Emma Book Review - Jane Austen

I love historical novels and Jane Austen holds a special place in my heart. Even so, I have issues with Emma. I adore much of the writing style, but the plot and characters irk me.

Let me start by saying that Jane gets kudos for trying to do something different here. In other stories she had not-well-off young women who were desperately trying to get by in life, to thrive in the world they had been born into. Emma is Jane's efforts to focus on a new kind of heroine. Rather than being poor and worried about her future, Emma is quite secure. She is wealthy. She has a father who dotes on her, a house she loves, and she is perfectly content to live like this forever. She has no need of a husband or really of a partner at all. This is an interesting diversion from other stories.

Emma, aged 21, grew up without a mother and with a loose-handed governess. So she is spoiled and very aware of her class and status. It might be hard especially for American readers to relate to just how stratified English culture was at the time. Some situations - like how Emma treats farmers - might be seen as cruel. It's important to put this into context. This was "normal" at the time. Heck, for a few societies on the earth this is "normal" even in modern times. You can't really judge it as right or wrong.

Mr. Knightley, aged 38, has been pretty much an uncle to Emma her entire life. He was a teen when she was born and was always there to watch over her and correct her. He tries to guide Emma as she plays romantic match-making games with the people around her, but Emma thinks she knows what is best. She manages to bungle a variety of relationships. To her credit, she does feel badly right away, but then she plows ahead with a new scheme.

SPOILER WARNING

One of the key issues I have with this book is the VERY creepy idea that Mr. Knightley has been lusting after Emma since she turned 13. If I had a young daughter and a male family friend in his late 20s started following her around as soon as she hit puberty, I would be quite irate with him. Again, I realize gigantic age gaps in this time period were normal. As they say in the story, men weren't expected to take on a family until they hit age 30 and had the financial strength to support a family. Women were supposed to marry in their late teens / early 20s so they could kick out as many kids as possible. Even so, though, to have a person that was almost an uncle to Emma stalking her as soon as she started showing a womanly body really bothers me a lot.

Also, I realize Emma is written to have her be spoiled. Jane Austen tries to give her some humanity by making her dote on her father and feel remorse each time she does something wrong. However, to me it just doesn't get past the way-too-spoiled aspect of her personality. Interestingly, I enjoy some of the movie versions FAR more than I enjoy the book because in the movie they alter the storyline just enough to make it much more palatable. They smooth out some of Emma's annoying traits and make the Emma-Knightly pairing a bit less creepy.

Still, if you're looking to start reading the Jane Austen series of books, I wouldn't start here. I'd start either with Pride & Prejudice or with Sense & Sensibility.

Buy Emma from Amazon.com




If you are looking to compare Emma in the original book to the many movie versions, here are some notes I've made about things that sometimes differ.

Emma, almost aged 21 at the book's start, truly cares for Miss Taylor / Mrs Watson as a favorite sister. Watcon's first wife, Miss Churchill, was an unsuitable match and it was the woman's brother who objected to the pairing. Even so, he took in the son after she died.

Mrs. Bates is the widow of the former vicar. Miss Bates is happy and well liked - not at all the unwanted shrew you see in some movies. They "rent" a floor of a house owned by someone else.

Miss Harriet Smith visited the country with school friends and there ran into her beau.

Emma latches onto Harriet because she's lonely and has nobody to talk with.

There's a scene of Mrs. Weston and Knightley (aged 37/38) talking about Emma which is often cut. Knightley was 16 when Emma was born.

Emma suggests having the picture done of Harriet, says she was a painter.

Jane Fairfax, Miss Bates' niece, was a companion to the Campbell's only daughter. Jane's mother (Miss Bates' younger sister) died soon after her husband was killed in the war. Colonel Campbell as his commanding officer took in the child to help educate her. Emma is jealous of Jane's talents from the beginning, the two knew each other from childhood as Jane visited fairly regularly.

John Knightley (Mr. Knightley's brother, who married Emma's sister Isabelle) warns Emma that Elton is after her and not to encourage him if she's not interested. They leave this out in many movies, making it a suprise to her when he proposes.

Emma does instantly regret her meddling each time something goes wrong but of course doesn't stop.

Emma also does respect Harriet for being so quiet and understanding on each rejection and wishes to be more like her.

Emma meets Frank Churchill at her house in a fairly casual encounter.

Emma's really upset when Mrs. Weston talks about Knightly marrying at some point.

When Churchill starts his talk with Emma where he's going to reveal he's engaged to Jane, Emma does NOT want to hear a declaration of love - she already has become less than fond of him by this point. She deliberately distracts him from saying anything (thinking he's going to declare his love) figuring time apart will help him lose interest.

Elton rudely and deliberately snubs Harriet at the dance. It's not a casual thing.

The letter-game is at Emma's house during a casual gathering.

Knightley sees the Churchill-Jane connection and tells Emma they seem to be a couple but she actively denies it.

At Mr. Knightley's strawberry party they talk about "another slice of cold meat, another draught of Madeira and water."

At the picnic Emma does snipe at Miss Bates without any provocation at all - something they "fix" in some of the movies. However, to be fair, Emma really does feel quite upset and remorseful when Knightley points out to her how bad she was.

Knightley wants to tell Emma of his love at the end and Emma refuses to hear it, thinking he's about to reveal his love for Harriet. She does relent and he says it is Emma he loves. He has loved her since she was thirteen years old (ick ick).

They only marry because turkeys are being stolen, and Emma's father wants a strong man around the house. Otherwise he just wanted Knightley to keep visiting. There isn't any sense at all that Emma cares either way, she's fine to just see Knightley during the day. Not a lot of passion there!

Emma by Jane Austen - my main page
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Pride & Prejudice Review Pages
Persuasion Review Pages


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