Emma by Jane Austen book cover
Emma (1815), a rich comedy of manners is, arguably, Jane Austen’s finest novel – a blending of her serious literary intentions with the effervescent charm of her most readable novels. The eponymous heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is a young lady who has wanted for very little in her life, raised in Highbury to believe she has few imperfections and is superior to just about everyone about her – in short, she is a snob. After successfully finding a husband for her governess, she believes herself to be an excellent matchmaker and is soon bringing her powers to bear on the local community, attempting to arrange more couplings. She makes a particular friend of Harriet Smith whom she believes to be of high birth. She determines to find Harriet a suitable partner, rejecting in the process a perfectly good proposal from a gentleman-farmer. While Emma is engaged in rearranging her charge’s romantic life, a couple of visitors arrive at Highbury: Frank Churchill, a charming young man, and Jane Fairfax, a fairly reserved girl. Although Emma feels no real connection with Jane, she strikes up a rather flirtatious friendship with Frank Churchill. However, it is George Knightley – a neighbour who, being sixteen years her senior, has known Emma since her birth – who provides a voice of reason to all Emma’s attempts at matchmaking, a more sombre mentor figure who chastises where others turn a blind eye. Plenty of other characters are drawn into the romantic entanglements that Emma weaves and observes, and events play out through social minutiae as Emma is forced to learn a good deal about herself and her own heart while attempting to direct the hearts of others.

Emma provides a vivid picture of rural and village life in the early nineteenth century and the significant issues of growing up and picking a mate. As Emma manoeuvres men and women in her attempts to make good matches, the importance of status becomes clear. For Emma’s family is of very good standing in her community and she is acutely aware of where others sit in the grand scheme of things. Emma might see innate qualities in Harriet which suggest high-birth, but in a society so tightly structured around status, attempting to break from one class to another can be a hazardous thing as Emma learns. Interestingly, in making her matches, Emma gives far greater concern to status than any affection or suitability of temperament that there might be between two people. Unlike more romantically-imagined heroines, here is a character whose conception of the marriage market is based more firmly on economics than sentimentality (for others at least). It is perhaps not surprising then that Emma, so assured of her opinion on so many topics, cannot be said to know her own heart with any great intimacy. This makes for a delicious centre to the novel, and exposes the problem of social demands governing feelings.

As the young people go about arranging their romantic lives there is an evident struggle against expectation and the older generation. Although depicted in a particular time and space, it is a struggle for independence and autonomy that has universal interest. For Emma, who has inherited wealth in her favour, marriage is a choice – for the other female characters it is a financial necessity that will see them secure a safe future for themselves. Emma is aware of her own, privileged position of relative autonomy and so voices her feeling that marriage, for her if not for others, must only be undertaken on the basis of her being in love. Marriage creates an interesting conflict at the centre of the novel: Emma must be tamed and educated out of her less desirable habits by a (future-)husband. Entering a marriage contract (if on even terms), then, sees Emma relinquish some of her autonomy and accept the guidance of her mentor-lover. She is not the only woman in the novel who finds an identity through marriage and this raises interesting questions, particularly for feminist readers. While Emma plays with the literary conventions of the novel of instruction, it is also bound by class-consciousness and male instruction. This dynamic, between social forces and the individual, is a brilliantly subtle irony on Austen’s part, a way of exploring some pretty radical questions about how society is organised.

The mentor-lover is a common trope in Austen’s writing, but here the instructive nature of female friendships is more deeply explored too. Members of the leisure class to which Emma belongs have such an abundance of time on their hands that it is inevitable they should occupy themselves with constructed ideas of ‘work’, whether that be organising the romantic lives of others or enforcing the small social mores that make up polite society. In this sense, the novel acts as a warning about prescriptive advice and shows the messiness of attempting to enact ‘common wisdom’ in the real world. For Austen, self-knowledge and nuanced solutions are the key to navigating the various tests life throws in front of one.

The small community of Highbury offers an excellent setting for Austen to explore the intricacies of social hierarchy that interested her. The plotting is exquisitely controlled: through subtle misdirection Austen weaves the stories of each character into a rather bewildering mix for the reader, leaving clues to each character’s heart that are not easily spotted on first reading. It is artfully done, and it is in the unravelling of both the tangled plot threads and Emma’s own mind that the lasting enjoyment of Emma is assured.

A comedy of manners, Emma revolves around these rather tangled communications and affairs of the heart, with major scandal or tragedy never threatening to enter the small world of the novel. While not a fan of the genre, Austen does not banish all tropes of Romantic fiction but merely moves them from the centre of the story to the edges – in this way her fictional world allows romantic impulses while decidedly insisting that they must not be centre stage in a novel or a life. This creates a fictional world where realism and romanticism meet in a pleasing mesh of styles. Some of the finest pleasures of Emma is in the small details. Austen brilliantly exposes how seemingly trivial events – a broken boot lace, an afternoon’s picnic – can have far larger consequences than might be supposed. The dialogue, too, turns on the smallest minutiae: the delicate unfurling of detailed conversation, far from being dull as it might have been in another’s hands, shows Austen’s fine skill for dialogue and social intricacy.

In the fictional world of Highbury, it is the characters who are not seen to participate in the community and uphold their duties as a member of the small society that are invariably punished or looked down upon by the author: for Austen, participation and preservation of the fabric of society is of the utmost importance. With status comes responsibility, but there are more important things than appearance or artificial measures of merit. Austen may believe in a hierarchical society but such an arrangement is shown to rely on the quality of people (humility, wisdom, etc.) more than class distinctions (money, high-birth, etc.). The novel also addresses issues around the potential for female fulfilment in a society structured around wealth and status, and where women were often seen simply as the property of their husbands or fathers. There is an interesting discussion on the social construction of ideas of womanhood too.

Emma herself is an excellent character: opinionated, meddlesome if well-intentioned, and with a mind that subtly develops throughout the plot (a change which Austen’s prose reflects by small, nuanced shifts in tone as events unfold). She is one of Austen’s most complex characters and most satisfying reads for the arc and depth of her personal story: her psychological depth has been pointed to as a precursor for the psychological realism of George Eliot, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf amongst others. Emma’s own literary heritage can certainly be seen in her assuming a role similar to Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in overseeing the course of true love, but a more interesting literary comparison is to be found in Austen’s own canon, for Emma is, in some ways, a mirror to Darcy of Pride and Prejudice. Wealthy and living in her own mansion she is not in need of a partner and has been raised to think rather a good deal of herself and less of others. Like Darcy, she is forced to undergo an educative process that allows her to find eventual happiness, and throughout the text there are various examples of her assuming the traditionally male role. This offers an opportunity to test readers’ reaction to similar behaviours when they are assumed by a male character or a female. Clearly, Emma is far more than a parody of Darcy, but it is an interesting side note to her character.

Published in 1815, Emma was written predominantly in the previous year (but finished as late as March 1815) in a period after Austen had seen success and while she was at the peak of her powers. A more mature novelist, Austen married the expectations of her growing readership (the book is, famously, dedicated to the Prince Regent who was a fan) with her own literary sensibilities to produce a novel that displays some of her finest talents as a novelist. Here she has mastered free indirect speech, which is so heavily associated with her writing, and developed a cast of characters that work excellently for her purpose. The novel, too, is wholly English in its setting, concerns, and humour – provincial yet worldly, amused and amusing, sparkling yet with a hint of pathos. It is Austen’s most complete and well-worked novel.

Really enjoyed this. There are times when I want to shake Austen out of her beautifully controlled writing and get to something more raw but Emma is the most perfect riposte to those sentiments, and probably Austen at her best.

Useful Links
Reviews of Emma on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Emma on Amazon (US)
TV Adaptation of Emma on Amazon (UK)
TV Adaptation of Emma on Amazon (US)

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