. Not only because I understood all the characters better — loved your analysis of Miss Bates! — but also because it is so tightly plotted and the it and the characters work together so effortlessly. Like you I’m looking forward to reading it again sometime too.

    • Jenny says:

      I didn’t mention the beautiful plot, but you’re absolutely right. It’s a beautifully-structured novel. And it has some wonderful scenes — the strawberry-picking at Box Hill comes to mind, and the ball.

  9. Hi, Jenny. Thanks for your quite talented post on “Emma.” I too have not read “Lady Susan” or “Sanditon,” and have read all the others, but “Emma” vies with “Pride and Prejudice” for me as my favorite. I liked it so much that after reading it numerous times that I also made it through 9 viewings (at theatre prices) of Jeremy Northam’s and Gwyneth Paltrow’s rendition as the two main characters. He was far more compelling (I may be saying this because he’s easy on the eyes, I realize), but her whining nasal drawling delivery of her lines was actually well-suited to convey Emma’s social pretentions, I now realize. Nevertheless, as with what you mention, I also found myself getting annoyed with Emma occasionally. It makes me think of an old nostrum a theatre instructor of mine used to say a lot: “Comedy is for those who think; tragedy is for those who feel.” Behind the vast oversimplicity of the statement lies the truth, I think, that if one is intent on watching how human and fallible and funny people are, “Emma” is funnier, whereas if one approaches it with deep seriousness and gravity, one finds oneself getting one’s feelings hurt first in one direction then in the other as character after character misbehaves and does something or says something relatively unfeeling. And as to Miss Bates, I applaud your insight–the actress who played her in the film version I’ve spoken of was perfect for the part, and I’m sorry that I don’t know her name.

    • Jenny says:

      I think I’ve seen the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma once, but that was back when I didn’t appreciate Emma! I might have to see it again.

  10. Love Persusion and P & P, but I hated Mansfield Park. I guess Emma was an in between for me, but I really loved your review. Maybe its time I have a reread too.

    • Jenny says:

      My mother (a great reader) told me before I read it that Mansfield Park was “a snore.” But when I read it, I didn’t agree. We all encounter literature differently, but I think it’s helpful to re-read something you think you might have missed the first time. I’ve had several good experiences doing that.

  11. Teresa says:

    I liked Emma a lot when I first read it, but I’ve still only managed to read it once. I plan to reread it sometime next year because the JASNA conference in 2016 is focused on Emma, and considering that it’s in DC that year, I think I really should try to go.

  12. Emma has always been my favourite Austen – and Emma herself my favourite Austen heroine – so I’ve never been able to shake the feeling of personal insult when I discover friends and fellow bloggers don’t love the book. Obviously then, I’m thrilled that you’ve had a change of heart towards it! I love your point about the other characters being just as involved in their neighbours’ lives as Emma – her efforts are the most blatant but hardly an anomaly in Highbury. Indeed, it would be a very strange thing indeed to live in a small town and not be fascinated by and involved in your friends and neighbours lives.

    I think what readers can miss – or are unwilling to admit to – on first reading is how like Emma they are themselves, how certain of their own world view and the rightness of their opinions. While Emma is (relatively) quick to see the error of her ways and allow that the tastes of others might not match hers and their ambitions might not match what she had in mind for them but that makes them no less worthy of affection, friendship, and respect, many readers sadly miss that education completely. Their loss!

    • Jenny says:

      What a great comment, Claire. I certainly think Austen is telling us something about the world here, and not only Emma. It’s men and women, old and young, who make these mistakes. And the rest of us as well!

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