Full spoilers for the entire book below. Proceed with caution.
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Author: Jane Austen
Publication Date: December 23, 1815 (novel), 2014 (audio)
Publisher: John Murray (novel) and Audible, Inc (audio)
Narrated By: Jenny Agutter
Recording time: 14 hrs and 45 mins
Emma Woodhouse’s friend and former governess, Miss Taylor, has just married Mr Weston. Having introduced them, Emma takes credit for their marriage and decides that she likes matchmaking. After returning home to Hartfield, Emma forges ahead with her new interest against the advice of her friend Mr Knightley, who is also brother-in-law to Emma’s elder sister Isabella. She attempts to match her new friend Harriet Smith to Mr Elton, the local vicar. Emma persuades Harriet to refuse a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, a respectable young farmer, although Harriet likes him. Mr Elton, a social climber, mistakenly believes Emma is in love with him and proposes to her. When Emma reveals she believed him attached to Harriet, he is outraged, considering Harriet socially inferior. After Emma rejects him, Mr Elton goes to Bath and returns with a pretentious, nouveau-riche wife, as Mr Knightley expected he would do. Harriet is heartbroken, and Emma feels ashamed about misleading her.
Frank Churchill, Mr Weston’s son, arrives for a two-week visit. Frank was adopted by his wealthy and domineering aunt and has had few opportunities to visit before. Mr Knightley tells Emma that, while Frank is intelligent and engaging, he has a shallow character. Jane Fairfax also arrives to visit her aunt Miss Bates and Mrs Bates for a few months before starting a governess position due to financial situation. She is the same age as Emma and has received an excellent education through her father’s friend, Colonel Campbell. Emma has remained somewhat aloof from Jane because she envies her and is annoyed by everyone, including Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley, praising Jane. Mrs Elton takes Jane under her wing and announces that she will find a governess post before it is wanted.
Emma decides that Jane and Mr Dixon, Colonel Campbell’s new son-in-law, are mutually attracted, and that is the reason she arrived earlier than expected. She confides this to Frank, who met Jane and the Campbells at Weymouth the previous year; he apparently agrees with Emma. Suspicions are further fuelled when a pianoforte, sent anonymously, arrives for Jane. Emma feels herself falling in love with Frank, but it does not last. The Eltons treat Harriet poorly, culminating in Mr Elton publicly snubbing Harriet at a ball. Mr Knightley, who normally refrained from dancing, gallantly asks Harriet to dance. The day after the ball, Frank brings Harriet to Hartfield, as she fainted after a rough encounter with local gypsies. Emma mistakes Harriet’s gratitude to Frank as Harriet being in love with him. Meanwhile, Mrs Weston wonders if Mr Knightley is attracted to Jane, but Emma dismisses the idea. When Mr Knightley says he notices a connection between Jane and Frank, Emma disagrees, as Frank appears to be courting her instead. Frank arrives late to a gathering at Donwell, while Jane departs early. The next day at Box Hill, a local scenic spot, Frank and Emma are joking when Emma thoughtlessly insults Miss Bates.
When Mr Knightley scolds Emma for insulting Miss Bates, she is ashamed. The next day, she visits Miss Bates to atone for her bad behaviour, impressing Mr Knightley. During the visit, Emma learns that Jane has accepted a governess position from one of Mrs Elton’s friends. Jane becomes ill and refuses to see Emma or receive her gifts. Meanwhile, Frank has been visiting his aunt, who dies soon after his arrival. He and Jane reveal to the Westons that they have been secretly engaged since autumn, but Frank knew his aunt would disapprove of the match. Maintaining the secrecy strained the conscientious Jane and caused the couple to quarrel, with Jane ending the engagement. Frank’s easygoing uncle readily gives his blessing to the match. The engagement is made public, leaving Emma annoyed to discover that she had been so wrong.
Emma believes Frank’s engagement will devastate Harriet, but instead, Harriet says she loves Mr Knightley, and though she knows the match is too unequal, Emma’s encouragement and Mr Knightley’s kindness have given her hope. Emma is startled and realises that she is also in love with Mr Knightley. Mr Knightley returns to console Emma about Frank and Jane’s engagement, thinking her heartbroken. When she admits her foolishness, he proposes, and she accepts. Harriet accepts Robert Martin’s second proposal, and they are the first couple to marry. Jane and Emma reconcile, and Frank and Jane visit the Westons. Once the mourning period for Frank’s aunt ends, they will marry. Before the end of November, Emma and Mr Knightley are married with the prospect of “perfect happiness.”
Emma is the charming story of a vivacious, yet vapid, foolish, and conceited young woman learning through several hard lessons that she is foolish and conceited. Once she comes to this realization and repents of her prior behavior, she notices the wise, humble, and constant Mr. Knightly who is inexplicably in love with her, and she reciprocates his feelings. From there, most of the tale’s other problems – some of which Emma created – begin to be happily resolved.
This is the first Jane Austen novel that I have ever read, and I did so via the audiobook performance of Jenny Agutter. The recording was excellent, and very well acted, however, I am not sure I would recommend tackling Emma via audiobook on your first read-through of the tale. The story does not lend itself terribly well to the audio format and I found that I was frequently confused in the early chapters as to each person’s relationship with one another. Due in part to the way that the character was written in the early chapters, I continued to confuse Mr. Knightly with Emma’s father. I also confused, repeatedly, the Eltons and the Westons and I could not keep straight how the Bates’ were related to Jane Fairfax or how Emma is related to Frank Churchill. The issue might not have been better in a book format than audio, but I know for certain that my ears were having a difficult time keeping straight who is who. Instinct tells me that this novel would be more enjoyable upon a re-read, with the characters now more firmly in my mind.
This story is the 19th century literary version of what today might be a television show centered on the tangled lives of bored, rich people in southern California. Perhaps that reality is why its film adaptation, Clueless, worked so well. The village of Highbury is almost its own character within the novel, containing within it a well-defined social hierarchy, largely led by and enforced by the community’s idle women. The men by contrast seem to be aware of social status, and to embrace it, but to care less about it, because they have vocational obligations outside of their homes. By the end of the book, the reader should come away thinking the women are simultaneously the victims and primary perpetrators of Highbury’s social system. Austen’s story argues that it is important for the Emmas and Mrs. Eltons of a system like this to be charitable of heart, and to find better pursuits than gossip and matchmaking, lest other innocent women be their primary victims.
Jane Fairfax is a woman of substance, humble, quiet, and with the skill to be a well-paid governess, and she emerges from being the object of Emma’s envy into perhaps the story’s most sympathetic character. High born Emma spends most of the novel as a busybody and only becomes sympathetic upon being scolded for her thoughtless behavior, feeling the truth of that rebuke, and deciding to better herself. Harriet is a nice lower born girl who is taken in by Emma’s scheming. She is apt to fall in love with anyone who appears to love her, but she ultimately ends up in the same place where she would have, had she never met Emma. We see in her how this culture might be perpetuated. Had Emma succeeded in her schemes, Harriet would have been unhappy and she would have embraced Emma’s original worldview, passing it down to still others. Mrs. Elton is the character who most adheres to Emma’s view of social hierarchy. She is also most lacking in personal substance (even more so than Emma.) Her recommendations are almost exclusively limited to her social status. She lacks unique talent, is a busybody, and is often blindly unkind to others. She is thus the least sympathetic of the novel’s characters. The irony is that Emma did not like her, despite the fact Mrs. Elton is in many respects the type of person Emma was becoming until Mr. Knightly’s well-timed rebuke of her behavior.
The novel is built largely around Emma’s ideas concerning marriage and social status. As the story begins, Emma decides that she knows enough of human nature and society to be an excellent match-maker, and to that end, she becomes a champion for the upward social mobility of her friend Harriet via marriage. However, Emma’s self-belief in her own knowledge of the secret workings of the hearts of others repeatedly proves to be wrong and misguided. Emma encourages Harriet to reject what would have been a happy and profitable marriage at the outset of the novel, then sets her up twice to fall in love with other men who not only do not reciprocate, but by most indications are not of the same quality substance as her first offer. Meanwhile Emma herself – who states firmly that she has no desire ever to be married – falls in love twice. The young woman who believed herself to know the hearts of all was quite blind to her own heart.
By contrast, Mr. Knightly has the sense to avoid Emma’s scheming despite presenting as someone who would be much better at it than she is. He is proven right regarding Harriet’s rejection of Robert Martin’s proposal. He is proven right regarding the secret relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax. A key difference between Knightly and Emma lies largely in the fact he pays much more attention to the thoughts and feelings of others, whereas Emma largely spends her time a prisoner of her preconceived ideas and biases.
Emma is not a villain in how she wrongly views the world. She’s merely foolish. The novel indicates that marrying too far above or below one’s station is likely to produce strife (as was apparently the case with Mr. Weston’s first marriage to Miss Churchill.) The novel also depicts a world wherein marrying well is the most important thing a woman could do for herself, to meet her long term financial needs. We see this in the second marriage of Mr. Weston, to a governess, who is said to be grateful for the marriage in that it secures her ability to cease work. We see that also in Jane Fairfax’s marriage to Frank Churchill. The critique of Emma – as a moral character – is failing to balance these community realities with consideration and adequate attention for the substance of the individuals. When we meet Emma, she is a creature of her community. When we leave her, she is wiser. She avoids greater condemnation due to her desire to improve. In fact, Knightly sees in her this desire to improve and that is ultimately what convinces him that she is worth his love.
Frank Churchill is the male parallel of Emma, in that he is also blinded to the evils of his actions by his own cleverness and imagination. He ignores the reality of his aunt’s social prejudice and pursues a secret courtship of Jane Fairfax, anyway. He then – in service of protecting this deception of his aunt – feigns public interest in Emma, which leads to wounds both to Jane Fairfax and Knightly (though he only knew of the former.) He miscalculates the feelings of others as he pursues what he wants, and that miscalculation nearly costs him everything. Just as Emma was fortunate to be rebuked by Knightly, Frank Churchill is fortunate to be rebuked by Jane Fairfax and to then have his aunt die in a timely fashion. Austen grants both characters happy endings, but it is clear that the reader is intended to see their brand of cleverness as both selfish and as a fault because until the end, neither is guided first and foremost by a concern for others.
My primary motivation for reading books from this time period is self-improvement. If you listen to a Jane Austen novel for fourteen hours, your vocabulary will be at least temporarily improved. If you hear someone string together eloquent dialogue, for such a long stretch of time, you will find that your own thoughts begin to gain oratorical persuasiveness. I hope that this occurred for me. Some of my favorite lines from the book are below:
“Silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way.”
“Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken.”
“I may have lost my heart, but not my self-control.”
“There are people, who the more you do for them, the less they will do for themselves.”
“Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.”
“Vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief.”
“I cannot make speeches, Emma…If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”
Overall, I am happy to have read Emma. The book is exceptionally well-written, but I did not enjoy it so much that I am likely to revisit the story again any time soon. I am grateful to Jane Austen for allowing me to sit and listen to her characters’ dialogue. As a lover of history, I also enjoyed Austen’s presentation of rich, rural England, from this time period. However, I do not romanticize that period, as some do, in such a way that I will want to continuously revisit the setting. In any case, the message of the book is a good one. Even in a society wherein social status reigns, you should – if at all possible – be a person of substance, not silliness.