Jane Austen’s iconic ‘Emma’ centres around the daily life of its witty protagonist Emma Woodhouse, as she involves herself in the happenings and relationships of Highbury’s upper-middle class. Fancying herself as somewhat of a matchmaker, Emma commits herself to arranging marriages for those around her, while attempting to defy expectations and swearing that she herself will never marry. We see her make mistake after mistake in her attempts to do the right thing.
Overall, I was more than pleasantly surprised with my first venture into Austen’s work; I absolutely adored it. Despite having the typical conventions of class and marriage that I was expecting from it, I was not prepared for the sheer amount of humour that Austen effortlessly weaves into every page. Some passages had me literally laughing out loud at the sheer irony of her characters’ words, particularly those of Mrs Elton in which the reader enjoys their viewpoint of knowing how entirely hypocritical the majority of her dialogue is. It had just the right amount of scandal and secrecy to liven up an otherwise slightly mundane narrative, and when combined with the contrasting nature of reserved, intelligent, boastful or hilariously ignorant characters, provided a read that had me wanting to know more, and guessing what would happen next. In many ways, it becomes almost as though the reader is the matchmaker rather than Emma, as we are constantly invited to guess and second-guess which pairings will make it in the end, which I found to be a very original and exciting premise to be built upon. One area that I found to be particularly interesting in Austen’s narrative style is her constant use of ambiguity, which I have since learned to be technically named as ‘free indirect discourse’. Often it is difficult to determine whether the text is internalised or externalised, i.e. whether it’s Emma’s own thoughts or if it’s her (or someone else’s) actual dialogue. This means that the reader really has to work to understand exactly what is happening, however I thoroughly enjoyed this as it meant I got so much more out of the reading experience. In short, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who wants a light hearted introduction to the extremely overwhelming world of the classics. I gave it 5/5 stars!
[Spoilers from this point onwards]
In terms of its central character, I have somewhat mixed feelings for Emma. Very often she makes mistakes and bad choices, and has such unwavering faith in entrenched class structure and the place of men and women in society; however she cannot entirely be blamed given the nature of society at the time. Despite these attributes, I loved seeing the portrayal of an intelligent, feisty and ultimately caring female character whose witty commentary and poorly concealed opinions of others provide comedic moments throughout that had me genuinely laughing, or marvelling at how things could have gone so wrong. Her treatment of Harriet is the primary reason for my questioning of her motives, as she seemingly relishes the chance to destroy her chance at marriage at the beginning of the novel, and chooses the moment after Harriet confesses her love for Mr Knightley to take action on her own behalf. In this case it is difficult to see past her insistence that it is for her best friend’s own good. On the other hand, her devotion to caring for her father is admirable and in many ways heart-warming in parts. This forms the basis of my love for the novel as a whole; a protagonist who splits opinion so thoroughly is almost always going to be fascinating to read about.
Alongside the novel’s protagonist, I also enjoyed reading about the antics of the other inhabitants of Highbury. Mr Elton in particular was a character who undergoes a negative character arc; Emma’s rejection of him awakens his worst, selfish attributes that prevail throughout the novel and are only heightened by his marriage to the self-absorbed Mrs Elton. George Knightley provides an excellent contrast to Mr Elton, however, and his and Emma’s questioning of one another and petty arguments are truly a delight to read about. Their happy ending was admittedly predictable, but charming nonetheless.
I could go into much more detail about this novel, but I want to read some of Austen’s other works first to make a convincing judgement. On to ‘Northanger Abbey’ it is…
Have a lovely day!