(Originally read May 15, 2013)
Jane Austen is one of my favorite novelists. So it feels like a real accomplishment to complete Emma as it was the only Jane Austen novel I hadn’t read (not including the unfinished Sanditon and the juvenilia).
The novel is the story of the rich and snobbish Emma Woodhouse, a woman confident in her social position and intellectual judgments, who spends most of her days taking care of her hypochondriac father. She befriends a girl named Harriet Smith as a replacement for her governess who has recently left to get married. Mischief ensues as Emma fills Harriet’s head with ideas about her own self-importance and vanity, imagining some grand clandestine origin for her new friend, despite all the evidence of Harriet’s poverty and meager social position. Not just content with friendship, Emma plays matchmaker for Harriet, leading her to reject a farmer who loves her because Emma believes his social position too low, and instead convinces Harriet to pine after various gentleman in the neighborhood who are out of her league. Meanwhile, Emma begins her own flirtations as a rich youth named Frank Churchill comes to town in order to visit his father. However, Frank is hiding some secrets of his own. All the while there is Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother in law, who is one of the few people unimpressed with all of Emma’s accomplishments and supposed virtues, willing to call out her faults, and who foresees the problems Emma’s friendship with Harriet will cause.
Like most of Austen’s novels, the conflict and theme of the story centers on the importance of self-knowledge and misunderstanding the nature of other people. Only through self-knowledge and deep understanding other people can we hope to find love and happiness. In a time where many people married to make alliances, rise in social class, or gain wealth, Austen suggests in her works that true happiness in a relationship isn’t found in acquiring wealth or an improved social position, but it is to be found in true love. She posits further through her characters’ experiences that true love is similar to Aristotle’s concept of “friendship of the good” in which two people of good virtue enjoy each other’s character. In this philosophical conception, one person of higher virtue and superior reason helps raise the consciousness of their friend or lover over time to the same superior level. In other words, a true friend or true lover raises not our wealth or social status, but rather our intellectual judgments and our worth as a human being; they elevate our very soul, even if that means sometimes criticizing and making us aware of our faults and intellectual limitations. This is exactly what happens in this novel and many other Austen novels! Austen avoids slipping in gender stereotypes by featuring two relationships of this sort in Emma: Knightley improving the character and ideas of Emma, but also Jane Fairfax improving the character and ideas of Frank Churchill.
Why does Emma need improvement? Well, Emma is hardly a perfect person and contains some real character faults; she is snobby, well aware of her social class, at times condescending, and often lets her imagination get the better of her (such as in the case with Harriet Smith). Worst of all is her vanity. The greatest achievement of the novel is that Austen manages to make the reader like a character who has many unlikeable faults. Austen does this by also letting us see that Emma also possesses many virtues; she is an extremely caring daughter, she is willing to admit her own faults when pointed out to her, especially when it involves seriously hurting someone else’s feelings.