Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Redux #19 - "Emma" by Jane Austen

Whenever I read a Jane Austen novel, I am always amazed that she wrote almost two hundred years ago. I love her books, and her characters are completely relatable, despite the large time gap between writing and reading. Emma (1816) by Jane Austen was the last of the major Austen works that I still had to read. I loved Ang Lee's movie version of Sense and Sensibility, so when I finally read the book, I was a little disappointed. Having seen both Gwyneth Paltrow and Alicia Silverstone as Emma, I was a little concerned that I would have a similar problem with Emma, but I was not disappointed. I often laughed out loud while reading Austen's fantastic dialogue and descriptions of her characters, and Emma is now up there as one of my favorite Austen novels.

Emma Woodhouse is mistress of her father's house in Highbury. Smart, pretty, and rich, she has led a happy and privileged life with very few to say her nay. At twenty-one years old Emma knows less about relationships and love than most, but she has declared that she shall never marry; Emma also seeks to play matchmaker among those of her acquaintance with less than positive results. Emma's most serious transgression has to do with her meddling in her new friend, Harriet Smith's, possible marriage to Robert Martin. It was incredibly frustrating to see Emma ignorantly and blithely throwing away her friend's happiness because of her own vanity and misguided snobbishness. I can see how people would dislike Emma. However, Austen deftly gives Emma the best of intentions, a good heart, a quick wit, and an endearing love and willingness to sacrifice for her father, so that she is not entirely unlikable--even when she's driving you crazy with her actions. Her honesty, willingness to admit her mistakes, regret them, and learn from them also help in this respect.

Spoiler? And then there's the relationship between Mr. Knightley and Emma. At first I was a little put off because Mr. Knightley was almost a father figure in Emma's life, and I would have preferred something of a more balanced association. However, by the end of the novel, they seem to be on more equal footing, and I loved some of their verbal dueling. It was clear from the dialogue that they enjoyed challenging each other. And I guess I'm just a sucker for romances, but it actually made my heart hurt (in a good way) when they finally got together in the garden.

One thing that struck me about Emma was the idea of social hierarchy visited throughout the novel. Most of Austen's other heroines struggle with being honest and noble but relatively poor. Elizabeth and Jane Bennett had almost no dowry, Marianne and Eleanor Dashwood had very little money, and Fanny Price was pretty much an orphan. It is in being so smart and pretty that these women rise above their "station" and marry so well, and it implies a certain disapproval by Austen of the strict social hierarchy of the time. However, Emma is rich, the biggest fish in her little pond, and although she is not consistent, Emma shows more than a little snobbishness when it comes to her place in the class structure. On the one hand, Emma loves her old governess, Mrs. Weston, and clearly wants the best for Harriet Smith no matter who her father is. But then Emma still sees Harriet Smith as beneath her and looks forward to refusing an invitation from the "vulgur" Cox family (gaining in funds but not well born). From my modern perspective it is hard to understand how you can be friends with someone who you think is beneath you. What kind of friendship is that?

Yet Emma is not unaware of the unfairness of class differences on her sex. "...and it caught Emma's attention only as it united with the subject which already engaged her mind. The contrast between Mrs. Churchill's importance in the world and Jane Fairfax's struck her; one was everything, the other nothing--and she sat musing on the difference of woman's destiny..." (Ch. 44). I guess you can find consistency if you think that Emma's snobbishness comes from actual worth and not from birth. Smith is not the brightest or wittiest companion, and even though Mrs. Churchill has married well and is rich, she gets no accolades from Emma. But there were still times when Emma confidently declares herself "better" than others, and I felt a pull towards an approval of the hierarchy of the classes. Harriet Smith marries Mr. Robert Martin and inevitably spends less time with Emma, which was as it should be, according to Emma.

Anyway, as I said before, Emma is now one of my favorites. It entertains on so many levels, and there is so much going on that I will hopefully find the time to continue re-reading this book throughout my life.

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