Monday, June 05, 2006

Book Review: Emma

Emma Woodhouse is a young woman of 21 who, although quite intelligent, has been sheltered and spoiled most of her life. Her mother died when she was young, and her older sister is married and gone. Her father is somewhat neurotic and hypochondriacal who loves his daughters unreservedly and unconditionally and, unfortunately for Emma, does not challenge their intellect or character. Neither did Emma's governess, the recently married Mrs. Weston, who fell under Emma's charm and became more of a friend than a mentor.

Indeed, the only person who holds Emma to a higher standard is the older brother of Emma's brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley. Emma has known him since she was thirteen and values his opinion of her.

Emma means well, but her actions, unfortunately, cause more harm than good. The novel opens with the wedding of Mr. & Mrs. Weston, and Mr. Woodhouse's lamenting of it. Emma is happy for her friend and, furthermore, feels that this wedding would not have happened without her assistance. Flush with her apparent success and flair for matchmaking, Emma befriends of young woman of doubtful parentage and decides to introduce her into proper society.

But her matchmaking plans for Harriet go awry, not once, but three times.

Emma, like all of Austen's novels, takes place within the rigid social strictures of England of the early 1800's. Emma's father is a gentleman, as is Mr. Knightley, but the estate, Hartfield, is truly part of the village of Highbury. The residents of Highbury have watched Emma grow up and feel that she is as much a part of them as she feels they are of her. Social status is not solely dependent upon one's financial situation, as Mrs. Bates and her daughter, Miss Bates, are treated as old friends of the family and invited to visit, to dinners, to balls, and to picnics.

Emma has decided she will never marry. For one, she is financially secure and doesn't have to. For another, her father, who detests change of any sort, could not do without her. And, finally, she is not in love with anyone. Frank Churchill, the son of Mr. Weston, comes to visit his father and Mrs. Weston, and, for awhile, Emma thinks she might be in love with him. After Frank leaves, Emma realizes she is "getting over" him far too quickly for what she feels to be real love. Frank becomes a friend to flirt with and nothing more.

But flirting can be dangerous, especially in Victorian England.

Emma is called to task for her behavior and, in a moment of self-reflection, realizes some unpleasant facts about herself. She has to make a decision about her actions and take responsibility for them.

One thing about Jane Austen's novels is the supporting cast is just as interesting as the major characters. Emma is no different. There is Mr. Elton, the curate of the parish, who misunderstands Emma's actions. Later there is Mrs. Elton, his wife, who charges into Highbury and takes command. There Miss Bates, a compulsive talker, and her mother, who does not--or cannot--say two words in a row. There is Jane Fairfax, a contemporary of Emma, whom Emma cannot stand, although she knows she really has no reason to dislike Jane so. There is Isabella, Emma's sister and mother of five, who has several of her father's tendencies and whose husband, quite reasonably, limits her contact with her father and sister.

The movie, Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone was adapted from Emma. And, indeed, Emma reminds me, a lot, of my own daughter who is about the same age. There is a lot of self-centeredness at this age, while they struggle to find their place in the world. At the same time, they realize they really are not the center of the universe. They see themselves as either saints or sinners, and their behavior often reflects this pendulum swing. So while the social milieu has changed, young adult women really have not. And Miss Austen's observations are as valid now as they were then.

That said, I like Elizabeth Bennet better than Emma Woodhouse. :)

On the March Hare Scale: 4 Golden Bookmarks.

Next Austen book on the list: Northanger Abbey