Read in part for #AusteninAugustRBR and partly because I have wanted to re-read it for ages and received a lovely new cloth bound edition for Christmas.
It is very difficult to sit down and try to review classic works of literature – whenever I read anything so well-known and well-loved I rather dread having to review it.
For me Emma seems to be the most Austen like novel of all her novels. That is: by Jane’s own recipe for a “nice novel”
“two or three families living near to one another in the country”
Obviously all her novels do conform to this ideal – but Emma does so more than the others in my opinion – it does not have the high romance of Pride and Prejudice or Persuasion or the drama of Sense and Sensibility, nor the complexity of Mansfield Park. On the face of it not very much happens in Emma – instead we have quite a minute examination of those two or three families, their daily lives are reproduced faithfully and the reader feels these characters must surely have lived.
“And have you never known the pleasure and triumph of a lucky guess? I pity you. I thought you cleverer; for depend upon it, a lucky guess is never merely luck. There is always some talent in it.”
Emma Woodhouse is a famously interfering and deluded character her behaviour can very irritating to the reader. A beautiful heiress she lives with her elderly widowed father on their Hartfield estate. A regular visitor to the house and long-time friend of the family is Mr Knightly to whose younger brother Emma’s sister Isabella is married. Emma’s former governess Miss Taylor has been recently married to Mr Weston and is happily ensconced nearby at The Randalls. However Mr Woodhouse always resistant to change and saddened at the loss of an important member of the household, now calls her “poor Miss Taylor” just as he describes his married daughter as “poor Isabella.” The Weston’s form part of the tight circle of friends and acquaintances of Emma and her father. Mr Woodhouse is a lovable old character a terrible hypochondriac – his chief concerns seem to be the potential health hazards for himself and his friends in almost any social activity that is being planned. Mr Weston has a grown up son from a former marriage, his son brought up by a wealthy aunt was obliged to take her name, and Frank Churchill as he is now called rarely sees his father. An expected and long overdue visit to his father and his new wife excites the imagination of everyone in the village of Highbury and the surrounding country families.
Meanwhile, the delusional Emma – convinced that she brought her beloved Miss Taylor together with Mr Weston and brought about their happy union – deaf to Mr Knightly’s entreaties of non-interference takes naïve and unsophisticated Harriet Smith under her wing. Harriet is the natural daughter of no one knows who, placed in a local school, has risen from scholar to parlour boarder. Socially speaking, Harriet Smith’s future is uncertain, but Emma has decided Harriet’s father must have been a gentleman – on no evidence whatsoever – and decides her new friend is far too good to end up the wife of gentleman farmer Robert Martin whose family Harriet has become friendly with. Emma settles on Vicar Mr Elton as the perfect match for Harriet – and this becomes just the first of the errors of judgement that Emma makes. In concerning herself far too much in the lives and loves of those around her Emma almost fails to see what is under her own nose.
“I cannot make speeches, Emma…If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”
Last year when the librarything Virago group were reading the novels of Elizabeth Taylor there was a lot of discussion about the influences of Jane Austen upon Elizabeth Taylor’s work, I even wrote a post about that. While reading The Soul of Kindness there were some suggestions that Flora in that novel is not unlike Austen’s Emma in the way she is deluded to her actions and the effect she has on others. It is a very long time since I first read Emma – and I had remembered the character of Emma Woodhouse as being very annoying. Reading it now however I didn’t find her nearly as annoying as I thought I would. Despite everything, Emma is quite a sympathetic character – Flora in The Soul of Kindness is not. Flora is much darker creation and the reader cannot be entirely convinced of her redemption at the end. While with Emma the reader really sees how she gradually begins to see the error of her ways, sharing her burgeoning discomfort over particular errors and assumptions that she has made.
Emma is a wonderful read, pure and simple, Austen’s sharp wit and acute observation of people is brilliantly displayed. There are a host of wonderful characters, both good and bad – including the slightly ridiculous yet pitiful Miss Bates, the dreadfully socially ambitious Mrs Elton, the endearing Mr Woodhouse and the wonderfully sensible and kindly Mr Knightly – who I had a bit of a crush on in my teens. Almost everyone in the novel loves Emma – only Mr Knightly seem aware of any fault in her, but Emma herself is a pretty flawed character- she means well though, and that is her saving, that and her ability to see the error of her ways.