Emma, by Jane Austen
Emma is the third Jane Austen book I’ve read this year, and I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. So far, I’d say Emma and Sense and Sensibility are vying for favorite status. Sorry, P&P backers, but I think my dislike of Darcy puts it just a bit behind the others in the fave race!
Anyway, maybe it was that I’ve become more accustomed to Austen’s style or maybe it was really something about the book, but I found this to be the quickest read of them all so far–and not because of length (it isn’t shorter). It just feels lighter, somehow. It’s not so heavily laden with lingering glances and quiet suffering, though surely those things exist in this story.
Emma is the most spontaneous and impulsive of Austen’s heroines I think, save Marianne Dashwood, in that she doesn’t really take the time to think through the likely repercussions of her actions. She gets a hunch and goes with it. And since match-making is her preferred hobby, when she makes mistakes they are rather large and painful to all those involved. She is vain and overly confident, and befriends Harriet, a girl much “below” her in class and elegance. She does her best to provide proper influence for Harriet, so that she’ll turn out more like herself, and find her a suitable match. Harriet is grateful for the attention of the widely admired Ms. Emma Woodhouse, so takes her advice and turns down her first suitor, with whom she is rather in love, in favor of pursuing “better” prospects. But things become confusing and unpleasant for Emma when Harriet begins to resemble herself a little too much and encroaches on the male attention that Emma finds she wants for herself.
Emma is selfish and misguided, sure, but I still found her remarkably endearing. She is not as consistent or self-aware as Austen’s other protagonists seem to be, but she does come to realize the parts of her character that she needs to work on and begins to come to terms with them toward the end.
Given the fact that all of Austen’s novels end with marriages (or so I’ve heard, and found to be true so far), I find it really interesting that Emma initially, and throughout most of the book, is very vocal about her desire to remain unmarried. She would much rather see all her friends and acquaintances settled down than engage in courtship herself, is somewhat ambivalent about falling in love, and feels she has all the stability in life that she needs. Even more interesting is her father’s complete disregard for the institution of marriage altogether which, to him, is a malignant force that draws his daughters out of his house and away from him, who loves and needs them. Without giving away too much about the ending (stop here if you really don’t want to know and can’t guess), I was pleased that though Emma does end up married, their arrangement is a bit untraditional and healthy compromises are made that would have been unusual at the time, but benefits all parties equally.
So many more characters from this book stick out to me, too, in comparison to S&S and P&P. The snobby Mrs. Elton, the annoying Mrs. Bates–she can talk, that lady, can’t she!–the too-smooth Frank Churchill, and Mr. Knightly, perhaps the first of Austen’s male love interests I’ve found at all appealing.
Clearly, I enjoyed Emma quite a lot and would recommend it to anyone who has yet to try Jane Austen. Of course, if you have, you’re probably already hooked and don’t need the recommendation. Right? 🙂