The option of reading and reviewing a classic by Jane Austen is rather a relaxing entry in to a summer of 1001 Books for me. I had read her entire canon when I was a teenager, and have revisited them sporadically ever since. However, it has been some time since my last venture into Regency England and naturally my ideas and world view have moved on in many respects. This is now evident in how I feel about the novel after this read through.
As a teenager I was enthralled with the Regency world as described in Austen’s works. Even the work required to get around the changes in language over the centuries didn’t diminish my enjoyment. I was a die hard fan from the outset.
Fast forward an *ahem* number of years and re-reading Emma brought along another set of experiences. Still, the enjoyment of being immersed in a society so completely different from our own, but with a tinge of modern feminist ‘what the heck’ thrown in for good measure.
The story of the titular heroine is one of meddling, self-indulgence and, eventually, self-awareness.
Emma begins in the home of the Woodhouses following the wedding of Emma’s governess Miss Taylor, to a local gentleman, Mr Weston. Mr Woodhouse is lamenting their loss and through this we are introduced to his nervous, almost foppish, hypochondria-laden character. His is a difficult character to read and not want to slap from a modern perspective; but he is also the means with which the underlying behaviour of being well-mannered, courteous and generally good at heart is shown to overrule such deficiencies.
Once ‘poor Miss Taylor’ is settled in at her new abode, Randalls, Emma takes on a local girl as a protégé and companion in lieu of Mrs Weston and eventually succumbs to and indulges her own fancies of being a matchmaker. Harriet Smith is a girl of unknown parentage, clearly a ‘natural’ child of someone wealthy enough to pay for an education but not wishing the relationship to be generally visible to society.
Mr Knightley, an old friend and Emma’s brother-in-law, sees the danger to both women. One in being convinced that she should be elevated beyond her station in life by Emma’s encouragement, and the other in being unrestrained by a wiser companion. He is proved right in the first instance, with Emma dissuading Harriet from the marriage proposal of an eminently suitable young man, and having her fix her eyes on a man for whom the whole idea of marrying beneath him is an abhorrence.
In to this basic plot we add two other young people, Miss Jane Fairfax and Mr Frank Churchill. The former an accomplished young woman, of sense and character, but of a good family in financial decline. The latter, the son of Mr Weston who has been raised by his rich aunt and uncle. He brings pleasing manners and general merriment, but more self-interest than self-awareness.
It is the fondest wishes of Mr and Mrs Weston that Frank and Emma should become attached to each other, while society in general feels for the situation of Miss Fairfax. What follows is a rich comedy of manners involving all those mentioned so far, as well as Miss Bates (Jane Fairfax’s aunt), Mr Elton and latterly Mrs Elton.
Only the steadfast and observant Mr Knightley seems able to calmly assess the damage and danger to all, courtesy of Emma’s self-indulgent behaviour, and tries to point them out to her. Eventually the comedy plays out and the participants go to their respective right places at the last. But not without some trepidations.
Emma’s folly and character is softened by her own realisations, and admission of errors. If she had remained oblivious to herself she would have become a Mrs Elton, full of pride and blind to her lack of understanding. But that would not do for the story’s heroine; she is not fixed and unable to examine herself and her behaviour. She understands that she has faults that require her attention, and that makes her accessible.
Although my view of certain characters has changed since my youth, I still find this an excellent novel dealing with the manners, expectations and difficulties the women of this section of Regency society had to navigate. This is not the novel of manners / love story that we tend to see in Pride and Prejudice, so do not open this book thinking you will be reading a clone of that. But don’t be put off. It is still an enjoyable read, language and relative silliness of certain characters to the modern eye aside.
Happy reading !