Jane Austen #4: Emma

February 13, 2009

Emma, published in 1815, is the fourth published novel by Jane Austen. It is a story of misconstrued romance, and is one of my two favorites, since its characters are very colorful.

emmaThe story opens with:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

It turns out our heroine, Emma Woodhouse, is rather spoiled. She also overvalues her personal judgment and skills at human match-making; and, she is naive —clueless, even— about the effects of her social machinations on others.

Emma Woodhouse lives in Surrey in the village of Highbury with her father, a hypochondriac who is excessively concerned for the health and safety of his loved ones. Emma’s friend and only critic is the gentlemanly Mr. Knightley, her neighbour from the adjacent estate of Donwell, and brother of her elder sister Isabella’s husband. As the novel opens, Emma has just attended the wedding of Miss Taylor, her best friend and former governess. Having introduced Miss Taylor to her future husband, Mr Weston, Emma takes credit for their marriage, and decides that she rather likes matchmaking.

Against Mr. Knightley’s advice, Emma forges ahead with her new interest, and tries to match her new friend Harriet Smith, a sweet but simpleminded girl of seventeen—described as “the natural daughter of somebody”—to Mr. Elton, the local vicar. However, first she must persuade Miss Smith to refuse an advantageous marriage proposal from a respectable young farmer, Mr. Martin, whom Emma believes is too socially inferior for Harriet. Against her own wishes, the easily-influenced Harriet refuses the proposal. However, soon her schemes go awry when Mr. Elton, a social climber himself, declares he wants to marry Emma —not the socially inferior Harriet. After Emma rejects Mr. Elton, he leaves for a while for a sojourn in Bath, and Harriet fancies herself heartbroken. Emma now tries to convince Harriet that Mr. Elton is beneath her after all.

An interesting development is the arrival in the neighbourhood of Frank Churchill, Mrs Weston’s stepson, whom Emma has never met, but in whom she has a long-standing interest. Also, Mr. Elton, who will reveal himself to be more and more arrogant and pompous as the story continues—much like Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice—returns with another newcomer, a common, vulgar but rich wife who becomes part of Emma’s social circle, though the two women soon loathe each other. A third new character is the orphaned Jane Fairfax, the reserved but beautiful niece of Emma’s impoverished neighbour, the talkative Miss Bates. Miss Bates is an aging spinster, who is well-meaning but increasingly poor; Emma strives to be polite and kind to her, but is irritated by her dull and incessant chattering. Jane, who is very accomplished musically, is Miss Bates’ pride and joy; Emma envies her talent and initially dislikes her for her apparent coldness and reserve. Jane had lived with Miss Bates until she was nine, but Colonel Campbell, a friend indebted to her father for seeing him through a life-threatening illness, welcomed her into his own home where she became fast friends with his unfortunately plain daughter and received a first-rate education. On the marriage of Miss Campbell, Jane returned to her relations, ostensibly to regain her health and prepare to earn her living as a governess.

In her eagerness to find some sort of fault with Jane—and also to find something to amuse her in her pleasant but dull village—Emma indulges in the fantasy, apparently shared with Frank, that Jane was an object of admiration for Miss Campbell’s husband, Mr. Dixon, and that it is for this reason she has returned home, rather than going to Ireland to visit them. This suspicion is further fueled by the arrival of a piano for Jane from a mysterious anonymous benefactor.

Emma tries to make herself fall in love with Frank largely because everyone says they make a handsome couple. Frank seems to everyone to have Emma as his object, and the two flirt together in public, including on a day-trip to Box Hill, a local beauty spot. Emma ultimately decides, however, that he would suit Harriet better after an episode where Frank ‘saves’ Harriet from a band of Gypsies. At this time, Mrs. Weston wonders if Emma’s old friend Mr. Knightley might have taken a fancy to Jane. Emma promptly decides that she does not want Mr. Knightley to marry anyone, but rather than further explore these feelings, she claims that this is because she wants her nephew Henry to inherit the family property.

When Mr. Knightley scolds her for a thoughtless insult to Miss Bates, Emma is privately ashamed, and tries to atone. Mr. Knightley approves deeply of Emma’s recognition of her wrongdoing and attempt to atone, revealing a foreshadowing of more meaningful affection for Emma. Meanwhile, Jane reportedly becomes ill, but refuses to see Emma or accept her gifts. Emma believes that Jane’s behavior stems from Emma’s previous neglect of Jane and/or coldness towards Jane. Jane also suddenly accepts an offer for a governess position from a friend of Mrs. Elton’s.

Emma soon thereafter learns the reasons for Jane’s odd behavior: Jane and Frank have been secretly engaged for almost a year. Frank had pretended to admire Emma in order to disguise his clandestine relationship with Jane. Jane’s distress was due to the fact that she and Frank had quarrelled over his behavior towards Emma and his unguarded behavior towards Jane, which Jane believed could put them at risk for discovery. The death of Frank’s overbearing aunt/adoptive mother frees Frank to marry Jane, and the engagement becomes public.

When Harriet confides that she thinks Mr. Knightley is in love with her, jealousy forces Emma to realize that she loves him herself. Mr. Knightley has been in love with Emma for the duration of the book and after the engagement of Jane and Frank had been discovered, he proposes to her. Shortly thereafter Harriet reconciles with her young farmer Mr. Martin and Jane and Emma reconcile and everyone lives happily.

***

For your considerations, we have a 1996 movie starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma, and a 1996 TV drama starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma.

Also, a 1995 movie, Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone as Cher. Clueless is a modern adaptation of Emma; it is based loosely on Emma.

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