The latest instalment to my ‘Reading the Classics‘ series is Jane Austen’s Emma. I must say throughout my journey of reading classic novels, I have become quite a fan of Jane Austen and Emma is another delightful classic, well written, interesting and full of subtle humour.
Emma by Jane Austen
Widely adapted for TV and film, Emma was the final novel Jane Austen published in her lifetime (her final novel, Persuasion, was published posthumously). Published in December 1815, this novel is very much a product of its time. Yet authors in the pre-Victorian era were more often men. Early eighteenth-century readers were more adept to a male-orientated story written by male authors.
Due to the limited publishing opportunities for women at the time due to restrictions, the author of Emma was noted as ‘the writer of Pride and Prejudice‘. Women had little legal standing and were not permitted to sign contacts, thus Austen’s novels were published anonymously.
Thanks to the success of Pride and Prejudice published in 1813, Austen’s work had drawn the attention of the monarchy. Her works were incredibly popular with the Prince Regent, the future King George IV. It was suggested to Austen that she dedicated Emma to Prince George. She accepted this advice, an act which likely increased the popularity of her work. One wonders had Prince George known the author was a woman if he had have made public his enjoyment of Austen’s works!
Prior to writing the novel, Austen wrote: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Emma is one of Austen’s finest heroines who we see develop as a person throughout the novel. Readers can connect to Emma, she is incredibly realistic. Even though two centuries now separate the reader from the central character, Emma is someone we all can connect with.
Emma belongs to the landed gentry class. She lives with her father, an ageing hypochondriac. Her mother died when Emma was a child. Since her elder sister, Isabella left the family home to marry, Emma has been the lady of the house, Hartfield. Our protagonist is 20 years of age at the beginning of the novel. She is incredibly intelligent, compassionate, sociable and very aware of her position within the rigid class system.
Emma cares deeply for her family and friends and has a great affection for and demonstrates utter patience with her doting father.
Mr Woodhouse was my favourite character in the novel. We all know a Mr Woodhouse! To have called him a hypochondriac above is perhaps unfair, Mr Woodhouse has genuine illnesses. It is the way Austen presents the character who genuinely loves his daughters that adds so much humour to the novel. He refers to his married daughter as ‘Poor Isabella’ and the former governess, recently married as ‘Poor Mrs Weston’. This stems from his genuine affection for these women for whom marriage removed them from the loving care of his home.
Harriet is 17 years old as the story begins. Her family origins are unknown having been raised at a boarding school. Emma befriends Harriet and decides to educate her in all social matters. Interestingly, as Emma seeks to teach her young friend how to become more refined, Emma experiences a development in character herself.
Mr George Knighltey
Mr Knightley is a gentleman of equal social standing to the Woodhouses. He is a friend to Emma and her father as well as to many others in Highbury (the fictional town in which the novel is set). Mr Knighltey is everything a Georgian gentleman ought to be – polite, sociable, educated and a good judge of character.
Mr Frank Churchill
The son of Mr Weston and the stepson of Mrs Weston (Emma’s former governess) is the charismatic Frank Churchill. The impending arrival of Mr Churchill who was brought up by his mother’s side of the family causes much excitement at the opening of the novel.
The character of Jane Fairfax becomes more intriguing as the story develops. She is the Grandaughter of Mrs Bates, a friend of Mr Woodhouse. She has social standing but not wealth and she had known Emma from childhood.
Emma gives us an interesting insight into the class system of the English in the early eighteenth century. Indeed all of Austen’s’ novels are based around commentary and even criticism of class in Austen’s world. The class system is explored in a number of ways.
Snobbery is a theme throughout the novel. This manifests as the character of Mrs Elton is introduced. A moderately wealthy woman who lacks the refined manner of Emma and her peers. Austen uses the character of Mrs Elton to produce some incredibly humorous scenes.
The importance of family and family love is a running theme. The relationship between Emma and her father and Emma and her sister Isabella gives us an insight into the early 18th-century family. But, as now, family doesn’t end in blood – Mrs Weston and, by virtue of his marriage, Mr Weston become members of the Woodhouse family.
Isabella is the female counterpart of her father, and her relationship with her physician is comparable to that of her father with his physician.
Mr Woodhouse is continually concerned about the women in his life, a doting father and grandfather.
Emma is in some respects a romantic novel. Emma considers herself a match-maker, however, she is overly confident in her abilities in this regard. Quite often her friend, Harriet Smith is the unfortunate benefactor of Emma’s match-making skills. But while Emma is so concerned with the romantic entanglements of others, will she neglect her own feelings?
For me, this is perhaps the most important theme. The notion of friendship is a central theme of the novel. Emma has a number of important friendships, such as that with Mrs Weston and Harriet Smith. These women prove influential in Emma’s development as a person. Mrs Weston proves to be a guiding force even after her tenure as governess has ended at the opening of the novel.
Jane Austen’s Emma – A Recommended Read!
As with the other Austen novels I have read, Emma is a must-read. Austen has the ability to draw you in with her effective use of characters. We can connect to them in a way that many other authors are unable to do. The characters in this novel are incredibly realistic, human and versions of them walk amongst us in our own lives.