Northern Mummy

General thoughts and wittering about all sorts of things

Emma

on December 29, 2010

I’ve finished reading Emma today and although I was having to read it quickly because of time constraints I still really enjoyed it again.  I think it is the Austen novel I came to last, as I first read it about 9 years ago for my reading group, although I had seen the film with Gwyneth Paltrow before that.

I feel that of all Austen’s novels, this one features the most cariacatures and grotesques, e.g. Mrs Elton (whom I love to hate!) and Miss Bates (for whose situation I feel more sorry every time I read it) as the more obvious examples, Mr Elton, Isabella and Mr Woodhouse to a certain extent, although other characters are more well-rounded.  Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are two of the most interesting, as once the reader knows their secret it is fascinating to watch the interplay between them and almost painful to feel Jane’s mortification at Frank’s behaviour in the extent to which he goes to conceal their engagement from the world.  It is surprising in a lot of ways that she eventually agrees to marry him, despite having broken off the engagement after his appalling behaviour at Box Hill.  Emma and her friends attribute this to their being very much in love, but I can’t help wondering if, as an observation of society at the time, it really serves to show how important it was for women to be married, and that Jane would rather be married to Frank and hope that he will outgrow his flirtatiousness, than become a governess.  This is a theme very much echoed in The Watsons during Elizabeth and Emma Watson’s carriage ride at the beginning.  Emma asserts that she would rather be a teacher in a school than marry without love, to which Elizabeth responds that a loveless marriage is in many ways preferable to that kind of work.  In fact, the characters of Jane Fairfax and Emma Watson are very similar in situation – Jane has been used to living with a companion who has now married and moved to Ireland with her husband, in the same way as Emma Watson’s aunt.  Both are now forced to marry or find work.  Of course the history of Jane Fairfax is much more fleshed out as the story has been completed.

The central heroine of Emma Woodhouse I find very believable.  During the TV adaptation last year with Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller, a friend of mine said that she grew out of patience with Emma as she didn’t find the character as believable as, say, Elizabeth Bennet or Anne Elliot.  However, the fact that this book has been very successfully updated in the film Clueless (as well as the book Secret Schemes, Daring Dreams by Rosie Rushton, whom I’ve mentioned before) demonstrates that Emma’s gentle, well-meaning meddling in others’ lives is a characteristic common to many young women.  At times it’s exasperating, but the fact that it is well-meaning means that she must be forgiven, even as the reader hopes that as she grows up (even though she’s 21, she cannot be described as “grown-up” given that she has never had any kind of real responsibility) she will learn to be more sensible and to take notice of what is really going on around her, rather than what is in her mind.

Of course, she isn’t encouraged to do this by many of her acquaintance.  Mrs Weston and Harriet Smith are particularly keen to massage her ego and indulge her fantasies (as well as their own) about who would make a good couple.  The one person who really looks at things as they are is Mr Knightley, and that is precisely why he will make a good husband for her – not so much  because of his inclination to try and improve her, which he has had throughout her life, but more that he will help to tone down her fantasies as she encourages him to lighten up and indulge more in their playful banter.  Some people don’t like him as they find him too domineering of Emma, but I think there is something attractive about his attentions to her and his insight into the lives of others.  I am always surprised that he comes so late to the realisation about Frank and Jane, because his behaviour earlier suggests that he is suspicious of them.  Perhaps his unidentified jealousy of the attention Emma is showing to Frank clouds his judgement.  There is one comment of his which unsettles me slightly, which is when he tells Emma near the end of the book that he thinks he has been in love with her since she was thirteen.  This would not be out of the ordinary except that he is sixteen years older than her, and would therefore have been twenty-nine at the time he’s describing.  I’m quite happy with the idea that, knowing one another all their lives they gradually realised there was nobody else they wanted to be with, but surely even in Regency times it’s rather disturbing for a man of almost thirty to be “in love” with a girl barely into her teens?  Did Jane Austen momentarily forget the disparity in their ages?

Anyway, despite that, I do find their relationship a very natural one and feel the same excitement each time I reach the part where Emma realises why she doesn’t want him to marry anyone else, and the place where he scoffs at the idea that she wants him to confide in her as a friend.

Must press on now.  I’ve been listening to an (unabridged) audio book of Mansfield Park all through Christmas (a handy soundtrack to the veg prep and the baking!) and have 2 hours left to listen to in the car on the way to my sister’s tomorrow!  However, it would be lovely to be able to whizz through Persuasion and Sanditon before Saturday, partly just to say I’ve “done” them all, and also just in case Lady Susan and The Watsons don’t count!

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