Austenfest Week 4: Emma

Penguin Group USA, 2011

Emma Woodhouse is a wealthy, pretty, twenty-year-old woman with little excitement in her life at Highbury. We first meet her at the wedding of her governess to a close neighbor, Mr. Weston, along with other central characters such as Mr. Woodhouse, her doting and often-ill father, and Mr. Knightley who lives in nearby Donwell Abbey and is the brother of her sister’s husband. Though sad to be losing her beloved governess, Emma rejoices that it was a match of her very own making, having encouraged the two to become close.  Seeing her success at matchmaking, Emma quickly picks it up as a hobby and searches for her next benefactor.  Enter Harriet Smith, a young lady from the local boarding school with unknown ancestry, who is quickly befriended by Emma and guided towards Mr. Elton, the vicar, who seems to reciprocate the attentions of the ladies. Emma quickly urges Harriet to deny a marriage proposal from a respectable farmer, Mr. Martin, and under her guidance becomes obsessed with Mr. Elton, who we soon learn has his sights set on Emma. Shocked by this, Emma quickly refuses him, Harriet is heartbroken, and an angry Mr. Elton goes to bath, only to return with a Mrs. Elton: a loud, rude woman Emma immediately dislikes.

A dance scene with Emma and Mr. Knightley, from the film.

Highbury society becomes even more exciting with the arrival of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill who help our characters form complex romances and intriguing social outings. Emma’s dull life seems a thing of the past as she navigates a complex society of friends and foes with Harriet at her side. Austen is no slouch at entertaining her reader with peculiar characters and complex relationships, and Emma is an example of such. The whole novel takes place in one town with very little action, and yet the subtle and amusing narration of Highbury society is compelling. Though Emma is one of my favorites, it varies not only from Austen’s other novels, but from all novels I have read in that a climax barely exists. The story is wonderful and the ending is one definitely worth waiting for, but its construction seems strange. Perhaps this is the beauty of Austen though- she doesn’t build her novels for us 21st century readers who are used to twists and turns at every corner, but for those of the 19th century who expected very different things from their books. Some readers dislike this lack of action and I can’t deny that I wish some parts to be more developed, but I’ve grown used to Austen’s quick conclusions, and must rely on my imagination to illustrate the happy endings. (And boy, when she feels like it, Austen sure knows how to do romance.)

It is interesting to me that Austen intended to create in Emma a character everyone would dislike. Despite her spoilt behavior, I can’t help but like Emma, especially to some of Austen’s other goody-two-shoes heroines. Also unique is that in Emma we find Austen’s only lead character that is not dependent on marriage.  Financially secure, Emma has no intentions of ever marrying, and her only disadvantage is a dull life she can do little to change. Jane Austen again creates some wonderful characters, from the silly Bates, to the haughty Eltons, which make Emma’s life much less dull for us.

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