26/10/2004

Emma (by Jane Austen)

Sometimes I feel like delving into classic literature, and Jane Austen is one of my favourite choices. She didn't write many novels, and they don't appeal to everyone, but I like her satirical touch and clever characterisation.

The novel 'Emma' opens with Emma's Woodhouse's father complaining gently about their recent change in circumstances: Emma's best friend, who was once her governess, has recently married and moved about a mile away. Mr Woodhouse is quite a comic character who wants everything to stay exactly the same as it always has been, but Jane Austen somehow manages to make him sympathetic and likeable. He's clearly devoted to his daughter, and frequently worries aloud about illnesses, draughts, and people being inconvenienced. As his idea of inconvenience doesn't necessarily make sense, there's some humour throughout the book whenever he appears.

The plot, such as it is, is based on Emma's continual mis-reading of other people's intentions. She befriends an orphan about her own age called Harriet, convinced that Harriet must have come from a gentleman's home, and tries several times to find a husband for her. Harriet's first love is a worthy farmer, but Emma does not consider him good enough for her friend. She points her first in the direction of the local minister, and then of someone else. Harriet is rather pathetically grateful for her high-born friend's recommendations and takes on board whatever she is told. Since Emma has a good opinion of herself, she considers Harriet intelligent and sensible for following her suggestions; only gradually does she realise that her friend has few original thoughts in her mind and is too easily led.

The entire novel covers daily walks, visits and conversations between Emma and her neighbours, with a few diversions such as parties or balls. It's a pleasant enough social commentary on life in an upper-class English village two hundred years ago, written with close observation and the thread of irony that made me keep reading. But having said that, it felt like quite a chore at times. The dated style of language didn't particularly worry me; within a few pages I had no problem with that, but it was quite an effort reading through some of the long-winded conversations, particularly those involving some elderly ladies whose lives seem to revolve around a series of tangential thoughts.

So, all in all, I wasn't very keen on this book. According to the introductory notes, Emma was the pinnacle of Jane Austen's novels, where she finally reached her ideal of a truly domestic novel revolving around a small community with no outsiders involved. I suppose she was the forerunner of the 1980s village stories and 'aga sagas', although 200 years ago anything kitchen-related was done by the servants in upper-class households rather than the main characters of books.

Emma is certainly an intriguing character as the main protagonist. At twenty-one she is in charge of her father's household, and has been pampered her entire life. Nobody ever dares to go against her, other than an old family friend, Mr Kingsley, whose younger brother is married to Emma's older sister. She is mostly good-hearted and cares deeply for those around her, but she is not intended to be a nice character. She is basically a snob, spending a great deal of time aware of 'class' and 'quality', and doing her best to match-make amongst those she considers equals.

A heroine with faults was perhaps rather a risky undertaking in Jane Austen's day, and it's a tribute to her writing skills that this book is still popular today. But despite seeing its good points, I didn't really enjoy reading it. Give it a try if you like Jane Austen, or if you're interested in social history, but be prepared to skim in places. If you're unfamiliar with this author, I'd recommend trying one of her other books first.

Oddly enough, this is one of the few books where I felt that the film version worked rather better. Possibly because there was scenery and action, and some of the introspection vanished, while the satire remained. I particularly liked the Kate Beckinsdale version of 'Emma', produced in 1996.

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