Twenty-year-old Emma Woodhouse lives with her hypochondriac, almost senile father at Hartfield, a small estate dwarfed by nearby Donwell Abbey. The owner of Donwell Abbey is the forthright family friend and Emma’s brother-in-law Mr. Knightley. When Emma’s governess and close friend, Miss Taylor, marries and becomes Mrs. Weston, Emma decides to amuse herself by finding a wife for Mr. Elton, the handsome young vicar. She fixes on Harriet Smith, a pretty but naïve teenage ex-boarder at Mrs. Goddard’s school, the “natural” (meaning “illegitimate”) daughter of an unknown benefactor. Emma, fancying that Harriet’s father might well be a gentleman, even an aristocrat, befriends her and proceeds to “form her opinions and her manners”. Soon she is talking her out of a marriage proposal from the sensible, honorable farmer Robert Martin. Needless to say, all does not go well even if Emma imagines herself to be naturally gifted in conjuring love matches – she helped Miss Taylor splendidly, didn’t she?
Harriet, a very impressionable and simple girl, becomes duly infatuated with Mr. Elton, but Elton makes it clear that he is more interested in Emma, a heiress with a good dowry. Emma realizes that her obsession with making a match for Harriet has blinded her to the true nature of the situation. Mr. Knightley watches Emma’s matchmaking efforts with a critical eye. He believes that the spurned Mr. Martin is a worthy young man whom Harriet would be lucky to marry. He and Emma quarrel over Emma’s meddling, and, as usual, Mr. Knightley proves to be the wiser of the pair. Elton, being refused Emma’s hand in one hilarious scene during a Christmas party, leaves for the town of Bath and marries the first willing and eligible girl he meets. Or rather he marries her money.
Emma is left to comfort Harriet and to wonder about the character of a new visitor expected in Highbury—Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill. Frank is set to visit his father after having been raised by his aunt and uncle in London. Emma knows nothing about Frank, who has long been deterred from visiting his father by his aunt’s illnesses and complaints. Mr. Knightley is immediately suspicious of the young man, especially after Frank rushes back to London merely to have his hair cut. Emma, however, finds Frank delightful and notices that his charms are directed mainly toward her. Though she plans to discourage these charms, she finds herself flattered and engaged in a flirtation with the young man. At roughly the same time Emma greets Jane Fairfax, another addition to the Highbury set, notably with less enthusiasm. Jane is beautiful and accomplished, but Emma dislikes her because of her reserve and, as the narrator insinuates, because she is jealous of Jane.
Suspicion, intrigue, and misunderstandings ensue. Mr. Knightley defends Jane, saying that she deserves compassion because, unlike Emma, she has no independent fortune and must soon leave home to work as a governess. Mrs. Weston suspects that the warmth of Mr. Knightley’s defense comes from romantic feelings, an implication Emma resists. Everyone assumes that Frank and Emma are forming an attachment, though Emma soon dismisses Frank as a potential suitor and imagines him as a perfect match for Harriet. How will it end?
Emma is the only Jane Austen novel (or rather the second, after Lady Susan, but still the authoress didn’t come up with that title so perhaps it shouldn’t count) which title features nothing but the name of the main female lead.When Jane Austen began planning Emma she wrote that she would be taking a heroine whom no one but herself would like much. I might be wrong but it seems to me Emma was her very private fantasy centered around that well-known hypothetic question: “what if I were rich?” It is also about a ‘material girl living in a material world’. Let me elaborate.
In the famous opening paragraph of the 1816 novel Austen describes her heroine and sets up the story in a nutshell:
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
Accordingly the plot of Emma is really mainly about Emma herself – how she evolves from the overly indulged daughter of a self-indulgent man, used to have always her way, into a considerate and giving woman, ready for love, marriage and other serious commitments. As an adult, contemporary reader, however, I often asked myself: wasn’t it another cop-out for that girl who loved to keep people around her on a silk leash and manipulate them when she got bored? Was Emma still too insecure and afraid to follow her initial resolve and remain unmarried?
When I reread Emma as an adult I was surprised how lonely, even alienated that girl sounded, especially that she was pretty much aware of her superior intellect and social status. After her precious governess and companion, Miss Taylor, had married, Emma was left at home with just a father who was too old and too infirm to count as a good company for a young, vivacious girl; then there was Harriet, a lovely and docile simpleton, always ready to agree with her guru but unable to produce one original thought. Jane Fairfax was a painful reminder what Emma was missing, living in the country rather than, say, London, where finding a more challenging company wouldn’t be such a big problem. Jane was unapproachable at first, for good many reasons and Emma minded it a lot, plotting a revenge in her unique style, causing Jane a lot of grief but, of course, with best possible intentions.
Then I’ve noticed how the characters of this novel show an almost total disregard for love and affection where marriage is concerned. As Lord David Cecil put Jane Austen’s view: “It was wrong to marry for money, but it was silly to marry without it.” In no other Austen book you hear that statement sounding clearer than in Emma. Class, social status and money are the prime motivators for young people looking for a husband or a wife – not your feelings. Even the vicar is rather mercenary: he wants a rich girl, the richer the better. When the local heiress proves to be unwilling he snatches the second best offer he finds, no matter how horrible a person she is. Harriet dutifully falls in love with any man that might ensure her a comfortable living – I sometimes had a feeling that the girl had a ‘fall-in-love switch’ hidden somewhere under her clothes; her changes of heart were so swift that almost comical (but it was the point of Harriet’s character after all). Even the saintly and much-suffering Jane Fairfax has enough brains to fall in love with an affluent man and be spared a life of drudgery among other people’s brats.
This tendency is emphasized even more clearly when, at one point of the narrative, Emma herself decides that Frank Churchill, a bachelor who was going to inherit his grandmother’s fortune, would make an ideal husband for her even though she has never even met him and she was not looking for a husband, not officially at least. This is made all the more curious, at least to modern day readers, by the fact that Emma, as a wealthy heiress, could theoretically marry anyone she chose, anyone at all, and get away with it. However, as soon as she knows Frank Churchill’s status in society, his reputation and family, she becomes interested – and lo and behold, after a while she fancied herself ‘a bit in love’ with him. Whether or not Emma would be able to “love” the real Frank Churchill (and whether he would be willing to “love her back”) is beside the point and not really taken into serious consideration – neither by her nor by Frank’s father and stepmother. That’s how two perfect strangers could be entrapped into a loveless relationship; many of those lurk in the background of other Austen novels (e.g. Mansfield Park) and while the whole polite society might pronounce them “the perfect couple imaginable” they are anything but. It seems that Austen, who never married, firmly believed that each person must know his or her own place in society and keep to it, adhering to its dictates and conventions. Emma accepted those conventions to remain on the top of her little community and keep her loneliness at bay. For how long, though?
Emma is a story of self deceit and self discovery which, despite its brilliancy, leaves a bitter taste in my mouth whenever I care to reread it. I fear Emma will never be my favourite Austen heroine but I appreciate the fact that she is an interesting, dynamic character, able to evolve from a charming but self-deluded girl into a more chastened and thoughtful being. The fact that her story contains a lot of comic relief makes it even more palatable.