Wednesday 9 July 2014

#CBR6 Book 69: "Emma" by Jane Austen

Page count: 496 pages
Audio book length: 16 hrs 39 mins
Rating: 4 stars

So does anyone actually need me to recap the plot of Emma, a nearly two hundred year old classic which has been adapted any number of times, currently as a successful YouTube webseries in Emma Approved? To be fair, I'm not sure even half of my actual real life friends have read this book, so I'll be nice to you.

Emma Woodhouse is twenty-one, the youngest daughter of a prosperous country gentleman and her governess, Miss Taylor, who more or less raised her from she was very little, has just married Mr. Weston. Emma, happily full of herself and far too prone to take credit for anything fortuitous that happens near her, claims that she made the match between the two, and wants to continue her occupation as the neighbourhood matchmaker by finding a wife for Mr. Elton, the local parson. Mr. George Knightley, the Woodhouses' closest neighbour, whose brother John is married to Emma's sister Isabella, believes this to be a terrible idea and is the only one who's not afraid to tell her so.

Emma also needs a new companion, as her erstwhile friend is off sorting out a household of her own. She takes the young Harriet Smith, one of the boarders of the local girls' school under her wing, and intends to improve her social standing enough that she will make a suitable spouse for Mr. Elton. She certainly doesn't want Harriet to marry the well-to-do farmer, Mr. Martin, who seems very smitten with her. Emma herself doesn't intend to ever marry, although most of her friends and acquaintances seem to believe she and Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son from his previous marriage, would make a very handsome and suitable couple.

Jane Austen famously described Emma Woodhouse as "a heroine no one but myself will much like", and Emma really is an obnoxious brat, especially in the first third of the book. Her mother died when she was only a few years old, and it's quite clear that neither her father nor Miss Taylor ever really managed to curb her impetuousness and stubbornness. Mr. Knightley, sixteen years her senior, seems to be the only one in her life who is willing to risk her displeasure by telling her the harsh truths that she clearly doesn't want. She claims that he loves to find fault in her, but in reality, he's the only one who's not afraid to acknowledge that she's spoiled, with very poor self-insight and that she's too young to really know what's best for those around her.

The good thing about Emma is that she does learn from her mistakes, eventually. Plus, because she is such an insufferable know-it-all in the first half of the novel, the reader actually delights in her being wrong and making poor decisions. It's clear that she's in no way malicious, she's just always been able to boss everyone else around her into agreeing with her, either because of her position in society or the force of her personality. She's young and has lived a fairly sheltered and extremely privileged life, but her fairly spectacular failures in match-making force her to mature and grow as a person. I still think she has a ways to go by the end of the novel, but she's no longer someone I want to slap. And even at her worst, Emma Woodhouse is at least not Fanny Price, the dullest and wettest of all the Austen heroines, hands down.

I decided to re-read Emma, which I last read at University, when taking English lit courses, because I'm enjoying Emma Approved so much at the moment. I was curious to remind myself how the original story really goes and wanted to mentally prepare myself on what's to come. Bonnie and The Chancellor's recent Cannonball reviews didn't hurt either. I'm glad I did revisit it, as I responded to it quite differently now, twelve years later. I had completely forgotten the bit towards the end where Knightley confesses that he may have actually been in love with Emma since she was thirteen years old (when he will have been 29 - not cool, George). I'm pretty sure I don't remember that from my previous reading of the book, and I'm not ok with that bit. Emma is not my favourite of Austen's works, first place will always belong to Pride and Prejudice, but it's a great book and I'm so glad I revisited it.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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