This 1815 novel is the fourth of six books by the first name in English-Regency-period romantic comedy, published only two years before its author’s death at age 42. While I found it engaging and pleasurable to read, I am glad that Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility formed my first acquaintance with Jane Austen’s work, rather than this novel. Those books are so liberally seasoned with romantic feeling, teasing humor, delicate irony, and personal charm, that one soars effortlessly through all their pages and chapters. But while Emma has these qualities, the reader must flap his wings a little more often to keep up the momentum. Perhaps it is only my impression, but the novel seems a bit longer, the dramatic tension a bit less taut, the main heroine a bit less admirable, and the incidents in her journey from bachelorettehood to wedded bliss a bit sparser and more pedestrian than their opposite numbers in S&S and P&P.
On the other hand, these faults might actually be virtues, for the reader who has the fortitude to bear with them. Such an experiment in observing the minute details of country life would not be made in another important novel until George Eliot’s Adam Bede, forty-four years later. And the closely hemmed-in life and manners of a respectable young lady in rural England—even one like Emma Woodhouse, whose uncommon wealth allowed her not to worry about marriage—could be one of desperate and even, at times, dangerous idleness. That could indeed be the intended target of Austen’s dry satire. And so, even though Emma (unlike many young women of her age and class) need not always be dependent on father or husband, the social evils that made her what she is—classist snob, blundering busybody, self-absorbed twit—can be laughed at, made ridiculous, and finally overcome (like the evils they are) by unconventional means such as humiliation, awakening self-knowledge, and a study of people based on their merits rather than hair-splitting distinctions of rank and privilege.
Three paragraphs in, you’re no wiser as to who Emma Woodhouse is and what happens in this book. The problem with Regency novels featuring respectable young female protagonists is that the possibilities are so limited that you can almost guess what happens, in general, by reading my synopses of the two Austen novels I previously mentioned. What more can it be about than a woman dependent on her father seeking a husband to support her? The details of these matches vary both within each book, and between them. Sometimes the woman gains wealth or prestige from her husband; sometimes he gains them from her; sometimes each exchanges one for the other; sometimes the match is a dead loss for all concerned. Sometimes, the unfortunate young lady finds herself fresh out of resources, through losing her father and not being allowed to inherit his property, and being neglected by whoever does inherit it. Sometimes, she is condemned to a life of spinsterhood, and to save herself from the disgrace of being a burden to her relatives, must become a teacher or a governess, etc.
Emma, the younger of two daughters of a hypochondriac widower, fears none of these things. Her older sister is a wife and mother; her former governess has lately become a wife and will soon be a mother; her personal fortune is secure; and since she feels no particular romantic attachment, and has nothing else to do, she tries to make matches between her friends and neighbors—always with disastrous results. Anything else you need to know about Emma Woodhouse can be summed up by saying that Gwynneth Paltrow played her in the movie. (And so, in a way, did Alicia Silverstone, one year earlier.)
Emma gives herself credit for making the match between her dear Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, which takes place at the very beginning of this novel. And so, in spite of the misgivings of her brother-in-law’s older brother, frequent household guest Mr. Knightley, Emma continues to try her hand at matchmaking. But her sensitivity to cheeseparing degrees of class distinction lead her to interfere between two lovers who are really meant for each other, to bring together another couple whose marriage causes trouble, to mistake one man’s pursuit of herself for a romance with another girl, and to appear to be in a romance with a man who is secretly engaged to another girl. Finally, as all these romantic disasters (well, most of them, anyway) slowly work themselves out in spite of her, Emma comes to her senses and repents bitterly of all the harm she has done—precisely when another girl’s passion for Mr. Knightley awakens Emma to her own, long-cherished feelings. Coming late enough in the novel to make the ending quite climactic, this discovery plunges the book’s heroine into a baptism of pain and mortification, just deep enough to make her seem worthy of the swift and happy resolution of all difficulties.
I should not blame Emma for being long. My reading of it was spread out over several weeks by necessity. I kept it in my locker at work and took it out only during breaks, when I had time to read a chapter or three at most. I can also bear witness to the effectiveness of this thinly-spread approach to conquering a too-long-neglected literary classic. After all, in spite of everything, the next book I brought to work with me was Persuasion, by the same author. Jane Austen’s other completed novels, which I have yet to read, are Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park.