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Book Review: Emma, by Jane Austen

Jane Austen's most "unlikable" protagonist, a matchmaking busybody, makes this book more likable and funny than any modern romcom.


Published in 1815, approximately 160,000 words. Available for free on Project Gutenberg.

Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing, however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen's most flawless work.

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.

Our heroine, about whom Austen said "no one but myself will much like," is actually not unlikable. Like all Austen's heroines, Emma is really quite a lovely, well-meaning girl. She's just full of herself, having been given the run of her mansion by her widowed father, and a busybody who thinks she knows what's best for everyone, and since she has a romantic temperament but no desire to be tied down herself, that means she's constantly inventing matches for everyone else.

Unfortunately, when she takes on a simple, very pretty but dim-witted girl named Harriet Smith as her special project whom she's determined to match up to a man of quality, despite the fact that Harriet is a boarder of unknown parentage (meaning, probably an abandoned illegitimate child, meaning there is no way in Austen's world that a gentleman is going to marry her), she ends up creating havoc and heartbreak for Harriet, herself, and everyone around her.

Much of the book is Emma learning a lesson, but not for very long as she goes right back to imagining the wrong relationships and misleading people based on her own misapprehensions.

Jane Austen novels, for me, are not characterized by the plots, because frankly, at the end of the day I don't care who marries who and since it's Jane Austen we know everyone will wind up happy, even the assholes. Nor the antagonisms, since the most "villainous" behavior to be seen in an Austen novel is unpleasantness (though granted, the occasional cad willing to "ruin" a nice girl is pretty serious bad news in this milieu). No, it's the characters and the stand-out moments of dialog.

Besides Emma herself, Emma stars Mr. Knightley, who's definitely not a dashing but brooding and arrogant Mr. Darcy, but rather a good-tempered, somewhat exasperated neighbor who's forever trying to act as a check on Emma's nonsense, not very successfully.

"Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing-up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through-and very good lists they were-very well chosen, and very neatly arranged-sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen-I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. Where Miss Taylor failed to stimulate, I may safely affirm that Harriet Smith will do nothing. You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished. You know you could not."

The comic figures come in the form of Emma's father, Mr. Woodhouse, who's a weakly hypochondriac forever nattering about the evils of eating food that's less bland than gruel, getting exposed to the weather, working too hard, or traveling. He regards marriages as tragedies since they cause women to leave their homes.

The other comic relief figure who also serves as one of Emma's lessons is Miss Bates, an unfortunate spinster living with her elderly mother, in declining, impoverished old age and blessed with a genial good nature and cursed with a mouth that won't stop running. Everyone loves her, and no one can stand to be around her more than necessary. When everyone goes on a picnic to Box Hill, with suppositions and schemes swirling in the air and Emma very out-of-sorts, surrounded by people who are rather annoyed with her, she uncorks on poor Miss Bates:

This leads to Mr. Knightley giving her a piece of his mind:

"Oh!" cried Emma, "I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her."

"They are blended," said he, "I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation-but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed! You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her-and before her niece, too-and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.óThis is not pleasant to you, Emma-and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will, I will tell you truths while I can; satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now."

Emma's kick-the-puppy moment followed by Mr. Knightley's "Get your head out of your ass" speech was the moral turning point of the book, and while Emma does not immediately become a wiser, better person, she does start to realize that other people exist, and are not merely projects for her to improve or actors playing roles for her amusement.

The unraveling of various misunderstandings and mysteries follows, and eventually everyone is suitably situated, including Emma.

I became a Jane Austen fan after reading Pride and Prejudice. However, while I enjoyed my next two Austens (Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park), neither appealed to me as much as P&P. Having finally gotten around to Emma, I deem it a better book than P&P, with a more complicated, slightly less fantastical-wish fulfillment plot, and more believable and complex characters. That said, P&P still has the edge on Emma in its light-hearted charm.

You can't go wrong with Austen, a much misunderstood and underrated author in the 21st century. Relegated to mere "romance" or worse, "chick lit," Austen was actually a brilliant if limited social commentator, and besides giving an authentic feel for the slice of early 19th century English life that Austen liked to write about, her books are excellent character waltzes with a range of quintessentially Austenian archetypes.

Emma on Film

Yes, I did it again — Netflix all the Emmas!

Emma (1972)

Emma (1972)

Characteristic of most 1970s BBC dramas, the production quality is not very cinematic and the actors speak like they are on stage, not in front of a camera, but lengthy TV miniseries are able to do Austen's novels justice, and this one is very faithful, using most of Austen's dialog verbatim. If you want something close to the book, this would be the one to watch, though it wasn't my favorite adaptation.

Clueless (1995)


Modern adaptations of classic novels can be funny or horrifically bad, usually the latter. Clueless is so very, very Nineties. A young Alicia Silverstone stars as Cher, the 1995 Beverly Hills incarnation of Emma Woodhouse. Unlike most teen movies of the 90s, this one was actually fun, if not terribly deep. How faithful is it to Austen? Well, the plot bears a passing resemblance, enough that it is possible to recognize who each Austen character is meant to be, and when the screenwriter did a cute riff on scenes from Austen's novel. (Instead of being mobbed by Gypsy children, "Harriet" is harassed at a mall by gang kids, or what passes for a gang in Beverly Hills.) Obviously, Significant Liberties are taken. But I admit I liked this movie when I saw it years ago, and I liked it even more after reading Emma.

Oh my god those clothes. And dig those bricks the kids used to carry around.

Emma (1996)

Emma (1996)

This film was Gwyneth Paltrow's first leading role and helped make her an A-lister. She was a perfectly stuck-up, bratty Emma Woodhouse, and this is one of Hollywood's better adaptations of an Austen novel. Although some parts are abbreviated, and the romantic tension between Emma and Mr. Knightley is exaggerated in Hollywood romcom fashion, it's generally a faithful adaptation, and quite a good movie. It features Juliet Stevenson, one of my favorite audiobook narrators, as a splendidly horrible Mrs. Elton.

Masterpiece Classic: Emma (1996)

Masterpiece Classic: Emma

1996 was apparently the year of Emma, with three adaptations coming out within a year (counting Clueless).

Masterpiece Classic, as usual in comparison to the older BBC productions, has better actors and cinematography but a more abbreviated story. Kate Beckinsale is probably the most unlikable of all the Emma Woodhouses I watched, emphasizing Emma's haughtiness and temperamentalness. This was a good production but rather rushed at an hour and a half, and someone who hasn't read the book would probably miss a lot of the nuances of what was going on.

Emma (2009)

Emma 2009

This 2009 TV miniseries showed the BBC's improved production values since 1972. Romola Garai was a very pretty, clever-but-obnoxious Emma, and Michael Gambon makes a better Mr. Woodhouse than a Dumbledore. The acting was good, and it was a faithful adaptation, though not as faithful as the 1972 version, as the dialog preserved the gist but not the wording of Austen's novel. Overall, this was my favorite version, entertaining because it departed from the original when it needed to, but without departing so much that it took unnecessary liberties with Austen's novel.

Aisha (2010


Now there's a Bollywood version!

Set in modern Delhi, Aisha only vaguely follows the storyline of Emma, and none of the characters much resemble Austen's. This was fun but pretty mindless; I found the musical numbers mediocre, and it wasn't funny enough. For a really excellent Bollywood treatment of Jane Austen, I highly recommend Bride and Prejudice instead.

Have you read Emma?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but I want to.
No, and I'm not interested.

Have you read any other books by Jane Austen?

Yes, I'm a fan.
Yes, but I didn't like them.

Which film versions of Emma have you seen?

The 1972 BBC miniseries
The 1996 Masterpiece Classic
The 1996 Gwyneth Paltrow movie
The 2009 BBC miniseries
Clueless (1995)
Aisha (2010)
Other(s) (comment below!)
My god you're an obsessive dork

Verdict: Now my second-favorite Austen novel (after Pride and Prejudice), Emma is a fine example of a flawed protagonist who grows on you, with a supporting cast of endearing, annoying, and comic characters. While there are mild surprises and genteel plot twists, it's hard to spoil an Austen novel, since if you've read one, you know how they all will end. I remain a fan of her dialog and her character development.

Also by Jane Austen: My reviews of Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park.

My complete list of book reviews.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 15th, 2013 08:24 pm (UTC)
Weee, my life - and your blog - is complete! Thank you for reviewing ,Emma, which is not only my favourite novel, but also the source of a massive literary crush. And I'm inordinately pleased that the 2009 miniseries tops your bill, not to mention that you've included Aisha (which I rented once from LoveFilm, and now can't find on DVD for love nor money).

I have, however, drawn the line at watching Emma Approved online, which makes my teeth ache.
Dec. 15th, 2013 09:53 pm (UTC)
Emma was never my favorite, P&P has that pride of place. But I am willing to consider that Persuasion is perhaps her best.

Lady Susan is also worth a read if you want to see a very non-Austen heroine.
Dec. 15th, 2013 11:42 pm (UTC)
Blooming eck, I almost missed the absolutely enormous amount of stuff hiding under the cut!

Michael Gambon makes a better Mr. Woodhouse than a Dumbledore

Not sure what you thought was wrong with his Dumbledore. (I'm not a bit Potter fan, so I didn't really see the problem there.) However, Michael Gambon is pretty consistently brilliant in everything else I've seen him in. The mini-series "Longitude" is well worth getting your hands on. Gambon also happens to be awesome in the movie "Layer Cake". However, rather more on the same lines of the current discussion, you might be interested in a BBC mini-series he did called "Wives and Daughters". It's an adaptation of an unfinished Victorian novel by Mrs. Elizabeth Gaskell from the producers of the widely revered adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice".

Funny thing about "Clueless". My grandparents hated it when we showed it to them at the time (presumably having recorded it off the tele) because they thought everyone carrying mobile phones everywhere was "unrealistic". :P

Another random aside, I remember my mum commenting on a small historical inaccuracy in Gwenyth Paltrow's "Emma" when we saw it at the cinema. Apparently (and I must admit I couldn't direct you to the specific scene) Paltrow is wearing knickers - and they wouldn't have had knickers back then it seems... :S (I don't think my mum saw this as a serious criticism.)
Dec. 16th, 2013 12:02 am (UTC)
Hmm, I just saw it, and I don't remember a scene where Emma shows anyone her underwear...

I was thinking, as I watched all the different versions and how the ladies were dressed in each (the mens' clothing didn't change much), that they couldn't all be historically accurate representations of what women in that time period wore. I'd like to see Jane Austen commenting - "What? Why are they wearing those ridiculous, gaudy bonnets?"

I don't actually think Michael Gabon was a bad Dumbledore, but most people (including me) preferred Richard Harris.

Edited at 2013-12-16 12:02 am (UTC)
Dec. 16th, 2013 08:18 pm (UTC)
Hmm, I just saw it, and I don't remember a scene where Emma shows anyone her underwear...

Doran Godwin flashes her anachronistic bloomers in the 1972 version, however (and outside the church!)
Dec. 16th, 2013 03:21 am (UTC)
I should probably give this a try soon. I enjoy Heyer, and I liked Clueless. It's just that my to-be-read pile is so out of control.
Jun. 11th, 2014 08:07 am (UTC)
Personally, I thought Kate Beckinsale was near-perfect as Emma. She played Emma as very, very young - virginal, really, under the facade of self-assurance. That is my favorite version altogether - it maintains the greatest fidelity to Austen's language, as well as her view of society and its interactions, and keeps to the appropriate physical comportment of the period, unlike either the Miramax-Paltrow or the BBC-Garai rendition. I do like the Garai version very much - it at least takes Austen seriously and shows some insight into the characters inner lives. The Miramax version is pretty, and well acted, but just fluff in the end. It trivializes Austen, and I don't care for that.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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