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.