Classics Club Challenge #2: Emma

Emma (Wordsworth previous edition)Emma by Jane Austen
originally published in December 1815 in three volumes by John Murray (which is now owned by Hachette UK)
dedicated to the Prince Regent, by his own suggestion

I bought Emma in the summer of 2009 – on August 28th, to be exact, as my scrawl shows. I was fifteen and stupid, and this book was collecting dust until last year.
I started reading Emma around December 2013; I made it past Chapter 10 and a couple more until I set it down. I picked it up and started where I’d left off on March 11th 2014. I finished it eleven days later, on March 22nd.

Like Pride and Prejudice, I have watched a movie adaptation of Emma (some years ago) before reading the book, so I knew vaguely the most important plot points. Because of this, I was never really surprised, but I don’t think it has robbed me of the first-time reading experience, either. In fact, knowing the story beforehand has enhanced it. I couldn’t tell you how or why; I’m puzzled myself.

Emma is about a young woman named Emma Woodhouse (20), who has wealth as well as social rank, and the events that happen in her village, Highbury (which has three big estates – Hartfield, Donwell Abbey and Randalls): there are weddings (in the beginning, middle and end); new people enter the village and cause excitement; Emma makes a new friend in Harriet Smith, an illegitimate daughter of someone and who was abandoned as a baby or small child; Emma acquires a taste for match-making that causes some disastrous results.

Emma is intelligent but lacks the discipline or avid interest to develop her intellect further. She is independently wealthy and since her mother’s death (when she was an infant), she has been acting as the mistress of Hartfield. Emma has an elder sister, Isabella, who has married John Knightley of Donwell Abbey, which makes his older brother, Mr George Knightley, and Emma brother- and sister-in-laws. George Knightley is considerably (17 years, Wikipedia says) older than Emma, and is her friend, confidant and critic.
Emma cares for her old father who is a bit of a hypochondriac, but in a very sweet way. He worries about the health of others, saying that it is too cold or too warm, that people shouldn’t eat so much sweet stuff or drink too much wine, etc. Mr. Woodhouse can be a little bit annoying sometimes, but he was very endearing to me, the way he didn’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings and worrying too much. Emma is extremely fond of him, and she and George Knightley are the ones who usually smooth over his worries.

Emma is different from the other Austen heroines I’ve encountered so far (who are Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood, Marianne Dashwood, Fanny Price, and Catherine Morland). Emma’s a rich heiress, as opposed to the poor (especially Fanny’s situation is dire) or impoverished (Lizzie’s family is just hanging on) situations the other heroines find themselves in. Emma is also the character that Austen has pronounced that no one will like but herself, and it’s easy (for me, at least) to see why. Lizzie is witty and sarcastic, prejudiced but quick to redeem herself; Elinor is a very steady character, the kind of calm woman you look for when in distress; Marianne lives passionately, the kind of burning fire that quite some of us experience in youth; Fanny might be “boring” but she draws a clear line between right and wrong, and sticks to it, which I appreciate; Catherine is naive, but endearingly so.

And Emma?  Emma clearly assumes an air of superiority that comes as much from her heritage as from her pride for her witty, clever self. She meddles with other people’s affairs and thinks she can pierce through their soul to see their feelings. Once she decides she doesn’t like someone, she’s quite definite about it, although maybe not as much as Lizzie.
Her opinion of Harriet Smith also switches back and forth as it suits her. At first she pronounces Harriet to be a beautiful young woman (albeit not especially bright-minded or clever), and she’s flattered by Harriet’s naivety and her female, friendly worship of Emma. She advises Harriet to decline Mr. Martin the farmer’s proposal, saying she can do much better. Then Emma proceeds to play the match-maker between Harriet and Mr. Elton, the vicar, which turns out to be a very bad idea. Still, Emma keeps telling herself and Harriet that Mr. Elton is not the man they thought he was (which is true). And then, when Harriet starts looking up to Mr. Knightley and sets her eyes on him, Emma swiftly announces that action as imprudent and calls her vain. She says something to the effect of How dare she set her eyes on the wealthy, kind, and superior in mind, generosity and intellect gentleman! She’s only an orphan, and an illegitimate daughter of who-knows-whom! And quite stupid. Oh no, I have encouraged her vanity! That’s kind of a double standard. When Emma ruins the marriage prospect between Mr Martin and Harriet, Mr Knightley is at first furious, saying that with Harriet’s status, Mr Martin would have been a very good match for her. Emma argues that it isn’t so; She say that Harriet is still a gentlewoman although her origins are not clear, and that she shouldn’t settle so low. Now Emma’s at despair because Harriet wants to marry a rich, nice and kind man. Well, I’m at loss. I get that Emma has just realized that she’s in love with Mr Knightley herself, so that must have gotten her churned up.
But still, this is the only aspect of the novel I genuinely disliked. Harriet Smith, who is an individual with thoughts and feelings, is tossed around by the characters as it suits them. Instead of guarding her innocence and trying to guide her into developing her own sense of mind so someday she will be able to depend on herself, she is either the sweetest person ever or a fifth wheel. Yes, she sometimes says stupid things. But if everyone who says stupid things should be married to a farmer because of that, the world would need a whole lotta more farmers.

All this aside, I have to say that I did enjoy Emma as a whole and also Emma herself. Yes, she’s sometimes carelessly mean just because she wants to be witty. Yes, she just tolerates “lowly” genteel people because she’s the star of Highbury, a position she wants to keep.
I like Emma, but not because she redeems herself a bit towards the end. No, I grew to like her even before that because she’s human. So full of life and funny, and so petty and ugly sometimes. Isn’t that how we all are? We have agreeable days on which we manage to be compassionate, quick to help others, have a spring in steps, prone to smiles. Then there are other days on which we are irritable, impatient and feeling just a little bit cruel. Some of us regret after lashing out on others. Some probably don’t. Emma never particularly used to regret thinking ill of someone until the Box Hill picnic day. And that’s okay. We weren’t born self-criticizing and regretting our actions. Either we learned to do it gradually, or we had a catalyst like Emma.
So yeah, I like her.

There are other individuals I’d like to briefly touch upon: Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax (I won’t waste my words on Frank Churchill), the Eltons.

Miss Bates is an older lady and a chatterbox. Not in a gossip-y way, but she is a running monologue-holder whose narration exclaims every little detail. Mr. Woodhouse is quite fond of the Bates, and he and Mr Knightley might be the only ones outside the family who listen to her patiently and with interest. Miss Bates used to be quite well off and in a good social standing but now she lives in a small house with her old mother. Yet Miss Bates (who is in her 40s or 50s herself, I think) is never resentful about her situation. She’s quite grateful for what she’s got, and for the people who visit her and her mother. She probably hasn’t been trying much of my patience because her page-long monologues were mentioned only three or four times; but I still admire her cheerful, I-see-only-the-good kind of quality.

Jane Fairfax, niece to Miss Bates, is quite the opposite of Emma. After her parents’ death, she grew up with her father’s friend, the Campbells. But she has no fortune, so she resolves to work as a governess after the summer spend in Highbury. Jane is quiet and reserved, and quite patient with everyone, even with that Mrs Elton. Emma assumes an instant dislike to Jane even before the novel starts (because Jane is no newcomer to Highbury) but the quiet introverted me didn’t mind Jane one bit. Maybe it’s because I knew the reason behind her cold-shoulderedness to Emma.

Now we come to the Eltons, whom I dislike as much as I do Mr Collins from Pride and Prejudice. They are all three so full of themselves, but Mr Collins has the misfortune of being stupid, too. So he has no idea how he sounds when he says egoistic, condescending or stupid (very often all three at the same time) things. The Eltons, however, or conscious of their social surroundings, and adjust their self-compliments and digs at others accordingly. So while I did not have to endure comments as inane as Mr Collins’, knowing what they were actually thinking made me more mad at them. Of all the self-interested, vulgar women he could have married! Really, Mr Elton, your smarmy self has never appealed to me, but after your marriage you got even worse. A lot worse.

Before I put an end to my long, long rambling (and thus your agony of reading it, if you actually have made it so far), I’d like to mention a tiny scene from Chapter 10. It’s when Emma and Harriet go visit the poor people.

“Emma was very compassionate; and the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their ways, could allow for their ignorance their temptations, had no romantic expectations of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so little […]. In the present instance, it was sickness and poverty together which she came to visit; and […] she quitted the cottage with such an impression of the scene as made her say to Harriet, as they walked away, ‘These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make every thing else appear! I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind? (Chapter 10 of Emma, or p. 69 out of 390)'”

This scene can be interpreted in many ways, I suppose. It could be Austen’s way of showing Emma’s kind and compassionate side. It could be a subtle criticism at rich people that their problems are indeed small and mundane ones compared to the ones of the poor. Or it could be a criticism aimed at Emma herself that while she vows she should never forget these sights (those lines follow the paragraph above), she very soon does. But then again, maybe Austen used Emma as a personification for the careless wealthy, which would in turn be a Criticism #2…
There are many ways for intepretation, I reckon, but for me it was – and is – a personal hit as well.

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