Emma, Jane Austen (1815)

The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

I have now read all of Jane Austen’s major novels. I think Northanger Abbey will always be my favorite, because the story is just so much fun to read. But I think Emma is a close second. I like the development of the titular heroine from a kind-hearted busybody, who thinks she knows what is best for everyone else to humbled match-maker to woman in love; it is very well done.


Emma Woodhouse is 21 and popular in her small village. Her mother died long ago and her older sister Isabella lives in London with her husband and children. Emma lives with her father, but trying to keep him happy is a challenge as the poor man is afraid of everything from changes in the weather, the addition of more than 10 people at the dinner table and absolutely any deviation in his tightly controlled daily routine. The pair are about to lose an important buffer and housemate in Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess turned close friend, who is to marry Mr. Weston.

Emma is the kind of person who needs ‘projects’ and in this case, her projects are people, in particular, matchmaking. She has taken a young woman, Harriet Smith, under her wing and plans to find her a husband, regardless of the fact that Harriet and the farmer Robert Martin are already interested in each other.

But, oh no, that will not do and Emma puts her foot down, explaining to Harriet:

A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a credible appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families….But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as below it.

Since Harriet’s parentage is unknown, Emma feels certain she is ‘above’ people like Robert Martin. When Robert proposes, Emma talks Harriet out of it.

A long-time Woodhouse family visitor, Mr. Knightley, who incidentally is the brother of Isabella’s husband John, takes Emma to task for thwarting this relationship that in his opinion is a good match and may be as good as Harriet would ever get. Emma is convinced Robert is not Harriet’s equal and Knightley explodes:

Emma, your infatuation about that girl blinds you. What are Harriet Smith’s claims, either of birth, nature, or education to any connection higher than Robert Martin? She is the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations. She is known only as a parlour-boarder at a common school….She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself.

Emma’s respect for Knightley makes his tirade against her a little uncomfortable, but not enough to repent at what she’d done.

Emma moves on to try and match Harriet to another man, Mr. Elton, who seems very interested, but this also ends in disaster when it is revealed his interest is actually in Emma. Harriet is now left with little prospects, due to Emma’s interference.

Emma is an interesting character, because while she sincerely wants the best for Harriet and for everyone she tries to help, she can only see them through herself. She sees what is best in someone else’s situation by what would be right for her not through the lens of the wants and desires of the other person.

Emma is used to being the one people turn to, the one who plans events, who organizes outings. But when she meets the woman Mr. Elton eventually marries, she is put out by Mrs. Elton’s forceful personality and the usurpation of Emma’s party-planning career. Against her will, the outwardly kind and well-mannered Emma Woodhouse develops envious, mean-spirited judgmental thoughts against Mrs. Elton and a jealousy she can barely control. Some of the best writing in the novel are the barbs she mentally slings at her nemesis as she tries to “keep herself together.”

But Emma feels her grasp is loosening on the people she feels close to as her mental control begins to fray and manifest outwardly. It comes to a head when she is unable to check her tongue and mocks the sad life of the simple-natured neighbor and village favorite, Miss Bates. Mr. Knightley confronts her and is shocked that she doesn’t see the harm she has done. Knightley reminds her of her status in the community and the responsibility that entails. Miss Bates is old, poor “Sunk from the comforts she was born to…You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour—to have you now…laugh at her, humble her—and before others, many of whom would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.” When she is alone Emma feels the enormity of the situation and completely breaks down.

Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcible struck. The truth of his representation there was not denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued!…As she reflected more, she seemed to feel it more. She never had been so depressed…the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home….

Emma is shaken up enough to know she must apologize to Miss Bates, but the chaos at her house at that moment renders the apology more as understood than unspoken. Knightley, made aware of Emma’s act of contrition, is overcome. It is a turning point in his regard for her.

The novel contains a fair share of romantic drama and intrigued. When Jane Fairfax comes on the scene, she rebuffs Emma. Jane, it seems, doesn’t want to know her and Emma can’t engage her, influence her or give her advice as she is used to. Some of the lighter moments in the book happen as Emma tries to work out in her head why she isn’t making any headway toward getting to know Jane.

Finally as all and sundry are wrapped up, the final piece of the narrative arrives as Emma realizes she is in love with…..and it is mutual. Well, it might be obvious, but that’s too big a spoiler to reveal.

Austen’s flair for the comedic is very evident in this book with several characters written over the top, especially Mrs. Elton, Mr. Woodhouse and some of the scenes with the Bates’s and Frank Churchill’s scene with Emma at the picnic. I have noticed that Emma is not a favorite with some readers; that they find it too long and boring. I can see that if you can’t get into the characters. But I found the them engaging, even the ones who got on my nerves—cue Mrs. Elton and dear old dad—and they are important components not only in the story, but in showing us more about Emma. I think this is a work with depth and the growth of a person’s integrity. I can see a reread of this at some point.


Title: Emma
Author: Jane Austen
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
Date: 1815
Device: Trade paperback
Pages: 544

Challenge: Classics Club