Review: Emma by Jane Austen

I finally find myself at the end of another book and at my computer long enough to compose a post. I just finished Emma by Jane Austen last night as part of the Victorian Literature Reading Challenge hosted by Subtle Melodrama.

As the challenge outlines, the books must have been written during the Victorian era (1837-1901) or contain Victorian era thoughts/values which Austen does….though Austen wrote more in the Georgian era/ Regency era (1811-1817) her concepts and ideals were generally Victorian so I was happy I could include some of her novels as part of the challenge.

Of course I have read Emma before, once in high school and once as part of a Jane Austen literature class to fulfill my British Literature BA in college. One of the things I love about the ‘classics’ is you get something new out of them every time you read them and of course Emma is no different so I chose to read it again as part of the challenge. Some of you might not know but Emma is actually the basis for the modern day film, Clueless which became a ‘cult classic’ file in the late 1990’s. Though Austen might be considered ‘old fashion’ or ‘boring’ to some her stories are truly timeless and relevant even in the more recent culture.

Emma is one of my favorite Austen characters. Not just because she is the most independent but because she is just so funny. Her youth and naïvety not only make her endearing but funny without even trying. Emma is a young, innocent, rich girl who likes to play match maker. She recently had success matching her governess, Miss Taylor with a widowed family friend, Mr Weston. Now that her governess has married and moved out of the house it is only Emma and her father. Emma eager to bring the same happiness to others in her town (and because she is bored) she starts looking for other young girls who lack means (money and good looks) that she can ‘make over’ and find husbands for.

Emma finds a perfect project with Harriet Smith who is an orphan with little in the way of connections. Emma scouts a potential husband for Harriet, the eligible Mr Elton who is the vicar of Highbury and Harriet’s superior in family, connection, and finance. Of course the plan backfires and Mr Elton falls in love with Emma instead and which is much to Emma’s disliking. Emma’s close friend Mr Knightley warns Emma that she has no business interfering in her friends love lives but she thinks he is foolish and continues trying to find other suitable matches for Harriet. Harriet is actually really in love with a local farmer, Mr Martin who Emma feels is white trash more or less and not worthy of Harriet’s feelings. Eventually, after Mr Elton embarrassed himself by professing his love to Emma he leaves town and returns with a wife…..a very vulgar, rude, and stuck up wife no less.

The story continues with Emma ‘falling in love’ with the self centered (but popular and equally as rich) Mr Churchill but she quickly realizes she does not really love him, Emma really loves Mr Knightley. Just as Emma starts realizing that she loves Mr Knightley, Harriet professes her love for Mr Knightley…..eventually Mr Knightley makes his feelings known, which are for Emma. Harriet goes on to marry Mr Martin, Mr Churchill marries local wall flower Miss Fairfax, and Mr Elton marries the ridiculous Miss Hawkins, and Emma and Mr Knightley marry living happily ever after in HER house rather than his house.

Emma is one of Austen’s more modern characters, she is independently wealthy and does not need to marry. Most of Austen’s heroines are poor and marry rich men who must take care of them but they do always marry for love not convenience. However, since most of Austen’s heroines are poor, a marriage to an affluent man is not without need….love or not. But with Emma we get a different perspective and as a result Emma is a much more light hearted book than some of the other novels. There is not the pressure to find a man who she loves AND has money. Emma is both rich, good looking, and intelligent–a triple threat so to speak. Emma lacks many close friends her age and her sister is already married so she also lacks womanly companionship so in some ways she should be more ‘mature’ than she is but when we meet her it is clear she is very young with not enough to do and very much spoiled by her father. Though she grows more mature in the novel it is clear she still has a lot of growing up to do….poor Mr Knightley will have his hands full to be sure!

One thing I find interesting about all of Austen’s novels is they all end at the ‘wedding’. They are the early fairy tales or early Disney films…..where the prince and princess live happily ever after….there is no ‘what happens after the after’, no follow up. The reader is left to assume that once courtship was done, there was nothing else. Most Victorian novels focus on one consistent theme: they are idealized portraits. In Austen’s, for women the most one could expect was to marry and marry well. There was nothing said about love or courtship. Until Austen there were really no ‘romance’ novels, nothing which women could use to idealize… in some ways Austen really was the first ‘Disney’ writer, she made love and courtship an ideal. There are a lot of fascinating articles on Victorian ideals, Feminism, and Jane Austen (as well as others) on the Victorian Web website if you are interested.

One thing I should point out is this book is not only modern in the portrayal of women but it could be considered ‘racy’ as well. Of all the Austen novels, Emma and Mr Knightley get a little ‘intimate’ which is unusual in any of the other novels….most of the heroines are lucky to get a marriage proposal let alone physical contact such as a kiss. In this novel though there is a hint of lust and sensuality when Mr Knightley refuses to kiss her hand, Emma is rather taken aback by the lack of affection then the gesture and thus finds this kind of a ‘turn on’ so to speak…..the thrill of a challenge. Then when they are walking alone on the way back to Hartford, Mr Knightley comforts Emma about the news of Mr Churchill’s engagement:

For a moment or two nothing was said, and she was unsuspicious of having excited any particular interest, till she found her arm drawn within his, and pressed against his heart, and heard him thus saying, in a tone of great sensibility, speaking low, “Time, my dearest Emma, time will heal the wound. — Your own excellent sense — your exertions for your father’s sake — I know you will not allow yourself. –” Her arm was pressed again, as he added, in a more broken and subdued accent, “The feelings of the warmest friendship — Indignation — Abominable scoundrel!” — And in a louder, steadier tone, he concluded with, “He will soon be gone. They will soon be in Yorkshire. I am sorry for her. She deserves a better fate.” Emma understood him; and as soon as she could recover from the flutter of pleasure excited by such tender consideration, replied, “You are very kind — but you are mistaken — and I must set you right. — I am not in want of that sort of compassion.” … (492)

It is clear from the excerpt that this kind of intimate gesture, even one as simple as hand holding, clearly indicated desire and sensuality between both characters….this is about as close to a sex scene as Austen will EVER get LOL :).

Anyway, the novel of course is worth the read, it is a timeless tale and really rather entertaining. It is one of those books that never goes out of style and will always have relevance in modern society in more ways than one. It represents the Victorian ‘ideal’ and the ‘ideal woman’ while at the same time subverting cultural and social expectations of love and women. Even thought the target audience is female, it is a classic which means….men you can read it too.

The only gripe I had was the ending….I am so use to Austen novels ending right at the wedding or proposal between the heroine and hero that I was a little ready for it to be done by the time Mr Knightley professed his love but the novel went on for a good 50 or more pages. I was ready for the end at that point and I have always kind of felt like Emma drug a little toward the end. As with most Victorian era-ish literature, the novels are long and wordy so they are a little daunting to read simply because of the amount of language….on every page….but CLEARLY I am not a stranger to long winded-ness (do you hear my sarcasm??) :). I love being long winded, it’s one of my fav eccentricities :).

Challenge/Book Summary:

Book: Emma by Jane Austen

  • Kindle Edition, 421 pages
  • Published October 4th 2009 by Public Domain Books (first published 1815)

Recommendation: 4 out of 5 (GREAT, read it! It’s a classic for crying out loud!)

Genre: Classic, Romance, British Literature, Regency era Literature, Victorian era Literature

Memorable lines/quotes: 

I always deserve the best treatment because I never put up with any other.

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