Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

I am four books into my read-through of the entire Jane Austen canon, and all I can say is that I enjoy each book more than the last.

So does that mean that Emma, the topic of this review, is a better book than Sense and SensibilityPride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park? Only in the sense that I seem to enjoy whichever of her books I am reading at the time the most.

Everybody knows Emma, right? Emma Woodhouse, the matchmaker who cares so much about the romantic goings-on of others, and so little for her own, that a few early successes blind her to the romantic blunders she is making others step into.

This matchmaking aspect is a large part of Emma. But it’s not the only part. I am finding it difficult to say anything about the Austen oeuvre that hasn’t been said before and have instead tried to extract from them why I think they are worth reading aside from the entertaining stories. And two themes that I took from Emma are those of self-awareness and that people can change.

Let’s have some plot for context: Emma is the youngest daughter of the hypochondriac widower Henry Woodhouse. She is charming, rich, witty, attractive, and too clever for her own good. After successfully matching her sister Isabella to family friend John Knightly, she fancies herself somewhat of an expert on matchmaking. And that is where her trouble begins.

Emma is also flighty, inconstant, and never spends enough time devoting herself to the improvement of anything, as John Knightly’s brother George, who serves as her conscience, is so fond of pointing out. She is, in other words, a middleweight despite her obvious energy and intellect:

“She was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as an artist or a musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived, or sorry to know her reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved.”

What’s worse, many of her schemes to bring people together go wrong, with sometimes humorous, sometimes harmful results.Her friend Harriet Smith; the priest Mr. Elton; the farmer Robert Martin; Frank Churchill, the stepson of Emma’s governess; family friend Jane Fairfax . . . they are all on the receiving end of Emma’s machinations. The fun and poignancy of the story is seeing all of these little stories play out, and the effect that they have on Emma and her conception of self.

I won’t go into spoilers except to say that, as with all of Austen’s works, her characterizations are sharp and deep, her insights into human nature are masterful, and there is always that dialogue . . . some of the best written by anyone, ever, in the English language.

But Emma might be my favorite Austen character thus far, and here’s why: While clearly intended to be unlikable at the outset, she does what she does not out of malice, but out of what she thinks is for the best. So there’s a clear intention/outcome dichotomy, but it works because of Emma’s  willingness to change.

Emma, you see, is a shining example of a fictional character who changes in a way that makes sense both within the context of the story and within the context of being a human. Self-awareness dawns on her, and when it does, she realizes that no outside forces are to blame for the goings-on in her life. Her problems are her own fault. She has the power to change herself for the better.

And don’t even get me started on George Knightly, who might be my second-favorite Austen character: Seventeen years Emma’s senior, he is hard on her without being a jerk, upright and strong in his convictions without being inflexible, and very, very sardonic with that classic Austen wit. While somewhat similar Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice in that he is an unapologetically masculine man who does his own thing and has strong principles, Knightly is not dark or moody or wounded. And his banter with Emma sparkles.

But Emma . . . Emma is hilarious. Her classicism, arrogance, and lack of self-awareness are as funny as they are breathtaking, but far from being unlikable, Austen makes her a sympathetic character. I’m loathe to reveal too much about the story because I want those of you who have never picked it up to enjoy it as much as I did. Suffice it to say, Emma is another example of Jane Austen nailing down the universal aspects of women, men, society, love, marriage, and humanity in general with grace, precision, and the right amount of snark.

This is a great book. If you don’t want to read it–because reading is FOR NERDS!!!–there’s a great four-part BBC mini-seriesa great four-part BBC mini-series from 2009 starring Romala Garai as Emma, Jonny Lee Miller (from Hackers!) as Mr. Knightly, and Michael Gambon as Henry Woodhouse, among others. But you should still read the book version.

I’m telling you, Jane Austen is rapidly becoming one of my top 10 favorite authors of all time . . . and moving into the upper-echelons of that list.

Next up: Northanger Abbey

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