Emma was my first exposure to Austen, back in college, and at the time it didn't strike me as particularly wondrous. Sure, it had wit, but it didn't make me want to go out and read everything else Austen ever wrote. Maybe that was because I read it for a class—it's hard to really enjoy a book when you're taking notes and on a deadline—or maybe it's because I didn't fall in love with the heroine, as so many other people have. Austen sums her up in the first sentence: "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."
Unlike Austen's other heroines, Emma does not need to worry about money or marriage, and so she occupies much of her time with matchmaking and other amusements. As the novel opens she is celebrating the marriage of her former governess to a neighboring gentlemen, although the family's close friend (and Emma's brother-in-law), Mr. Knightley, says Emma made a lucky guess, not the actual match. Undeterred, Emma tries to pair her new friend, the lovely but dubiously born Harriet Smith, with the local minister, Mr. Elton. This turns out disastrously when she discovers Mr. Elton has been wooing her, not her friend, and poor Harriet is left disappointed and distressed.
Emma spirits are only temporarily dampened; when Frank Churchill visits the neighborhood, she is ready to flirt with him and promote a match between him and Harriet. In particular, Emma enjoys speculating with Frank about the lovely Jane Fairfax, the niece of their impoverished neighbor Miss Bates; Jane is destined to support herself as a governess. Jane is lovely and musically talented (annoying Emma, who doesn't apply herself and suffers in comparison), and her reserved manner perversely inspires Emma to imagine something inappropriate behind a gift piano. Emma's behavior becomes another point of contention with Mr. Knightley, who has long been accustomed to instructing her. They both enjoy their verbal sparring matches, although Emma is put out when Mr. Knightley tells her she is spoiling Harriet.
Emma's unrestrained pursuit of amusement comes to a head one afternoon when, encouraged by Frank Churchill's flattery, she cruelly insults Miss Bates. She is crushed to see Mr. Knightley's disappointment in her, and determines to apologize and also make up her lack of attention to Jane Fairfax, whom she has come to pity. Not long after she discovers that Harriet is not aspiring to Frank Churchill, but Mr. Knightley—and that she believes he returns her affection. Emma is shocked, for she hadn't realized before that she is the only one for Mr. Knightley. One final surprise remains: after Frank Churchill's aunt dies, leaving him her fortune, it is revealed that he and Jane Fairfax have been secretly engaged. Mr. Knightley and Emma reveal their feelings to each other, and even silly Harriet ends up engaged, to the young farmer whom Emma originally thought beneath her friend's notice.
I can see why Emma is many readers' favorite Austen book. It is light-hearted and playful, like its heroine, who never has the threat of poverty or loneliness hanging over her head. Early on Emma reveals her intention never to marry, noting that "a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else." When you think about it, Jane Fairfax, not Emma, is more like the typical Austen heroine in situation: potentially consigned to poverty and facing many obstacles on her road to romance and happiness. I guess that's why Emma isn't one of my favorite heroines: yes, she's charming and kind, but she's also rather shallow, at least until the end of the novel. On the other hand, the secondary characters are some of Austen's best, between the over-talkative Miss Bates, the enigmatic Jane Fairfax, the obsequious grasper Mr. Elton, and his vulgar, pretentious new bride.
So for me Emma ranks somewhere in the middle of Austen's novels: I don't love it like I do Pride and Prejudice, but I'd much rather read it than Mansfield Park. Actually, how I feel about Emma depends on whether I'm feeling indulgent and playful or not. I'll be considering that playful edge more as I begin exploring all the film version of Austen's classic. Stay tuned.
Friday, March 25, 2011
Monday, March 21, 2011
This is one of my favorite photos from our European travels. It was taken at Ephesus in Turkey, and shows part of the Library of Celsus, a magnificent two-story building (or what remains of it) that was completed in 135AD by a Roman consul of Greek origin. Of course, in my photo you can't see the two stories, but there's something about the play of light and shadow and the angle that really gives an idea of the building's sheer, grand height. At the time this was built, Ephesus was the second-largest city in the world (behind Rome), and this was a really impressive collection of ancient buildings.