Jane Austen fans will lovingly quibble over which of her novels is the best. Pride and Prejudice is a universal favorite (and my personal choice), while Sense and Sensibility has a strong following behind it. But scholars often point to Emma as her finest work. It is her longest work and she excels at using dialogue as the vehicle for telling you the most about her characters. Seemingly unimportant conversations are essential at showing you the motives, the tenancies, the strengths, and the errors of her characters. I’ve read this book several times and now spend more time on these character-driven sections than in the past. It is truly some amazing writing.
But what has held me, and perhaps others, away raising the Emma flag too often is, well, Emma. Austen herself famously wrote in a letter prior to starting the novel that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” I must say, I’ve always felt she hit it on the mark. Emma is a manipulative person who feels she knows what is better for everyone else than they do themselves. When her attempts at matchmaking fail, she shows temporary guilt, and then unconsciously moves on to the next matchmaking attempt. She grooms one young lady like a puppy, and then sets her up for one fall after another (unintentionally, but still!). And then (PLOT SPOILER) in the end she gets all that she wants. Clearly, if you are familiar with Austen you expect a happy ending, so that is not much of a spoiler, especially she does not figure out what she wants until near the end of the novel.
Perhaps the most damaging mark against Emma comes close to the end when she makes an accurate, but hurtful, comment toward a woman who talks too much. The “Box Hill Incident” shows Emma at her worst in that she seems unaware of the influence she has on others. Only when she is taken to task by her friend, Mr. Knightly, for her comment, does she begin to understand the damage she has done. That she is unable to immediately undo the damage gives her time to consider the consequences. I’ve always felt uncomfortable with this scene because, to put it simply, it is uncomfortable. You watch helplessly as one person makes a fool of themselves and then makes it worse by her cutting remark. However, reading it this time, I was uncomfortable because it is a great shot — she is right on mark and she is funny. That line to one person may have returned with an equally adept shot, but in this case she hits a person who is defenseless in so many ways. Mr. Knightly highlights this in his censure of Emma’s actions.
Which brings us to the underlying issue of class distinction found in the novel. What makes Emma’s comment so wrong is not the comment itself, but the person she hurt. It is someone beneath her social circle, someone who has seen her social stature drop, and someone who will not see it rise. She is down and Emma has kicked her.
Emma should have see the fault because she is very conscious of class. But as Mr. Knightly implies, that is simply a matter of birth. While she will have advantages that others will not, that only makes it more important for her to reach out to others.
Austen shows the breaking down of the social classes in the early 19th century. Wealthy tradespeople are buying property and asserting their social demands — think of it as the New York battles between “old” and “new” money seen in Edith Wharton’s novels. In Emma we see the blurring of these lines, especially in a small society, but the lines are still there. By the end of the novel the lines have been broken in one case, but maintained in two other relationships. Austen blesses them all with happiness.
As for Emma, she is unlikable in that she is really like us. She is a flawed character. Austen does not present too many stereotypes, and, in fact, Pride and Prejudice relies on our character flaws for driving the novel forward. But Emma is more flawed, more realistic, than most of Austen’s characters. It may be that glimpse in the mirror which has driven me away from Emma since I first read this novel many years ago. As I get older I find I’m more comfortable acknowledging my faults. Perhaps that is why I’m now more comfortable with Emma.
A final note. I read the “Annotated” version by David Shapard. This is the third of these editions I have read and I enjoy them immensely. On the left hand page is the text and on the right hand page are Shapard’s notes, which at times are reflections on the text, at times clarifications of definitions, and at times insight into time-specific elements (such as what the different carriage styles signify). For a first-time reader I would recommend focusing on Austen, but then be sure to return to one of these versions for a fresh look at a classic.