Tuesday, 28 August 2012

The Classics Club: Emma

To be honest, if it hadn't been for Adam's Austen in August event, I probably wouldn't have read Emma by Jane Austen, preferring to read other titles for the Classics Club (I am more of the Brontë type...). The reason?  I haven't read Austen (with the exception of Mansfield Park, which I didn't like).  But, I have seen all the films that have been made about her books (some in several versions). 
The problem here is, these films are so romantic that to my mind Austen is a romance novelist, writing about pretty girls going around the world, getting into trouble, but in the end finding happiness with their perfect little husband-saviour ... ugh! (Apologies to Alex, an avid Austen fan).

Still, it was August, I was enjoying my holidays and then I thought, oh well, it won't hurt that much to read one romance novel - and that's basically how I started reading Emma, having in mind the film by the same name starring Kate Beckinsale (I didn't like the version with Paltrow....)

Emma is a spoiled young girl (is there any other type???), going about match-making with her nearest and dearest, but claiming to have no such interest for herself.  As she is a person of means, she does not need to get into matrimony... She lives with her father, with whom she spends quite a lot of time (enter:  boring evenings).  She is the highlight of the society she lives in, and everyone is very fond of her.  She naturally takes advantage of that (..."the real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself") and manages to get into a series of mischief, before finding her next victim person to be matched:  young Hariet, naive and fresh, ready to idolise Emma and learn from her:
"She (Emma) would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manner.  It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers"

Already from the start, I noticed a great difference between the book and the film:  Austen does not try to present Emma as a charming person.  On the contrary, I found her comments at various instances so sarcastic, that I could not believe what I was reading:  Emma is not a likeable girl!  She's rotten spoiled, and on top of that, she is so arrogant as to have already placed people in their proper casts ("gentlemen and half-gentlemen of the place"), and acting according to their perceived status:
"A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other.  But a farmer can need none of my help, and is, therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice as in every other he is below it"

or again, when the Coles "dare" to organise a soirée
"The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them"
Now, dear Jane, what a refreshing outlook on that "all too goodie" society!  What delight to see that the main heroine of the novel actually not a nice little girl is... When she meets Frank Churchill, she very quickly finds him to be in love with her (cheeky...):
"the honour, if not of being really in love with her, of being at least very near it, and saved only by her own indifference ... the honour, in short, of being marked out for her by all their joint acquaintance"
I appreciated Austen's discreet manner with which she inserts little phrases that can easily go unnoticed, to make her point on specific situations:  that way, one could either miss them and believe in the romantic appearance of things, or take them into consideration and realise that appearances can be very deceiving:
"Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of"
The storyline is as it should be for the audiences of that era:  romantic expectations of people, refusal and discovery of little plays in love, marriages for love but also for ulterior motives.  All this I knew, so my focus was more on the technique rather than the content.  One exception was noteable however:  the pair of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.  Already in the film I was not happy with the reality of this relationship - in the book, I really sensed Austen's reproach towards Frank and mute support but again, a slight reproach towards Jane.  

Aside from the main characters, Austen also takes care in finding that little extra in her supporting cast as well:  Elton, the vicar with a mission (i.e. to marry well), may still encourage us to think well of him (Emma is quite relentless in shooing him away), but all is lost through the detailed description of his bride:  he "seemed not merely happy with her, but proud" of Mrs. Elton who is "self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred". She is, I believe, the person who eventually makes Emma realise her own wrong-doings, and provide the turning point for her for the rest of the story.  The Bates, who are such an agreeable family:  simple people, knowing their place in society, living on basically nothing, but having a friend in almost everyone around them (hint to Emma:  keep living like you're the wittiest in the world, you'll probably lose your friends...). 
Hariet is another such character: much as she is naive, she also is the epitomy of a good heart:  she values her friendship to Emma so much that she agrees to reject Mr. Martin's first marriage proposal, lest she loses Emma - and thus shines the light to Emma's deficiency in that respect:  at one instance, she even is pleased when Harriet apologises for not joining in a party, because that way Emma can invite Jane Fairfax to be the eight...
Finally, Mrs. Weston is the person who keeps Emma in balance:  a woman who knows the best ways in life, she loves Emma more than anything, but is not afraid to get her back into reality...  All these characters contribute to, I believe, a well-thought out overall concept:  I could see how Austen had not put the entire weight of the novel on a few main heros:  on the contrary, the intricacies of the minor characters contribute to deeper character qualities in the major ones.

Of course, the end is predictable: they all live happily ever after.  I knew it all along (an end which I still find hard to believe, pardon me for not having a romantic bone in me) but I really enjoyed the whole journey with Jane Austen in this novel. The Brontës will always have a preference in my reading habits, but I may actually look into reading more her work...   

Also read for the Back to the Classics challenge


  1. If you don't like goodie girls, it's too bad you started with Mansfield Park because Fanny Price is notoriously goodie-goodie, and almost none of Austen's other heroines are like her. I'm so glad you loved Emma- it's my 2nd favorite Austen- and I hope you continue to enjoy Austen's books!

    1. thanks Marie - I'm intrigued to read more of Austen...

  2. Anonymous29/8/12

    I had always shied away from Austen, thinking she was just wrote classic romances too. And, yes, there is romance involved - I found (in P&P at least) that the characters are very interesting, more than I expected. So I am looking forward to more Austen - especially this one, and many seem to not like Emma at all! -Sarah

    1. It's good to know I'm not the only one! Thanks Sarah!

  3. Thanks for your comments! I plan on rereading Emma soon. I haven't read it since I was a teenager, and I've seen the movies so often that my opinion of Emma might be heavily reliant on THOSE. I'll have to see if I think Emma is less likable in the book...

    1. I'm sure you'll enjoy the book even more!




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