Read: March 2014
Author: Jane Austen
Pages: 474 (paperback)
Selected By: Elle Tea
“Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy, exquisite, and thoroughly self-deluded young woman who has ‘lived in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’ Jane Austen exercises her taste for cutting social observation and her talent for investing seemingly trivial events with profound moral significance as Emma traverses a gentle satire of provincial balls and drawing rooms.” – from the Barnes & Noble Classics Series.
Emma is not at all my favorite Austen novel, but it is still one I enjoy. On the surface, it seems to be a nineteenth century romcom, perfectly suited for the CW, where it might be shown after Pretty Little Liars or One Tree Hill; a spoiled, bored rich girl from a small town learns humility and eventually finds love through a series of misfortunes and missteps involving her friends and neighbors. But this is only Emma at a glance, and anyone who’s read Austen should know she was much too clever a woman with far too detailed a knowledge of her own society and its myriad of obligations to waste her time with such a heroine without purpose.
To me, Emma is less about Emma herself and more about the complicated choices educated young ladies were faced with during the era in which the novel was written; yes, Emma is a self-centered little nitwit – but what other sort of creature would you expect to have arisen from such a background and in such a community as Highbury? (And keep in mind, even Jane Austen, when discussing Emma, stated that she was writing a book about a heroine that nobody else would much care for.)
Our little busybody is the privileged, educated daughter of a gentleman, living in a village during the Regency Era. Her domestic life is as dull as watching fingernails grow; she spends her time arranging flowers, painting, and catering to her hypochondriac father’s various health concerns. There is no decision or remark that she can make in such a high-profile position as her own that will not be noticed by the equally-bored social climbers with whom she is surrounded; as we see after her rather biting off-hand remark to Miss Bates, the consequences of being seen as anything other than patient and affable can have an unavoidable negative impact on her daily life. Emma can’t even go to dinner with her friends without worrying about her father’s comfort, the complicated relationships of everyone in her family and community, exactly who all will be attending said dinner party, how all of these guests are to arrive, and how she ought to be received based on her position within their social hierarchy.
I’ve always felt a little sorry for Harriet Smith; at her introduction into the story, she’s already made all the right choices for herself, all by herself, and it is only when Emma begins to meddle that Harriet hands over the reins and allows herself to be dragged through piles of humiliation, heartache, and rejection. Of course, as the “natural daughter of somebody,” she is in no position to argue or oppose Emma, her social better, and so, realistically, has two choices: (1) go along with the game, which will have definite long-reaching, life-changing consequences, or (2) attempt to argue, going against her own natural inclinations and everything she knows about their society, which would result, quite possibly, in her being shunned entirely by the community. This second is, of course, no choice at all for a woman of that day and age… thus, my sympathies go out to the poor creature.
Then we have Frank Churchill, who, from the very first time I read this novel years ago, never has sat well with me. With every appearance in the novel, he is charming, affable… and there. He’s always there. If he’s not physically there, then someone is discussing him, whispering about him, gossiping about his situation, his life, his past… Once he arrives in Highbury, he essentially becomes the perfect confidante for Emma: he is her equal, and she can behave with him as she can with few others. By the time the tale is done, however, it turns out he has always been too perfect for her – he is, essentially, a male version of Emma herself: a socially-privileged young person with more time and money on his hands than is perfectly good for him. He, like Emma, is playing a game… but in his case, because of his gender and the time period in which this novel was written, he is essentially allowed to do so with few negative ramifications on his character. In other words: Highbury cannot abide Emma’s meddling, but Frank is a playa, and one must, as they say, let a playa play. 😉
For me, Mr. Elton wasn’t entirely villainous, as some people may be led to believe. He, like Harriet Smith, was simply a pawn being moved around in a game of chess which he did not realize he had even been invited to play. I have always found the carriage scene in which he finally voices his own desires to be more entertaining than shocking, as this is the only time in which someone who isn‘t Mr. Knightley tells Emma exactly what she needs to hear: that things do not – and quite often will not – go the way she thinks they should. It’s disappointing when his choice of wife is finally revealed, and I can’t help but wonder if he would have made the same choice had he not been pushed and prodded so much by our little meddler.
I last read Emma in high school, and, at that time, I remember thinking how much I liked Mrs. Weston (the former Miss Taylor); she seemed so maternal and sweet, like an older sister that one never argues with and who is always there for you. Mrs. Weston has not changed at all, but I see her this time with the eyes of a woman, rather than the starry eyes of a teenaged girl, and I now have to admit that I do not care for her at all. She never argues because she has very few original opinions, and she is always there because she cannot accept that Emma is no longer a child. If she is not parroting her husband, then she is still playing the part of Emma’s surrogate mother and companion. Anne Weston is maternal, she is sweet… but now I see it for what it is: the saccharine sweetness of one who, from a very early age, was completely brainwashed to be the perfect nineteenth century woman: passive and submissive. Essentially, she’s a Stepford wife.
Jane Austen always has one character that everyone can agree is steady and solid, and in Emma, that character is George Knightley. He’s the only person in the entire novel, in my opinion, who always makes sense. Even when he’s acting rashly, when he seems harsh and hard-hearted, it is with good reason. He is candid, brutally honest, chooses not to play the society game, sympathetic, and kind. He can be gruff and rather rough around the edges at times, but, as with Frank Churchill, he is a man in this society during this time period: he has the freedom to act as he pleases, to be all of these things, openly, and have people praise him for his forthright manner rather than deride him for his bluntness.
In the end, I do still like Emma. She’s no Eliza Bennet or Elinor Dashwood, but she does show us another side of the society coin: life for privileged country women in Regency England. And who knows, she might be stronger than I have given her full credit for; she can survive under familial and community conditions that might very well have pushed me to drown my father in a bowl of his own thin gruel right before I ran off with a militia officer like that brazen hussy, Lydia Bennet.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify?: George Knightley.
Elle read the Oxford World’s Classics paperback version of this book.
For those who didn’t know, the movie Clueless was adapted almost entirely from Emma, and, as a fan of the movie, I couldn’t help but really like this book!
I thought the story itself was fun, and, while the characters were shallow, it was their very silliness that really made this so entertaining for me.
Emma was a little naive and came across as self-centered at the start, but once she stopped meddling with Harriet’s life and accepted her friend for who she was and not who she wanted her to be, I found her quite likeable; she was fun and happy, and I think she meant well.
As for Frank Churchill, I didn’t care for him much by the time it was over. Initially, I thought he was perfect for Emma, being a well-to-do gentleman of an idle nature… but by the time it became clear of his affiliation with Jane, I couldn’t help but find him to be a most appalling jerk. Jane made herself sick over his behavior, and he relished in the power his actions had over her. Miss. Fairfax herself was a weenie, though – giving herself headaches over his ridiculous flirtations, even though she, of all people, knew they could only be pretense.
I liked neither Mr. nor Mrs. Elton. Personally, I wouldn’t have been sorry to see Mrs. Elton stoned to death in the middle of Highbury; she was so pretentious, haughty, and generally nasty to everyone – for no reason. Mr. Elton got exactly what he deserved for his horrid behavior towards Harriet and his unwanted attentions to Emma.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify?: Mr. Woodhouse
BillMo read the Amazon Kindle e-book version of this book.
The Divine Ms. Em:
Caveat: Ms. Em did not finish this selection.
I found this entire book to be rather dry. The story itself is a good one for the times, and it’s portrayal of Regency society is spot-on, but the characters – down to the last – were shallow, and their lives superficial.
Emma herself is the worst of the lot, but she is a product of her society. By the end of the book, I was able to like her a little more than when we began, but it was hard to empathize or sympathize with her as a woman – either of her own times or ours.
I saw Anne Weston as the mature and guiding force for Emma. She is matronly, with the nature of a born care-giver. I disagree with Elle that Mrs. Weston had no opinions of her own; rather, it’s my belief that she did have quite a strong foundation for her own thoughts and ideas, but, being the ideal Regency-era woman, she kept those opinions to herself.
I didn’t care at all for Frank Churchill; he was playing games just as much as Emma, if not more, as there was a very solid and real relationship before him, the boundaries of which he tested at every turn – on the one hand, he had declared already his love for his intended and sought an engagement with her, while on the other, he upset her to such a degree that she became physically ill. In his shallow, dull life, this was his chosen form of entertainment. Meanwhile, poor Jane was forced to endure his foolishness, because, again, in that society, what choice did she have?
I did feel a bit sorry for Mr. Elton, because he was truly enamored of Emma, so in a way he, like Harriet Smith, was dealing with a rather violent rejection and at least a little heartache. But he attached himself to an absolutely awful woman, so in the end, for his treatment of Harriet, he did get a bit of what he deserved.
In short, I have to say that there are so many great books out in the world, so many that we’ll never have a chance to read them all. So why, why, why Emma??!! I really think Mark Twain said it best when he stated: “I haven’t any right to criticize books, and I don’t do it except when I hate them. I often want to criticize Jane Austen, but her books madden me so that I can’t conceal my frenzy from the reader; and therefore I have to stop every time I begin. Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and hit her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
With Which Character Did You Most Identify?: Anne Weston
The Divine Ms. Em listened to the Amazon Kindle e-book version of this book.
Caveat: Lady Esbe did not finish this selection.
I can sum up my reading experience in one word: DRIVEL.
I will start with the style of writing. Unlike many period pieces, this was an easy adaptability read. I didn’t feel like you had to strain to understand what was being said or the general happenings of the work. Thank you Jane Austen (and that is the only thing I will thank you for)!. While the style of writing is antiquated, it by no means is Middle English and is quite easy to decipher, in my opinion. The age, while different from ours, is very similar. You will have that one person within the group who will throw their hat into the ring uninvited and most times causing confusion and strife. That same person will always speak around the subject so as not to be blamed, but definitely will take the credit if something works out to other’s benefit.
No matter the time period or place, there are idiots that walk amongst us who feel it is necessary to impart their “knowledge” when really all they are doing is imparting more stupidity. Such is the case for Emma. She is a pseudo-intellectual, barely talented, and more to the point an idiotic busy body. While for the time, she may have been acting as a young lady would want to act. In fact, I don’t care what time period it is, an idiot is an idiot is an idiot. She is the epitome of someone who is arrogant and completely unaware of herself or her aptitudes. She fancies herself this great reader of people when what it boils down to is that she is projecting her wants and beliefs onto others.
Mr. Knightly (sic) was completely correct in his assertions; she was a horrible influence for Harriet and vice-versa. Harriet, being a younger woman could come off as a blathering idiot as well, but she’s a young woman looking for guidance. She’s a teenager for Pete’s sake, of course she won’t be well put together. It is unfortunate, as it is with people in general, that those who need the most guidance are often sucked into the web of someone who is corrupt, or in this case, supremely misguided.
I will speak a little on supporting characters. I am unsure if Mr. Woodhouse came off so “old maid” like because this was written by a woman or if she was going for a weaker man. At any rate, his attitude, demeanor and his hypochondria are way too much for one person to bear. It is also not hard to see where Emma got her misguided belief that her opinions were the most important or the only one that matters. Furthermore, he is the antithesis of what I expect a man of the time to behave like. Even a man of landed gentry was not so… woman-like as Mr. Woodhouse. In fact, even if he were not so manly in his pursuits, I would expect him to at least attempt to behave more the man of the manor than the lady of the manor. With the exception of Mr. Knightly (sic), everyone seems to placate and sing the praises of Emma. While what they say is flattering, their flattery rings false. It makes me feel like how we are living in America currently. You can’t speak honestly, you must placate and praise, even when censure is due.
As far as Mr. Elton is concerned, I don’t feel that his behavior was abhorrent, rather that because Emma is such an idiot, his character was deemed less than becoming because he did not do as she bid and had his own agenda. As one could say, from the outside looking in, it was very clear what his intentions were, but because Emma is so blinded by her misconceptions, his endeavor was bound to be fruitless.
I found Isabella to be an odd balance. She was a strange amalgamation between small strengths, only as a mother could have but also be fretful as her father (Mr. Woodhouse) was. She didn’t blindly agree with everything Mr. Woodhouse said and was able to stand her ground when the conversation turned toward more whining reproaches or unjust projections from her father.
Mrs. Weston was a caregiver through and through. However, some of that caregiving should have turned toward helpful guidance rather than silent or active encouragement of Emma’s whims. As a governess, she did herself and Emma no favors. But good for her that she managed to land herself a husband because of that soft demeanor.
Mr. Knightly (sic) by far is my favorite character. He is strong in his opinions and doesn’t mince words with Emma. While he will placate her father, he will also speak his mind as he wants. It may be due to his age, but he is the only sane person in this novel. I’ll say his brother is running a close second, but his brother is falling in line with the same self-absorbed, self-important behavior as the rest of the Highbury lot.
In summary, will I ever read Jane Austen again . . . likely not. It is unfortunate, because her writing style is fine. However, the content made me want to chuck my Kindle against the wall and not in a good way. I find it amusing that every well-read person I know who has read this book thinks pretty much the same, Emma is barely tolerable. So my agitation is not unfounded. Reading Emma for me is equated to watching reality television about the Khardasians, Real Housewives of wherever and any other inane show out there. This is the perfect example of how the pompous, overindulged, self-important people thinking that their lives are so important, so perfect that they must impose it upon the world at large. To that I say, “no thank you”.
With Which Character Did You Most Identify?: George Knightley
Lady Esbe read the Amazon Kindle e-book version of this book.