Warning! This review contains spoilers.
A few years ago I was first introduced to Jane Austen’s writing, through Pride and Prejudice. I remember trying to read it and stumbling on words, on the old English language – especially not being a native speaker myself, it was hard. So I ended up listening to an audiobook instead and enjoyed it immensely. Soon after, I went on to Northanger Abbey – which I liked a great deal, and Sense and Sensibility – not so much. Then several years passed and there was always something holding me back I think from continuing through her bibliography, probably I simply had memories of struggling to understand the language and I knew it would be more of a challenge than to read – say, something contemporary. Since then, my tastes have changed and my reading in general has evolved. I used to read a couple of books a year, last year I read a total of 54. So although I have been hesitant for a long time, I’ve wanted to fix that and so I finally started reading Emma in February. It was marvellous!
What first struck me was that surprisingly the language was no longer much of a problem. Although I could still recognise the old English – old ways of talking and of getting points across really, I seem to have become familiar enough with it to not only have it be a problem but rather the opposite – to enjoy it.
Although I admire and certainly like Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice – her witt, her smarts, her strength, and I liked Catherine Morland as well, I think Emma is the first Jane Austen character that I instantly loved. I’ve heard that there are those who find her dislikable and yes, she’s far from a perfect person. But I think that’s exactly what made me like her so much. Her flaws are immediately shown, her tendency to jump to conclusions – trying to match-make and failing time and again, her sometimes thoughtless behaviour, and most of all her ‘snobbery’. The novel is a great deal to do with class, it made me realize how the stories Austen told really were of the better off from my experience (I could be wrong) – the maids and the “people” rarely have a spotlight – which is fine, I suppose through Emma’s eyes I saw the class division of the time period more clearly than I ever had before. She looks upon Mr Elton’s want of her as an insult – that he could think himself worthy of her standard, her “level”. In the end – all is set right in this respect and so I suppose it tells something of Austen and of the time she was writing, and of the place she was writing from. But that’s not really my point.
Emma has flaws, many of them and some of them more excusable than others, but she’s human. She feels real, authentic I guess is the word I’m looking for. I just couldn’t help liking her, and following the story through her eyes. There are more character’s in this story to be liked, obviously Mr. Knightley – he gives good advice and consult but often in a harsh way, yet Emma never really belittles him or what he says. Although she outwardly sometimes act as though his words mean little to her – that is never the case. She values his words and his opinions always, from the start of the novel to the end. Which is also why I was rooting for Mr. Knightley and Emma from the start.
Much of the ‘mysteries’ throughout the novel are fun to read although hardly completely surprising, some are but as David Lodge comments in the essay included in the Penguin English Library edition – it’s not necessary for the mysteries to be complete mysteries. The heroine doesn’t know everything, and it is as we’re following her – her discoveries, her wrong turns, an ultimate unfold and happy endings, that is the fun part. Then there’s the fact that only until the end does some of the things said and acted gain true weight – all the more satisfactory an end it is for that reason.
At first I felt that Emma’s behaviour reminded me of a shoujo manga heroine – not even suspecting the man loves her. Any of the men. Or the fact that she find out about her feelings so late, even though to others it must have been obvious by that point. But then, I’m wondering if I’m viewing this from a modern reader’s perspective. Of course the etiquette and whatnot was so very different then, and I wonder how difficult it would be to see through some else’s feelings through all of the correct ways and ceremonies and basically the propriety of actions and words. It was something I had in mind as I was reading and probably another reason I enjoyed reading this as much as I did – experiencing another time, another place, so fully.
Honestly, I see no flaws in this novel. I can’t think of a single thing I disliked, it was just so much fun and Emma Woodhouse is the major reason for it. Hopefully I won’t wait another couple of years to read more of her fiction.
Until next time, Happy Reading!