This week I re-read Jane Austen’s Emma. Call it a birthday present to myself (as if I didn’t have enough birthday goodness), or call it the second year of my plan to re-read an Austen every year. Either way, here I am to report on a very pleasurable reading experience. I read Emma for the first time in 2006, and my recollections are fuzzy. It was my first encounter with Austen since Pride and Prejudice many years earlier. I liked Emma, but I didn’t love it. But my mind didn’t get past the plot; I had yet to fully appreciate the depth and richness of Austen’s writing. So the novel didn’t make a lasting impression and six years later I could recall very little, except for the person Emma is paired with at the end. My reading experience was much better this time around. Read on for a proper review …
I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him. If she can hesitate as to ‘Yes,’ she ought to say ‘No’ directly. It is not a state to be safely entered into with doubtful feelings, with half a heart. (p. 43)
Early on, the title character in Jane Austen’s Emma offers this advice to her friend Harriet, recently presented with a proposal of marriage. And it seems sensible advice, indeed, but in one stroke, Emma creates a mess that takes the rest of the novel to sort out.
Emma Woodhouse is a frivolous young woman, with a comfortable life at Hartfield, her father’s estate. Her former governess and dear friend, a Miss Taylor, has recently become Mrs Weston. Their friendship continues to thrive, but Emma is still pleased to make the acquaintance of Harriet, another young single woman. Harriet is of somewhat lower class, and Emma sets her sights on “improving” her, with nearly disastrous consequences. She convinces Harriet she can do better than marry a common farmer, and invites her into Hartfield’s social circle to play matchmaker. Her first target is Mr Elton, the vicar, but Emma is surprised to find Elton interested in her instead of Harriet. That makes for some awkward moments with her new friend. From that point on Emma tries to be less obvious, but in her continued efforts to pair Harriet with a suitable man, she is blind to other attachments forming around her.
The first time I read this book, I jumped right on the “isn’t Emma an awful person” bandwagon. This time around, I found her a more sympathetic character. She repeatedly claims she has no intention of marrying, but much of this is due to a sense of duty towards her father, a widower who is very dependent on her and resistant to even the slightest change. I also rather liked her confidence:
Something occurred while they were at Hartfield, to make Emma want their advice; and, which was still more lucky, she wanted exactly the advice they gave. (p. 176)
Much like when I re-read Pride and Prejudice last year, I most enjoyed Austen’s characterizations and humor. Mr Woodhouse is a complete worrywart, agitating over every little thing. He made me smile, but I especially enjoyed the scenes with neighbors Mrs Bates and her niece Miss Bates. They are so chatty, and can’t ever seem to come to the point in a conversation:
‘Thank you. You are so kind!’ replied the happily deceived aunt, while eagerly hunting for the letter. –‘Oh! here it is. I was sure it could not be far off; but I had put my huswife upon it, you see, without being aware, and so it was quite hid, but I had it in my hand so very lately that I was almost sure it must be on the table. I was reading it to Mrs. Cole, and since she went away, I was reading it again to my mother, for it was such a pleasure to her — a letter from Jane — that she can never hear it often enough; so I knew it could not be far off, and here it is, only just under my huswife — and since you are so kind as to wish to hear what she says; — but, first of all, I really must, in justice to Jane, apologise for her writing so short a letter — only two pages you see — hardly two — and in general she fills the whole paper and crosses half. …’ (p. 132)
We’ve all been imprisoned in conversations like this, haven’t we? In Austen’s novels, everyone is too well-mannered to simply tell someone to shut up and get to the point already. Every time the Bateses came on the scene, I imagined everyone else rolling their eyes at each other and squirming uncomfortably in their seats.
But of course romance is at the heart of this story. Emma is filled with potential couples, it’s just not clear who will end up with whom. Fortunately it’s only a matter of time before everyone is happily paired off, and the reader can breathe a contented sigh.