Over the past few years I have been reading all of Jane Austen’s books, which I had somehow missed along the way, except for Emma, which I had read way back in a Literary Criticism class in college. I wanted to reread it some day, and that day was spurred on by a recent Masterpiece Theater production which aired last winter.
I wanted to read a copy that was not abridged or modernized, but when I went to by the book, the one shown, with the star of the Masterpiece production, was the only one available. It says it has been “reset” from the Penguin Classics version “which was edited from the first edition” — so I don’t know how much has been changed from the original.
The main character, Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” and “had lived nearly twenty-one years…with very little to distress or vex her” suddenly finds herself at a loss at the beginning of the book. Her governess, who had become more like an older sister over the years, has recently been married, and Emma faces long days entertaining her beloved but very neurotic father. She meets a young woman “of uncertain birth” named Harriet and decides to try to take Harriet under her wing. Longtime family friend Mr. Knightly disapproves. Social classes in that day were much more distinct, and he feared Emma’s raising Harriet’s hopes of marriage only to be disappointed.
But Emma likes Harriet and feels she is doing her a favor. She not only tries to help elevate her to higher society, she discovers the man whom she feels would be a perfect match for Harriet and then does everything in her power to bring them together. Only things don’t go exactly as planned, to put it mildly.
Meanwhile, two different people related to Emma’s friends, whom Emma has heard about all her life but never met, come to town, Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Jane Fairfax. The former is effusive and charming, the latter is quiet, more talented than Emma, and not forthcoming enough for her tastes. Frank seems to set his sights on Emma right away, but something is not as it appears in this situation, either.
Emma is unlike many of Austen’s other heroines because she is wealthy and secure, and perhaps because of her wealth, she does not seek to marry (as opposed to some of the others needing to marry well in order to survive and provide for their families). But she is similar to the others in that she is charming, intelligent, likable, and sensible in matters other than love and her interaction with Harriet. Yet her intentions are good, and she comes to see her own foibles along the way. She learns “it was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple” (p. 109) to try to manipulate and influence two people into a relationship as she had done.
I’ve read other descriptions of this novel as “frothy” and “a comedy of manners.” But though there are funny, witty moments in it, and it doesn’t have quite the drama of some of the other novels, personally I wouldn’t classify it as a lighthearted comedy. There is genuine depth to Emma’s realizations about herself and her growth as a person. When watching one of the films, one of my sons was getting quite aggravated with Emma and decided he didn’t like her, but I tried to point out that she doesn’t remain that way, she does grow and change for the better. And Mr. Knightly, who is the only person to criticize her, also sees beyond her faults to the person underneath, the woman she could become as she matures.
Some of the more well-known quotes from Emma are:
Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way (Emma).
“There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty…” (Mr. Knightly)
“I cannot make speeches, Emma . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
“Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief” (Mr. Knightly).
Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do (Mr. Knightly).
I had wanted to discuss the film versions of Emma in connection with this review. I have seen three of them and wanted to rewatch two, but with the weeks getting ready to move and then getting settled here, there hasn’t been time. But the first of the films I saw was the 1996 version with Gwynneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Then there was a TV version that same year with Kate Beckinsale and and Mark Strong. And most recently was the 2009 Masterpiece version with Romala Garai and Jonny Lee Miller. Of the three, the Beckinsale version was my least favorite. That Mr. Knightly came across as an old grouch that it seems unlikely anyone would fall in love with, much less a much younger woman. The Paltrow version has long been one of my favorite videos. But the newer version had some scenes that were much closer to the text of the book, and I enjoyed Romola Garai’s more youthful yet still sophisticated version of Emma. Though Ewan McGregor is one of my favorite actors, I did not really care for his version of Frank Churchill, but I think a lot of that had to do with his hairstyle in the film. But no one can beat Jeremy Northam’s Mr. Knightly. Though older than Emma and her sharpest critic, he still comes across as charming and gentlemanly, and it is not hard to fathom the attraction of two of the characters for him.
I’ll leave you with the trailers for two of the versions. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book or any of the films.