The novel is set in a beautiful, British, fiction town, Highbury. Austen’s Emma is beautiful, rich, smart but also meddlesome, deluded, and spoiled. She is not a likable character and you won’t really root for her when you read Emma.
Emma is a self-proclaimed matchmaker after she successfully finds a great match for her governess, Miss Taylor. She befriends a younger Harriet Smith and tries to set him up to be Mr. Elton’s wife. Thus, when Harriet confesses her love for Robert (who loves Harriet too), Emma convinces Harriet that Robert is beneath her – in class, in wealth, in character. Harriet, under the intoxication of Emma, rejects Robert’s proposal to marriage.
Emma is set out on ‘improving’ Harriet, molding her character to the ‘upper class’, ignorant that her youth could use some development too.
Mr. Knightely, a family friend, and Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse get furious at the meddlesome matchmaking of Elton and Harriet. Mr. Knightley liked Robert and found him to be suitable for Harriet. Emma doesn’t budge until Mr. Elton confesses being in love with her and not Harriet.
The thing I love about Austen is that she does not tell you what she thinks about society. She shows them to you. Here, it is done through Emma’s wit, arrogance, and strong opinions. She is headstrong, unlikable, and fits the entire town into neat boxes of class.
We’re introduced to Frank Churchill. Impressed by him earlier, Emma gets bored of him quickly. She tries to match Harriet with him instead, owing to the failure of her earlier matchmaking with Mr. Elton. She also meets Jane Fairfax and takes a disliking to her, calling her “cold” and “cautious” and assumes Jane is jealous of her because she has taken a liking to Frank. There is confusion when Emma presumes that Harriet likes Frank when she meant she adored Mr. Kinghtely. Frank, who had been flirting as a ruse with Emma all along, runs away and gets married to Jane instead.
All these turns of events happen slowly, in an easy-to-grasp fashion. It is only when Harriet confesses her love for Mr. Knightely that Emma realizes that she loves him too. Mr. Knightely loves Emma back – a love he professes after Emma tells him that she never truly liked Frank. They get married. Harriet, although initially forgotten and betrayed, marries Robert.
I know the times were different in 1815, but when Mr. Knightely confessed that he had taken a liking to Emma since she was 13 years old, meaning that Knightley himself was 29 at the time – I cringed. The whole narrative reeked of pedophilia rather than romanticism.
If you are familiar with Austen’s style and enjoy her work, Emma would be a lovely read for you. But let this not be the book that introduces you to Jane Austen – begin with Pride and Prejudice or Sense & Sensibility instead. The lack of narrative progress in Emma can drive new readers away. Emma is not Austen’s best work.
The whole novel’s heroine, Emma, is unlikable because of her class discrimination and failed matchmaking attempts. Mr. Knightely changes this when he makes her question whether class and status are the right judges of a person. Emma, although initially unlikable, grows as a heroine. She realizes that class cannot be a prelude to character. As Austen had herself told, “I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” How correct was Austen remains debatable.
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