I wanted to kick off my participation in Adam's Austen in August event with a reread of one of the three Austen books I have already read (Pride & Prejudice, Emma and Sense & Sensibility). In the end I went for Emma; I had read it only once before and think I was so caught up in the life of Emma herself that I missed a lot of the secondary plot on the first try. Emma may give her name to the title of the book but it is really a novel about the society of Highbury and all of the people in it. Following the marriage of her governess to Mr Weston, Emma considers herself something of a matchmaker and delights in matching her new friend Harriet Smith with various men. Despite the warnings of her good friend Mr Knightley, Emma meddles in the business of all her neighbours, with some unforeseen consequences for her own personal happiness.
Warning - there are spoilers in this review.
Emma is definitely a novel that benefits from a re-read. The first time I read it, the announcement that Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax were engaged took me completely by shock, as I had spent the story believing everything Emma herself believed. This gave the ending of the novel, and Emma's realisation that she might have ruined her own happiness, power that it didn't have on this second read, as I knew it was coming. But instead, this time, I was able to fully appreciate the skill with which Austen puts in all the little clues, that tell the reader one thing, whilst allowing Emma to believe another. She slowly doles out these clues bit by bit, never drawing too much attention to them and they gradually build up. It's very clever writing.
One thing that often comes up in reviews of Emma is that Emma herself isn't the most likeable of characters. She is certainly flawed; over-confident, not very perceptive and too lazy to become accomplished at anything (a crime in Austen's day!). She appears at her worst when she is persuading Harriet to turn down an offer of marriage from a man she loves mainly so that Harriet can still be around Emma every-day. But despite all of this, I really liked Emma on the first read and I liked her more so on the second. She isn't perfect and that's what I like about her, and it's what makes her so easy to relate to. Austen takes pains to show us that Emma's heart is in the right place (most of the time) and the fact that she has flaws allows some great character development;
"With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everyone's feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody's destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing - for she had done mischief."
I feel like I am finally getting to the point now where I am starting to fully understand just why everyone loves Austen so much. I have always liked the novels of hers I have read, but I never really got the wit in the stories before, or the subtle commentary on society of the time. As Emma is about such a broad range of people and we get to see them both as they really are, and through Emma's flawed perception, I'm finally realising how clever and brilliant Austen's writing is. I enjoyed every single page of Emma and didn't want it to end. On this read, it's jumped straight to the top of my 'favourite books by Jane Austen' mental list.
Next up for Austen in August: Northanger Abbey.
Source: Personal copy
First Published: 1816
My Edition: Penguin Threads, 2011
Score: 5 out of 5
The Classics Club: Book 14 out of 72
My list of 72 classics is here.
This book was read as part of the Austen in August event.