I don’t know how many times I have read/listened to Emma. I am sure that it is more than all the rest of Austen’s novels put together, and that is not because I haven’t read and re-read the others multiples times, it is simply because much as I might love and/or admire them, Emma remains the Austen-of-my-heart. She is my Austen-comfort-read, if such a category exists. I listen to the audiobook almost every year, and when I hear Jenny Agutter’s incomparable voice beginning, “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 little to distress or vex her,” I can feel my soul giving a happy sigh as though it is sinking into the depths of a soft, familiar, and well-loved armchair.
If you are unfamiliar with Jane Austen’s masterpiece, a brief, spoiler-free introduction: Emma and her widowed father are, because their wealth, among the most important and revered inhabitants of the village of Highbury, set near London in Regency England (Emma was published in 1815.) Emma is the town’s most eligible heiress, but she has always declared she has no intention of marrying, preferring instead to matchmake among her friends and neighbors. Emma is almost universally admired for her beauty and cleverness, and Mr. Knightley, who is an old family friend of the Woodhouses, is the only person who ever points out her faults. Following the marriage of Miss Taylor, who was Emma’s governess and personal companion, Emma seeks out a new friendship with Harriet Smith, a boarder at the local school whose illegitimate birth makes her Emma’s social inferior. Emma is determined to make a distinguished match for Harriet, and the plot unfolds from there.
Emma is a tale of the deceptions that we as human beings practice upon each other in our relationships with each other. More importantly, it is about the deceptions we practice upon ourselves– and the novel suggests that the more intelligent we as individuals might be, the more prone to self-deception we might also be. Emma’s friendship with Harriet Smith, the development of which forms the first third of the novel, is a juxtaposition of a clever woman with a simple-minded one. In modern vernacular, Emma is smart, Harriet is a ditz. In fact a great many of the inhabitants of Highbury are very simple-minded. Emma’s cleverness is universally praised, and therefore much of the dramatic irony of the book lies in the ways her self-deceptions are revealed. Emma is far from alone, however; every character in the book is either deceived or a deceiver, and sometimes both.
I consider Emma to be Austen’s masterpiece. In no other of her novels are we allowed to sink so deeply into a character’s mind, to the extent that, in spite of the 3rd-person narrative, we as readers are looking at the world of Highbury through Emma’s eyes, and thinking with Emma’s brain. Even with Pride and Prejudice’s beloved Elizabeth Bennet, we are never actually placed inside Lizzy’s head; her thoughts may be shared with us, but they are not our thoughts. But Emma commands all except 1 of 55 chapters, and it may not be until we are mostly through the book– and sometimes not even until a second or third re-reading– that we begin to understand that this, too, is a part of the deception. We, the readers, take part in Emma’s self-deception, and we too are victims of the ways she is deceived by others. The term “unreliable narrator” is usually used when a novel is written in 1st person. It was Austen’s genius (in a time when the entire concept of a “novel” was still being developed) to give her readers an unreliable 3rd-person narration.
Ultimately, what makes Emma a classic is the questions that it raises for us as the readers. We may not live in a village in the English countryside in the early 19th century, and our acquaintance is probably not made up of Church of England vicars, landed gentry, penniless spinsters, and parlor-boarders. We have different worries to deal with in our day-to-day life than whether or not to accept the dinner party invitation of a social inferior, or if we will have to stand second to an insufferable neighbor in a country-dance at the next ball. But the themes of Emma remain entirely relatable. What is the difference between real friendship and hanging out with someone because they make us look good? Are we truly being kind to our neighbors or are we doing nice things to be seen and patted on the back? Is love more about admiration or about truth-telling? If we are the narrators of our own lives, to what extent has our own vanity and weaknesses made us unreliable? What kinds of deceptions are we party to in our every day life? Is objective truth always the goal? Is objective truth even possible?
If you haven’t read any Jane Austen yet, then I would recommend starting with Pride and Prejudice, to allow you to get used to her style. And, if you want an even longer warm-up, then follow with Sense and Sensibility. Then go for Emma. She deserves it.
And whether it’s your first visit to Highbury or the fiftieth, let me know and let’s chat! I don’t ever run out of things to say about my favorite Jane Austen novel.
Further Reading: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/dec/05/jane-austen-emma-changed-face-fiction This is an awesome article for once you have read the book- spoilers abound.