My sum total experience of Jane Austen before reading Emma was six aborted attempts to read Pride and Prejudice, and falling asleep during the Keira Knightley film adaptation. I know I’ll have to get around to reading that particular masterpiece eventually, but baby steps are the name of the game.
Emma was the last of Austen’s six novels to be completed, after the publication of Pride and Prejudice. A London publisher offered her £450 for the manuscript, and asked for the copyright for Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility thrown into the bargain. She told him to get stuffed, and in 1815 published two thousand copies at her own expense. She retained all of the copyright, and (more importantly) all of the bragging rights. Slay, Austen, slay!
Before she began writing Emma, Austen wrote to a friend: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. From what I can tell, later critics didn’t dislike Emma as much as they simply acknowledged that she was a flawed character (the horror!).
The book isn’t even really about her, per se. Emma is actually a satirical novel about manners, hubris, and the perils of misconstrued romance, exploring the lives of genteel women in the early 19th century and issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status. But all I knew about it before I started reading was that it was the basis of the movie Clueless.
So, the central character, Emma Woodhouse (“handsome, clever, and rich”), fancies herself to be quite the matchmaker in her small English village. She’s wealthy enough to get by without a husband of her own, but she takes great pleasure in meddling with other people’s love lives. What else was a girl to do before Tinder?
Her pet project is Harriet Smith, an unsophisticated, illegitimate seventeen-year-old girl whose only prospect for social advancement is a good matrimonial match. Now, you can look past this pretty weak and flimsy plot to read Emma as a searing class commentary on the right of the elite to dominate society… but, if that’s not your thing, you should know right now: Emma is basically The Book Where Nothing Happens.
I mean it: nothing really happens. Every scene is a visit or a party where bored rich men and women gossip about who will marry whom. Emma tries to set Harriet up with everyone, but they all fall in love with Emma (or her dowry) instead – boohoo. There’s a lot of whining about rich white-girl problems. Now and then, there’s a dramatic declaration of love or a rejected proposal to keep the wheel turning, but otherwise it’s all pretty bland. Most of the story is told through the gossip of the town of Highbury, kind of like the original Gossip Girl.
The most interesting and likeable character in Emma is the uncouth Mrs Elton. Mrs Elton has fat stacks of cash, but lacks the manners and social graces that are expected of her in “polite society”. She commits social suicide almost immediately, calling people by their first names (gasp!) and boasting about her family’s wealth (can you imagine?). Emma describes her as “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred”, but I liked her. She was a whole lot more fun than the rest of them put together. Picture an old-timey Kath & Kim character-equivalent mixing with the upper crust: hilarious! It is Mrs Elton’s lack of social grace that reveals the hypocrisy and the ridiculousness of the gentility.
Things start to heat up a bit plot-wise towards the end (in relative terms, anyway): people get sick, peripheral characters die, there’s arguments between friends, and the very-predictable love triangle comes to a head. There’s a happy ending (i.e., everyone gets married), which pretty much makes it a 19th century beach read.
Emma isn’t a horrible book, and I didn’t hate it. Indeed, it’s quite clever and charming, in its own way. There’s some really funny bits, there’s some interesting class and gender commentary… but the pacing is positively glacial, and (as I said before) nothing happens.
In terms of this particular edition, the introduction was fine, but the footnotes were absolutely taking the piss. No kidding, there is a footnote providing the definition of “carriage”, but nothing for the word “valetudinarian” (I had to Google it, it means “a person who is unduly anxious about their health”, just so you know). I gave up on the notes a few chapters in, they just weren’t adding much to my reading experience.
My tl;dr summary of Emma would be this: if you get your jollies dissecting the idiosyncrasies of high society in early 19th century England, and don’t mind falling asleep now and then while you’re reading, Emma will make your day. If you’re chasing action and intrigue and shock-twist endings, you might want to give this one a miss.
Want to know how I got on with Pride And Prejudice? Read my full review here.
My favourite Amazon reviews of Emma:
- “Boring, BORING, B O R I N G!” – Cliffgypsy
- “too many similarities between this book and the much better Alicia Silverstone movie Clueless for me to recommend it to everyone but all in all if you like your teen comedies set in Victorian england and not LA, go for it. Grab it before Hollywood discovers the similarities and gets it yanked off the shelf with a court order. Maybe Austen can write her next one based on the plot of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Set it in South Africa during the Boar war or something” – Walter Rice
- “Tedious and slow. Too much angst and upstanding-ness.” – Iaswa
- “Normally, “women’s fiction,” focusing on relationships and family, doesn’t interest me much, but Austen writes so well I was able to read all the way through. That emma, what an interfering know-it-all, but the harm is not irreparable.” – Marie Brack
August 29, 2018 at 7:48 AM
This is one of my favorites. For most of my reading life the slow plot would hand bothered me. But over the last few years I have come to be fine with slow plots if everything else is good.
I liked Pride and Prejudice a little better, but just a Little.
August 29, 2018 at 9:39 AM
That’s actually a really good point, Brian: slow plots are fine if everything else is good. I like it! Looking back over this review, and the book, I’m thinking Emma is another one I’ll have to read again at some point. Also really interested to hear P&P was the winner for you 😉 I’m going to have to knuckle down to it soon… stay tuned! Hahahaha.
August 29, 2018 at 2:45 PM
Quite right but Emma is still a winner for me. Pride and Prejudice has a whole lot more going on with some truly excellent characters as well, so you might like that one more. I don’t mind a whole lot of social nothing if it’s witty and done right – which Emma was (for me).
August 29, 2018 at 3:48 PM
You know, looking back over it, this review is maybe harsher than I actually feel now. At the time, I kind of struggled with Emma, but the more I’ve thought and read about it since, the more I appreciate it. It’s a slow burn book, in every regard 😉 hahahaha.
August 29, 2018 at 4:54 PM
I came to Austen late – I think I started with Pride and Prejudice. I loved it, and was giddy with the knowledge that I had a whole bunch of Austen still to read. I loved Persuasion (that letter!). I loved Sense and Sensibility. Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park made less of an impression on me but I COULD NOT EVEN GET THROUGH EMMA. I still have it at home. Maybe I’ll try again one day. Or not.
August 29, 2018 at 7:38 PM
Hahahaha no shame, Tricia! And no judgement, I can completely understand the instinct to bail on it. 😉👍🏼 And it sounds like you’re having a pretty good run with Austen anyway, three out of six ain’t bad!!
August 29, 2018 at 11:49 PM
Saw the Romola Garai TV version https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_(2009_TV_serial)
I really liked it
And I did like that the meddling Miss gets hoisted by her own petard and very nearly misses out on her own love interest but I was disappointed that it wasn’t carried through as a message to end all meddling
but sadly no, meddlers got their happy ending…
August 30, 2018 at 7:18 PM
Hahahaha I feel like “sadly, all the meddlers got a happy ending” sums up every Jane Austen novel ever 😜😂
August 30, 2018 at 12:43 PM
I love this. Emma was basically a big fish in a small pond, and all the tension points were definitely first world problems, except the poor old Bateses probably would’ve starved without neighbourly help. It’s so cool that you loved Mrs Elton, who was looked down on by practically everyone, just for being herself. I doubt I’d have lasted a moment in the politically correctness of 19th century high society.
August 30, 2018 at 7:24 PM
YES!! Emma = 19th century first world problems, one hundred percent!! 😂😂😂 Mrs Elton was definitely my favourite, the most relatable of them all by far. We definitely would have been kicked out of high society together, representing for all the “uncouth” loudmouth women who break all the rules 😉❤️