Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Last week, after snatching it off the shelves of my favorite second-hand book shop, I sat down and read Jane Austen’s Emma in one sitting. I happen to like my Austen this way, in big healthy bites with very few interruptions. And reading Emma was no different, although the experience was heightened a bit since I’d never read it before and kept trying to figure out who Emma would end up with. To say I figured it out fairly early would be both true and a lie. I had my suspicions from the beginning, but all my recent Wharton reading put me on guard and I wondered if Austen wasn’t about to shock me with an unexpected twist of some sort.

Let’s see…what did I like about Emma? First and foremost, it was just plain enjoyable to immerse myself in Austen’s 19th century England. The vista she presents to her readers is so wholly complete, so detailed, that it’s difficult not to wish to have lived at this time period, or at least to be able to experience firsthand the world she describes. And Austen really is an expert storyteller, so just moving from one scene to the next and working through the various ups and downs of the story provides an all-around satisfying reading experience.

I also enjoyed the structure of the novel and the way it keeps the reader from knowing for absolutely certain which gentlemen the author has selected for her heroine. Compared to her other novels, I felt she kept the hints about Emma’s future husband decidedly subtle. With that looming story a bit more subdued than usual, she was free to construct a series of adventures to help Emma do some much-needed growing up.

So here is where I admit I found Emma a bit of an annoying heroine. I realize this is what Austen intended, that we get frustrated with Emma’s well-intentioned but hopelessly irresponsible manipulations. She serves us a good lesson – even clever people, when too-often indulged will lose their objectivity. In short, cleverness isn’t enough. Patience, empathy for others and honest self-reflection is just as important. To some extent I was happy to play along and then feel suitably proud of Emma for recognizing the gravity of her heedless meddling and then earnestly mending her ways.

And there was something about Emma’s perfect independence that worked against her. She is in no real danger, ever, of losing something she really cares about. Compare that to Elizabeth Bennett, Elinor Dashwood, Catherine Morland, Fanny Price or Anne Elliot – all of these women must come face to face with real, life-altering disappointment at some point in their stories. Emma’s realization that she is at risk to be disappointed is so quickly rationalized into existence and then her actual disappointment so wonderfully short-lived, that it was hard for me to work up any real concern about her well-being.

Finally, though it may have been my mood when reading the book, I found Emma to be much less funny than say, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice or Northanger Abbey. Those three books had many moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, provided by a contingent of marvelously eccentric characters with either sharp tongues or oblivious blunderings. Emma’s father and Miss Bates provided some well-needed humor on occasion (both decidedly in the latter category) but that was about it.

All in all, Emma will never be my favorite Austen. But I’m very happy to have read it and I’m sure I’ll re-read it at some point. Perhaps it will grow on me with a second reading. Now that I’ve read them all, Pride and Prejudice remains my favorite with Northanger Abbey and Persuasion tied for second and Sense and Sensibility coming in a very close third. I love the characters and the story, but I believe the narrative gets a bit baggy around the edges in this one. I quite like the intellectual equality Austen gives to Emma and her eventual husband, so I think Emma will come next in line for that reason alone. Unfortunately, I’ve never been completely satisfied with the ending of Mansfield Park so Fanny and Edmund remain my least favorite Austen couple.

17 Responses to “Jane Austen – Emma”

  1. Lilian Nattel

    I wish Austen had lived longer. I would have loved to see her work mature. Have you seen the tv show Lost in Austen? The premise is that an avid reader who wishes to be in Austen’s world ends up in Pride & Prejudice, taking Elizabeth Bennett’s place. Your review reminded me of it & coincidentally I saw it last night.

  2. estelle

    Yes, Mansfield Park and Emma are my least favourite Austens too. I think you hit the nail on the head with the comment that Emma has nothing to lose. She is the complete opposite of Fanny, who is internally perfect and needs the rest of the world to catch up. Emma’s external world is perfect and is only waiting for her to catch up.

  3. Mel

    I read “Emma” in April of this year. When I read Austin, as you said you do, I let myself be emerged in her world. I enjoyed “Emma” a lot-I am pretty sure I read all of Austin some time in the last 40 years and want to reread them all soon.

  4. Table Talk

    My first experience of reading ‘Emma’ was very different from yours. It was one of my set texts for A level and the teacher was abysmal. It took me a full year to read it because I had no desire to go any faster than was required to keep up with the lessons. In fact, my failure to finish the book became a standing joke in our house. Normally, I get through at least two a week. As a consequence I have never been able to take an objective view about ‘Emma’. I didn’t like her as a character and it may be that this is for some of the same reasons that you articulate but my view is so coloured by that first experience that I have no way now of knowing.

  5. Steph

    I think I find Emma to be one of Austen’s funniest books because Austen is so obviously making sport of Emma, whereas Lizzie Bennett & Elinor Dashwood are too good to do so to. Emma is ridiculous, but Austen is emphasizing that, rather than saying she is a good person for us to emulate (not that L & E were perfect models, of course)… Also, I found her father hilarious, as well as Mr. Elton & his wife. I suppose our difference may be in that I don’t think we’re supposed to really like Emma as she is for most of the novel, but this didn’t really bother me, whereas it sounded like you were more put off by this.

    Then again, my reading may be coloured by my having seen the Mirimax film version, starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Some people have taken issue with it, but I really like that version, so I would recommend you check it out! Also, Clueless if based on the book, and is another one I love!

    Great analysis, even if we differ on a few points! Even when a book doesn’t rocket onto your list of favourites, you always seem to take something from it, which I really admire!

  6. Biblibio

    I’ve tried to read “Emma” at three points in my life. I attempted to make it my first Austen (once I realized she’s generally respected), but failed twenty pages in, unable to get into the story. Instead, I read the ubiquitous “Pride and Prejudice” and enjoyed it. By that point, I told myself my previous failure had to do with my age and maturity, so I picked “Emma” up off the shelf again… and once more, crashed at around thirty pages.

    Two years later, I read “Sense and Sensibility” and “Mansfield Park” (I’ll agree with the weird ending on this one). By now, I figured myself as mature a reader as anyone… and I tried and failed one more time. I suspect I’ll attempt “Emma” a few more times in my life, but I wonder if it isn’t the type of book I’m doomed to fail with again and again…

  7. ds

    I am only four-for-six with Ms. Austen (though I saw the movie version of Sense and Sensibility w/Emma Thompson and a very young Kate Winslet, would that count?), but I agree with you about Mansfield Park–it is my least favorite. I like Emma however, but that may have as much to do with the fact that I read it for a class with a favorite college professor, which can make such a difference in one’s approach to a book.
    Clearly, it is time for a complete Austen marathon/retrospective over here, during which all of your thoughtful comments will be used as markers. Thank you!

  8. verbivore

    Lillian – You make such a good point about what we might have today if Austen had lived longer. And no, I’ve never seen that show – sounds intriguing!

    Estelle – I need to reread Persuasion because I think Fanny is one of the more interesting heroines in Austen’s collection. But it’s been a few years. I’m so good at rereading P & P, because it always makes me laugh, but the others always have to wait too long.

    Mel – I should start a blog called The Rereading Life 🙂 I do so much of it.

    Ann – How awful! It’s terrible the long-lasting effect a bad teacher can have. Luckily, the flip side is also true.

  9. verbivore

    Steph – Mr. Elton and his wife were good for a laugh or two. And I agree that Emma contains quite a bit of humor, in the sense that she is poking fun at Emma and many of the other characters. Emma may be Austen’s most personally satirical novel, along with Northanger Abbey. I’ve never seen the film, but probably should one of these days. Austen-based films can be a lot of fun.

    Biblibio – You are brave to even consider reading it again, I must admit that if a book failed for me three times I’d probably give it away and never look back.

    Ds – I think Emma Thompson’s version of Sense of Sensibility is nearly better than the actual book (and I NEVER say that about books vs movies). The book has, I feel, quite a few “draggy” sections – quite rare for Austen. The movie follows the book almost perfectly, except it trims those superfluous meanderings right out.

    Stefanie – I suspect I could become fond of Emma with enough rereading and maybe a fantastic critical study of some sort. But on a first read, I just didn’t find the “fun” in it that I find so easily in other Austen.

  10. litlove

    What a lovely review! Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever read Emma. Nor have I read Persuasion. I began Mansfield Park but never finished it, finding it the, well, dullest. One of these days I’ll have an Austen moment – it sounds wonderful to read one of her novels in a day.

  11. びっくり

    I’m sure I’ve said it before but I’ll always have a soft spot for Col. Brandon. Thanks for the write-up on Emma. I loved the lessons you consolidated from it.

  12. oh

    hmmmm… I usually save Austen for reading in the winter, as I do Dickens, but perhaps I can do a read in the next few weeks, though I envy your being able to sit down and read the entire work in one fell swoop! that IS the way to read a good novel, after all. I continue to imagine a “reading vacation” but the truth of it is, I will likely just take a day off work and READ!!!!!
    thanks for a close clear look at EMMA.

  13. verbivore

    Litlove – It took me forever to realize that I had never read Emma, nor had I seen the film. Unfortunately, I knew about the film so I had Gwynyth Paltrow in my head as an image of Emma. So frustrating when that happens. But I’m glad I finally read it.

    Bikkuri – I love Col. Brandon. He might be one of my favorite Austen heros, and he’s such a subtle one.

    Oh – That’s funny, so do I. I reread Pride and Prejudice every winter, along with the Bronte’s. I should try Dickens in the winter – good idea!

  14. Care

    I have had Emma as a favorite only because it’s the most recent Austen I’ve read. I’m right now reading the Jane Austen Book Club and I’m sure it would be much better if I had recently read all her books. It’s still relatable tho – I seem to know all the stories despite not reading the books.

  15. verbivore

    Care – It’s funny how we all seem to know Austen. I discovered last year that although I thought I had read Sense and Sensibility (and so thought I was rereading it), I’d only ever seen the film and the book was completely new to me. What a strange experience that was. I’ve never read the Jane Austen Book Club, are you enjoying it?

  16. Care

    The movie Sense and Sensibility IS really good! Emma Thompson did a fabulous job on the screenplay.
    No, I did not like the Jane Austen Book Club book much at all. I am sure you would not be impressed. But it has inspired me to attempt to read ALL of Austen’s books.

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