Emma, by Jane Austen

>> Thursday, December 05, 2013

AUTHOR: Jane Austen

PAGES: 512

SETTING: Early 19th century England
TYPE: Fiction

'I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall.'

Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen's most flawless work.

Of the Austens I've reread so far, Emma has been by far my favourite. I had a similar experience with it than I did with Northanger Abbey a couple of months ago, in that what I remembered of it happened pretty early on, and there was practically a whole book left where I wasn't sure what would happen. In NA it was the whole gothic parody bit, here it was the confusion about Mr. Elton being in love with Harriet. I remembered it as being what the book was about, so when that misunderstanding was over by the end of CD 2, I was nonplussed. The rest, though, was just as good.

Out of Austen's books that I like (i.e. excluding Mansfield Park, for which my only memory is of dislike for Fanny... hmm, maybe I should reread it), Emma is probably the one where the romance is least the point of the story. It's all about the comedy of manners, and it worked brilliantly because the characters involved are so rich and real. I said in my summary of the month that Austen had made me like, dislike, love, pity, despise and admire Emma, all in one book. She is a complex character, to say the least. And the brilliant thing is, I have no doubt that all of my reactions are fully intended. Austen is in full control here; I felt she had played with my feelings masterfully, and felt no resentment about it.

The rest of the characters were just as good. With some of them, Austen really exaggerates a particular characteristic, such as Miss Bates' inane babbling, or Mrs. Elton's vanity and bitchiness, but it never crosses the line into something cartoonish. There's too much truth underneath for that. They are all characters that feel so real that I couldn't help but react to them. I actually went "the bitch!" out loud once as Mrs. Elton spoke, getting some strange looks in my gym.

I did like the romance, as far as it went. It's interesting, because I tend to hate romances where the heroine is always wrong and has to be put right by the hero, and this was a bit the dynamic between Emma and Mr. Knightley. But it doesn't feel as if she's being humiliated because a woman has to be put in her place. Emma is wrong just because she's human and she's absorbed too well the lesson that, as the most socially prominent person in her little world she is the most important person, and therefore anything that would please her is, by definition, the right thing to happen. She has to learn that this isn't the case.

It wasn't a perfect book. There was a bit where I got kicked out of the story because the reaction Austen was intending to get was quite different from the one she got, and that was the very short episode with the gypsies. It's not a big part of a the book at all, but it did make an impression, as the prejudices and attitudes revealed (and quite clearly shared, to a certain extent, by the author) were so clearly ugly and horrible to me.

I also thought the book took a little too long to wrap up. Everything was pretty much settled and I still had a whole CD (which was almost 1.5 hours long) to go. There was a lot of rehashing. It sounded like the sort of discussions you have with friends after you find out something surprising about someone you know, the whole "ah, so when we met so and so in such and such a place this was why he was there and what he was doing". That's fun and very satisfying to do, but feels very tedious and static to read, especially when there are no surprising revelations there. That was the case here, we found out nothing that we couldn't have deduced quite easily.

MY GRADE: Still, although these flaws lower my grade somewhat, it's still an A-.

AUDIOBOOK NOTES: There are loads of audio versions of Austen's books available, and after listening to quite a few samples, I've realised Juliet Stephenson is by far my favourite. She made this a joy to listen to. She had me in stitches quite a few times, like with her rendering of Miss Bates' babbling. I absolutely loved it.


Christine,  5 December 2013 at 19:06  

There is absolutely a reason why Jane Austen is as beloved as she is. Emma is an interesting story as it contains some elements I would not like on paper: (as you mentioned) Mr. Knightly must constantly correct Emma which could come off as "the man must straighten the woman out), he is so much older than her it could seem creepy in another book etc etc. but it all works so well together. I find Mr. Knightly the toughest hero of Austen's for an actor to portray because it can seem like he is always berating Emma if it isn't done well. The reason why I found Jeremy Northam's performance so charming in the movie version of Emma is that even in his "harshest" scene where Emma mocks Miss Bates and he dresses her down for it, you can tell it just makes him sad to have to say "Badly done Emma." Some other actors just seem to bark out the set down. The whole book and every translation of it really depends on the Emma-Knightly relationship and buying that they truly are (to borrow Anne Shirley's term) "kindred spirits."

Rosario 8 December 2013 at 09:25  

Christine, have you read a book by John Mullen called What Matters in Jane Austen? It explores just what makes Austen so innovative and good, and makes the point that there was a lot more there than telling a story people like.

I don't think I've seen that Emma film -in fact, it might well be that the only Emma adaptation I've seen is Clueless! Although, I guess you could say that the same thing applies for the audiobook, and Juliet Stephenson absolutely got the tone right.

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