Emily M. DeArdo


The Great Jane Re-Read: Emma

Emily DeArdo6 Comments

Previous entries:Sense and Sensibility; Pride and Prejudice; Mansfield Park; Northanger Abbey 

We're heading in the home stretch of Jane novels. Emma is her penultimate novel, if you're looking at them in the order she wrote them. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey were published posthumously, but she actually wrote Northanger Abbey first. 

I've written about Emma before, and quite honesty, I don't have a favorite movie version, because I've only seen one. I know there are a lot of them, but since Emma is my least-favorite novel, I haven't seen as many of the movie versions as I have of the others (Like S&S and Mansfield Park). 

So what's my beef with Emma

Emma herself. Jane wrote, when describing the book, "I have created a heroine that no one but myself will much like," and I think she's right. While critics generally decry Fanny Price, in my experience, Emma Woodhouse is the heroine that drives most people mad. She's an incredible meddler who might mean well, but it also overbearing and snobby, as seen in her description of Ben Martin to Harriet. (At least she starts that way.) 

Part of this is probably because Emma didn't have a mom for most of her life, and thus lacked her influence. Her father, while a good man, isn't much concerned with Emma's upbringing beyond the basics (and making sure she doesn't die from some crazy illness), and her sister lives in London, so Emma becomes the Queen of Highbury early on, and isn't corrected as perhaps she should have been.  {When I say "Queen of Highbury", that's pretty accurate; she runs the house for her father, and she's the woman of highest social standing in the village/town. She's the Queen Bee of the Social Hive.}

Emma is also the richest of Jane's heroines, so she doesn't need to worry about money when she marries. She can marry whom she likes, but she also seems disinclined to marry for most of the novel. "She always declares she will never marry, which, of course, means just nothing at all," Mr. Knightley says early in the novel. Emma declares to Harriet,

"And not only am I not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of ever marrying at all...I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I have never been in love; it is not my way or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I would be a fool to change such a situation as mine...I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husbands house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man's eyes as I am in my father's." 

Emma is often portrayed as a matchmaker, but that's not really what Emma does. She's a bit of a Henry Higgins. She doesn't just try to set Harriet up with Mr. Elton, for example, but she persuades Harriet to give up her attachment to Robert Martin, whom Emma deems "unsuitable" for Harriet. " I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin, of Abbey-Mill Farm," Emma exclaims. She sort of wants to form people in a certain manner, or "in her image", as I guess we could say. 

Emma's age may play some part, but remember that Elizabeth Bennet is also Emma's age, and even though she had a very silly mother, is still more practical and sensible than Emma is, when it comes to social interaction. Elizabeth, for example, would never act like Emma did at Box Hill. (Nor would Elinor, Catherine, or Fanny, for that matter. Marianne--possibly.) It shows an incredible amount of impropriety, almost like Emma were drunk. 

Emma doesn't think before she does things, and that's probably her biggest flaw. She doesn't anticipate Harriet becoming so attached to Mr. Elton, and she's unhappy that her scheme affected her friend so.By her interference, she makes Harriet's life more complicated, not less. 

Mrs. Elton drives me mad, but at least with her appearance we have the beginning of Emma's reformation, even if Emma herself doesn't realize that. She sees Mrs. Elton's ridiculous pretensions and condescension to the people of Highbury, and is irritated by it. It's sort of like families--you can tease them, but woe betide anyone else who does! In seeing Mr. Elton's choice, she realizes how deeply deceived she was in Mr. Elton's character. 

Mr. Knightley is a great character, isn't he? I love how he argues with Emma; he's the only one that seems to get away with it, or to hold his own with her. Everyone else never pushes "dear Emma" (as Mrs. Weston calls her). He is 16 years older than she is, which makes him probably the oldest of Jane's heroes, and it does hive him some material advantages over Emma in understanding and knowledge of the world. "I have still the advantage of you by sixteen years' experience, and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child," he tells her. 

He's not perfect. He has a temper and he holds grudges longer than Emma does; he likes to hold on to being mad, while she tries to smooth it over. But they do complement each other very well, which is important in Jane's novels. She always notes that an ill-matched couple does not get on together (think Sir and Lady Middleton, or, even more vividly illustrated, that of the Bennets). And even if the Eltons get on together, they clearly bring out the worst in each other. Emma and Mr. Knightley (it's easy to forget his first name is George!) will go well together because they mesh. 


Emma becomes better throughout the novel. She has the most drastic evolution, I think, of any of Jane's heroines. Elizabeth changes her mind about Darcy, but in materials, she is well-set. Elinor and Marianne become more balances in their temperaments, and Fanny Price is proven correct in her behavior. But Emma really grows up, especially after the Affair at Box Hill, and it's because George has a good yelling at her. Emma knows, I think, that she has behaved badly, but I don't think it's until Mr. Knightley really tells her off that she perceives just how deeply her carelessness has  been felt. 

What do you think of Emma, both the character and the novel? Do you find Emma "insupportable" in the beginning?