“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”Jane Austen
This was Jane Austen’s fourth novel published in 1815 in three volumes. Set in the fictional country setting of Highbury in England, it describes the life and romantic mishaps of Emma Woodhouse. I read it when I was in college. I re-read it a few days ago. That is the power of Austen’s novels. Emma being no exception.
In her inimitable style, the mother of romantic comedies, Miss Jane Austen begins Emma like this:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Jane Austen writes about a rather shallow heroine who deludes herself into believing that she will never marry and will instead preoccupy herself with matchmaking. Her false belief in her abilities is cemented when her friend and former governess Miss Taylor marries Mr Weston. She had introduced the two of them.
Emma thinks highly of her abilities and is confident that through her superior understanding of human nature and needs she will be able tofind a suitable match for Harriet Smith. A seventeen-year-old girl with “soft blue eyes” living in a boarding school. Harriet is in awe of Emma and does not possess any great family connections.
This is how Austen describes Harriet Smith and Emma’s taking of her under her wings.
“She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.”
Their friendship blossoms over long walks and conversations in Hartfield, home to the Woodhouses. During this time, Harriet develops a romantic attachment towards Robert Martin, a well-spoken, respectable, young farmer. Dismayed with Harriet’s choice and certain that she can do better, Emma arranges her to fall in love with Mr. Elton, the local vicar — an ambitious social climber.
In a classic comedy of manners, Mr Elton falls for Emma eventually proposing to her. Embarrassed Emma suggests to him that she had presumed he was warming up to Harriet. Outraged by her suggestion, Mr Elton points towards Harriet’s social inferiority and departs from Highbury mortified and rejected. But soon marries and returns with an annoying and ostentatious wife.
While all this happens, a sane and wise voice continues to foretell and warn Emma about her misadventures. And her apparent misreading of people. This voice is that of Mr Knightly, whose brother is married to Emma’s sister.
At one point he remarks of Emma’s and Harriet’s intimacy:
“I think they will neither of them do the other any good.”
It appears Austen realized that she had created an air-headed, self-centered heroine who pride’s living in the fool’s paradise. As a foil, she conjured Mr Knightly — a sagacious hero right there to hold Emma when she fails in her mission and comes looking for solace. Maybe that is exactly why he is found in her house and in close proximity to protect her from any potential disasters.
However, his assuring presence doesn’t stop Emma from triggering a chain of mishaps. In the meantime, Jane Fairfax, a governess and Frank Churchill, the son of Mr Weston arrives at Highbury.
Emma dislikes Jane instantly and decisively, warming up to Frank instead. In fact, she develops a strong liking for the charming and amiable Frank, who befriends Emma for a reason. Mrs Weston, at around this time hints towards Mr Knighly’s romantic attachment towards her, but Emma strongly denies it.
Later in a turn of events, when Harriet confesses to Emma about her love for Mr Knightly, she competes with her to win over Mr Knightly’s affection. Thankfully for her, he professes to having been in love with her for a long time.
Emma’s hunches and readings of people turn ridiculous when she discovers that Frank is married to Jane. And her efforts to fix Frank and Harriet’s match is abruptly cut short.
She further learns that Frank’s cordiality was but a pretense. All this while, he was trying to be nice and friendly to Emma because he didn’t want the village-folk to gossip about them.
It all ends well when:
Emma weds Knightly. Frank weds Jane. And Harriet weds Robert. Yes, Robert the farmer, whom Harriet had spurned on Emma’s advice in the beginning.
Emma is a classic romantic comedy. In fact, it set the ball rolling for spunky and vacuous heroines who finally come of age by reflecting on their foibles. It has all the ingredients that make a happy cocktail: romance, comedy, plot twists employed to surprise and a befitting climax which precedes a happy ending.
In Emma, by using comedy as a tool, Jane Austen highlights the social hierarchy and class divisions prevalent in the Georgian society. Despite being a romantic comedy, Emma emerges as a scathing social commentary, without turning preachy at any point. Through Austen’s thoughtfully implemented sub-plots, it entertains and yet remains realistic and relevant. Even today.
- The narration is witty and sarcastic.
- Characters. Every character is well-described and has a graph. Each one of them shows several shades. Sometimes surprising the reader. Only Emma turns out to be predictable.
- Social realism. Describing and highlighting the class hierarchy prevalent during those days.
- The happy ending. I love to end a book on a happy note with a smile on my face.
- Emma. Her vanity, pride and selfishness at times are highly annoying.
- Marriage is not the only means to find happiness. Or, social security. Having said that, one must bear in mind that the over-reliance on marriage is reflective of the times Austen lived in.
Watch the latest film trailer of Emma