emmaI read Emma for the first time about 20 years ago. I liked it very much, but it didn’t become a favorite. In fact, it took me 20 years to get around to it again, and I only returned to it because I had decided to attend the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting this weekend. The theme of the weekend was “Emma at 200: No One But Herself.” I enjoyed the second reading of Emma very much, but attending the conference enhanced my appreciation of this complex book even more. Many of my musings here will build on insights I gained at the meeting.

Aside from Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, Emma Woodhouse is perhaps Austen’s least liked heroine. And the reputation is, in some respects, deserved—more so than Fanny’s. Emma is an interfering know-it-all who talks Harriet Smith out of an advantageous marriage to a man she loves, throws her at a man who has no interest in her, and looks down on many of her neighbors for no good reason, even going so far as to openly insult one of them in public. However, Emma is young and she learns from her mistakes—even if it’s slow going at times.

One of the things that I found striking on this second reading is how isolated Emma is. Highbury is a tiny town, and Emma is at the top of the class structure there. Many of her actions could be her way of asserting and maintaining that status because it’s all she has. She befriends Harriet Smith because Harriet agrees with her in all things, something Jane Fairfax would be less likely to do. Harriet is not a threat in the way that Jane is. But, the truth is, Jane’s situation is far more precarious than Emma’s, which perhaps explains her clinging to an obviously terrible engagement with a cad like Frank Churchill.

In “Funny Lady: Dangerous Humor and Female Empowerment in Emma,” Mackenzie Broderick pointed out that Emma is really a black comedy. The prose may sparkle, but when you look at what’s actually happening, the story is pretty bleak. Jokes are how characters assert their power, but they also reveal people at their worst, as is seen in Emma’s insult to Miss Bates at Box Hill. But, as a woman, Emma knows what it is to be on the other side of the power structure, and so she understands her error and is horrified about it—and she didn’t need Knightley to point out how wrong she is. She knew it right away. But if she wasn’t able to see that and change her ways, Emma could easily turn into another Lady Catherine de Bourgh, a point made by Rebecca Posusta in a presentation titled “Who’s Afraid of Miss Bates?”

Indeed, many of Emma’s actions seem both more selfish and more understandable when you look at her prospects. She’s been confined to this tiny town, more so than she needs to be. In “The Post Office Is a Wonderful Establishment: Epistolary Novels, Private Space, and Postal Culture in Regency England,” L. Bao Bui, pointed out that she’s not been to Box Hill, only seven miles away; she hasn’t been to the shore; and despite being 16 miles from London and having a sister there, she does not go to London for the season. Frank Churchill could go to London ostensibly for a haircut. Emma has not been in society enough. She’s not had to pay deference to anyone, except her father. She clings to her status as Highbury’s alpha female because it’s all she has.

As for Emma’s father, I originally saw him as a comic figure, but the more I think about it, the more troubling I find him. Much of Emma’s plight can be blamed on his unwillingness to let her go. Look at the novel’s supposed happy ending, where Mr. Woodhouse consents to Emma’s marriage only because there have been robberies nearby and he decides they’ll be safer with Mr. Knightley in the house. The tone there is cheerful, but really? People criticize Mrs. Bennett all the time, but at least she’s looking out for her daughters. Aside from trying to control everyone else’s diet, Mr. Woodhouse looks out only for himself. The whole town walks on eggshells around him, and the more I think about it, the more unsettling it gets.

I know many people really love Mr. Knightley, but I continue to find him one of Austen’s blander heroes. On the first read, I was genuinely surprised when he and Emma ended up together. It hadn’t occurred to me, and I felt then (and to some degree still feel) that they’re together because there’s no one else around for either of them. And I’m a little unsettled by the fact that his primary role has been to chide and instruct her, even if he does so out of kindness and happens to be right. What does that say about feminine power in the world of the novel? Must a woman like Emma always be directed by a man?

Emma, more than Austen’s other novels, is about the heroine’s personal growth. Mackenzie Broderick noted in her presentation that it is Emma’s flaws that drive the plot of the novel. The marriage plot seems beside the point. And when I start trying to make the marriage plot essential, I don’t like the implications. Is Knightley a Petruchio to Emma’s Katherine? None of the sessions I attended at the AGM dug into their relationship, but there’s plenty there to think about.

For more on my JASNA AGM experience, check out my post at Book Riot.

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26 Responses to Emma

  1. Gubbinal says:

    It’s always great to read thoughts about Emma. I really think you’ve hit at the core of her character: how confined and dull it must be to look after her father all of the time. Emma may not be a genius, but she’s so much brighter than many of the people around her. She treats Harriet like a malleable doll, but isn’t that the way her father has treated her? She has the ways and means to go to London, for example, but will not leave her father. Highbury, the village, is what people today might call a dysfunctional family.

    Austen’s novels keep on giving in different ways and rereading Austen is always a pleasure. Austen herself thought that nobody would like Emma but her—the author. And I can see how an ebullient young lady would need outlets in Highbury for her spirits to range.

    • Teresa says:

      When I think about how Emma’s father acts, I can’t help but feel sorry for her. And I *love* your description of Highbury as a dysfunctional family. And Emma has little chance to escape.

  2. Sylvie says:

    I agree that Emma improves significantly with age. Not as much as Persuasion perhaps, but it has certainly moved up on my Austen list since I first read her novels as a teen and in college. This is for all the reasons you cite, but especially for my changing perceptions of each character, particularly Emma and her father. Didn’t Austen say Emma was her favorite heroine (or something like that)?

    • Teresa says:

      I know Austen said Emma was a heroine no one but her was going to like, and I think a case could be made for her being the most complex. A couple of presenters talked about how in Emma, Austen is reimagining what a heroine can be. Jane Fairfax is a much more typical heroine.

  3. Jeanne says:

    I’ve always reacted to Mr. Knightley as a fit match for Emma because, as she tries to control the actions of those around her, he is also caught up in his role as dispenser of noblesse oblige, and so they have both spent a lot of time trying to control what others do, mostly with good intentions.
    The love story works for me because Knightley loves her–not just despite everything she does, but because of everything she does. There’s nothing she could do that would make him turn away.

    • Teresa says:

      You make a good case for Knightley! The fact that he loves her and, I think, sees her good heart in her meddling is an asset. For me, though, their marriage just felt tacked on. I was hoping I’d see the romance build throughout on the second reading, but I just didn’t. Then again, I guess if Emma’s feelings shot through her like an arrow, there wasn’t so much build-up, just a sudden realization.

  4. Karen K. says:

    Great insights to Emma, who is not my favorite heroine (though there are elements of the story that I really enjoy.) I’ve always found it a little icky that Mr. Knightley held Emma as a baby — and he was an adult — then married her! I do think there are some great comic characters, especially Mrs. Elton, who is just deliciously awful.

    And I am so envious that you got to go to the AGM! I went several years in a row but this year I’m across the pond and it was just too far (though I am dying to go to the Kansas City AGM when they’ll be focusing on Persuasion, my favorite Austen novel.) Please post more about the AGM, I’d love to hear more about what you did and saw! Did you go to the ball? Did you dress up? I went to Louisville last year and LOTS of people dressed and danced, it was so fun!

    • Teresa says:

      Mrs. Elton is so much fun, and I don’t feel the discomfort about her as I do about Mr. Woodhouse as a comic character.

      I wrote a post for Book Riot on the AGM. I’ll add a link here when it goes up. I was lame and didn’t go to the ball–not staying in the hotel meant paying for parking again if I’d gone back after the break. I mostly just went to the lectures. But I did try on a ball gown at Ford’s Emporium! The Kansas City AGM will be tempting because I love Persuasion so much. And the 2019 AGM in Williamsburg, VA, will be an easy trip, even if the Northanger Abbey focus doesn’t hold the same appeal. But it would be fitting, given that I read NA for the first time when I was a college student in Williamsburg!

  5. A weekend devoted to Emma? That sounds like bliss. It is by far my favourite Austen and Emma, with her many imperfections, is one of my favourite heroines. If you’re looking for more perspectives on her (or on any Austen book or character), I strongly recommend Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern’s two books: Speaking/Talking of Jane Austen and More Talk of Jane Austen (titles vary between UK and American editions). They write the most wonderfully detailed essays about all Austen characters but are particularly devoted to Emma.

    • Teresa says:

      It was a great weekend–like a long, intensive book club where everyone actually talks about the book. And thanks for those book suggestions. I believe JASNA will put all the papers from the meeting online as well, and I’m looking forward to seeing some of the ones I missed.

  6. Jenny says:

    Thanks for giving some detail on the talks you heard. This sounds like so much fun to go to. Wish I’d been there myself!

  7. Alice Moore says:

    Greatly enjoyed your talk on “Faultless Emma” and the Q&A afterwards. Lots of food for thought. I think Emma needed a job or some useful outlet. But living at a time when that was impossible for a single woman of her standing, and being surrounded by enablers (except for Knightly), her personal growth was remarkable. I see why she is considered Austen’s most complex heroine. Thanks again for your talk at the AGM!

    • Teresa says:

      I so agree that Emma needed some sort of outlet, and I wish she could have gotten out into the wider world more. It’s one way that the ending leaves me still a little sad.

      And I didn’t give that presentation. I believe the presenter just linked to this post. But it sounds like a good one!

      • Sarah Emsley says:

        Thanks so much for this wonderful blog post, Teresa! I didn’t get to hear any of the talks you describe, and it’s great to get a glimpse of what was happening in other sessions. With eight or nine scheduled at the same time, it’s always hard to choose. At least we all get to hear the same plenary speakers. I hope you and I will get a chance to meet at the AGMs in 2018 and/or 2019.

      • Teresa says:

        I heard great things about some of the talks I missed, so I’m looking forward to reading the papers in Persuasions. There was too much to choose from, but it’s a good problem to have!

    • Sarah Emsley says:

      Thanks, Alice! I’m delighted to hear that you enjoyed my talk. Yes, Emma’s options are certainly limited. I love the way Jane Austen shows her learning to pay closer attention to the world around her. It’s a bit like the lesson in close reading that Elizabeth Bennet learns when Darcy’s letter prompts her to read people and situations more carefully.

  8. Stefanie says:

    How fun you got to go to the meeting! I didn’t much like Emma the first time I read it either but gained a new appreciation for it on the next reading. I agree with regarding Mr. Wodehouse, he is really unsufferable and everyone always picks on Emma and Frank, etc and ignores his role in the story.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m still a little sad for Emma that she’s still living with her father at the end. I understand it, but I wonder how much her marriage will involve cowtowing to his supposed needs. I get crankier and crankier about him the more I think about it.

      • Stefanie says:

        I hear you! I think between Mr. Knightley and Emma they might be able to fool Mr Wodehouse into thinking he is getting his way in most everything but that they even have to make that effort is ridiculous.

  9. Debra says:

    Emma has always been my favorite Austen novel. I read it first of all the novels, and was a teenager at the time. It impressed me because it was about Emma’s growth and at the time, was one of few epiphany novels about a girl/woman. I also liked it then, and still do now, because Emma is a flawed heroine. She is not perfect, which makes her more human. I could identify with Emma much more as a character than with Anne Elliot or even Elizabeth Bennet. I was sorry to miss the AGM. I’ve attended others and always enjoy them.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, that’s such a good point about how it’s all about Emma’s growth. I’d never really thought about it that way until the AGM this weekend. The other Austen novels make the heroine’s growth part of the story, but it’s not central in the same way that it is in Emma. Her growth matters more than the marriage at the end.

  10. I love Emma — as a bossy girl myself, I feel for her, and I absolutely can’t stand her father. I hadn’t thought of the comparison to Mrs. Bennet, but it’s 100% right: the kinder, less cynical part of me wants to say that Mrs. Bennet gets all the flack because Pride and Prejudice is more popular and people are more aware of her; but thinking about adaptations of Emma, Mr. Woodbridge gets a far kinder edit than Mrs. Bennet in just about every iteration of those two stories I can think of. Ruling on the field stands, it’s a gendered thing. :/

    • Teresa says:

      I think because Mr Woodhouse doesn’t come across as shouty in his demands, it’s easy to miss how awful he’s being. And Mrs Bennet probably comes across as more demanding because she’s a woman. So, yeah, there’s a gendered thing here.

  11. Hi, Teresa. It’s a privilege to write to someone who takes her responsibility with Austen’s texts so seriously as to attend a special convention. I guess I view Emma’s marriage to Knightley, as troubling as it is to realize how much older he is than she, as a sort of pre- and proto-Freudian transference thingy, in which Emma matures enough to choose a better and more wholesome father figure for herself than her own literal father. You know, the old stuff about women marry their fathers and men marry their mothers. And yet, even with the differences between Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse, Emma is still a sort of prisoner of the social structure. It’s just that she begins to assume a more mature role as Mr. Knightley’s wife than the role she held as Mr. Woodhouse’s daughter. It’s a guilty pleasure for a feminist to relish the Kate-and-Petruchio type relationship which you and your other correspondents here have been discussing, but I have to confess that when the movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam came on at the cinema, I went to see it 9 times! Armed with french fries, yet! There was something about Paltrow’s whining, nasal, drawling delivery of her lines that made her perfect to portray a sort of back-in-the-day upper class liberal lady who condescends to the whole village. One swift crisp shot of dialogue from her to Knightley would have put him in his place, yet that shot never came. She just kept up the drawling.and he kept reproaching her, and then there was that soppy love scene at the end, about at the time when I had run out of french fries, and all was forgiven. Joking, sort of, but there are things we may think we enjoy watching which as sincere feminists we would never tolerate from a man in real life. Thanks for all the effort you put forward to bring this to us as a topic.

    • Teresa says:

      You make a good point about Emma taking on a more mature role with her marriage. And I’ll have to give some thought about Knightly as father figure. As much as I wince at the idea of marriage as submission today, in Emma’s day, it was the way of things, and with Knightly, she’s going to be under the guidance of someone who cares about her, and that is a tremendous improvement over life with her father.

      I haven’t seen the Paltrow Emma since it came out. I ought to revisit it! I think my favorite movie Emma is actually Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, but I really enjoyed Kate Beckinsale’s Emma and Romola Garai’s much more recent version.

      And I absolutely get what you mean about enjoying watching relationships we’d never tolerate in real life. I love Taming of the Shrew and similar stories, even though I know the ideas in them are sometimes terrible.

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