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"Emma" by Jane Austen

I've had this on my "to read" list for quite a while, but funnily enough decided to read it now in preparation for the release of the final Harry Potter book. There's been so much talk about how much this book influenced Rowling, I thought it would be good to read it now. I started it hoping for some insight to what JKR might do in the final book, but once I got reading, Rowling and the young wizard both left my mind. (So, I can't say that it opened up any new speculations for that series).

"Emma" started off a bit slow, but once it got going, I found it quite a page-turner. Emma, even though she is still very young, is basically the head of her household, as her father is a fretful, ineffectual man who allows others to "handle" him easily. Fortunately, Emma is basically a good-hearted young woman who makes (mostly) good decisions, and (usually) behaves properly, and always with great consideration for her father. At the outset of the book, we learn that she thinks herself an excellent matchmaker and decides that she is going to help her newly cultivated friend, Harriet, find the perfect husband. Emma herself, however, intends never to marry and ruin what seems to her an already perfect life. Throughout the book, she pokes her nose into situations that would perhaps better be left alone, and behaves in ways which are destined to be misinterpreted by others (although she's unaware of this at the time). All this, of course, leads to what are supposed to be some interesting twists and turns in the plot.

***The rest of this review contains MAJOR SPOILERS including what happens at the end of the book***

Austen's books are always a look into a world that is different from my own, and yet some things never change. She drew many wonderful characters in this book, although I did find a few of them to be off-puttingly obnoxious. Not more obnoxious, perhaps, than characters in some of her other books, but they seemed to have a lot more page-time (and dialogue in particular) than I remember being the case in other books. Of course, Mrs. Elton was utterly loathesome, and in need of a major smackdown. I also quickly tired of Mr. Woodhouse. Sweet man though he was said to be, his constant worrying was very tiresome, and I could have done without quite so much of it. While these characters annoyed me, it wasn't because they were unbelievable; on the contrary, I've known people like both of them. I just don't have as much patience with either sort as Emma did.

I found that with this book, also perhaps more than in others by Austen, I had to consciously "turn off" some of my modern sensibility while reading. Class and wealth and everyone knowing their proper place (and staying in it) is always a theme, and one that was relevant to the time and place in which these books were written, but somehow in this book I found it more oppressive than usual. Emma and those around her are very concerned with maintaining the status-quo in regards to their relationships, and in the course of the story, Austen plays with this quite a bit. As Emma wonders just how much her friend Harriet's low birth might be outweighed by her wonderful personal qualities, we're led to wonder as well, which sets up most of the tension for the whole story. It turns out, though, that "playing" with this is all Austen does; she proves herself to be conservative, and none of her characters rock the boat by marrying outside of their class.

I will say, in relation to the above comments, that one of the things that puzzled me about this book was that it's considered a masterpiece of narrative misdirection, and is said to end with a monumental twist. Narrative misdirection, perhaps, but it was one that never really sucked me in. It was obvious Emma was convincing herself of things that were not true. Mr. Elton was clearly was courting Emma, not Harriet, and for Emma to be blind to that made me stop trusting her judgement, so later in the story I didn't buy into any misdirection. As for the ending, there were no surprises there - it ended exactly the way I'd expected it to end. (From the very first time we see his name, I knew she'd end up with Knightley, and all the other pieces were equally easy to fit into the puzzle). Perhaps because I'd heard there was a twist at the end, and read it with a mind to figure out what it could be, I was more careful in my reading than I might have been otherwise and I did figure it out, where others might not have. But, assuming that the book would have a happy ending for Emma (which I was certain it would), there was really no other way for everything to work itself out in the end, so I'm not sure just what the big "twist" is supposed to be. (Although, for a short time, I thought perhaps Frank Churchill was just wacky enough that he was interested in Miss Bates). I thought the book was fun, and I enjoyed following Emma's train of thought, but early on I stopped seeing things solely from her point of view, so I wasn't surprised by anything at all. (If I'd thought that the book might end unhappily for Emma, I might have suspected that Knightley would have set his sights on Harriet. It was clear, though, that Austen liked Emma far too much to leave her loveless at the end of the book). So, a great book, but one of the biggest surprise endings in literature? No, I don't think so.

I can't decide if this is now my favorite Austen, or if P&P still holds that honor. I did enjoy Emma and Knightley at least as much as Elizabeth and Darcy; perhaps more, since they were always genuinely friendly to one another, even when they disagreed. But in the end, I will say that I still like Elizabeth Bennett better than Emma Woodhouse. Emma is lovely, but her ill-conceived manipulations were heavy-handed at times. (Even though, of course, there wouldn't have been a story without them).

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( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
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here_be_dragons
Jun. 21st, 2007 02:36 pm (UTC)
It sometimes takes me a bit to get into Austen; the writing is a challenge for me. But once it gets going, I love the characters and the stories. "Pride and Prejudice" is still my favorite, so maybe give that one a try if "Emma" didn't strike your fancy.
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here_be_dragons
Jun. 21st, 2007 02:33 pm (UTC)
I adore Elizabeth; in fact, she's probably my all-time favorite character in all literature. She's certainly the one I relate with most, personally. I haven't seen "Clueless" - is it a re-telling of P&P? *rushes to add to Netflix queue*
here_be_dragons
Jun. 21st, 2007 02:34 pm (UTC)
Or . . . maybe it's based on "Emma?" Certainly, Emma is more clueless than Elizabeth! :D Either way, I'm going to watch it. :)
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here_be_dragons
Jun. 21st, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
Ooh! It sounds like fun. It's at the top of my Netfilx queue now, so I should have it in hand by next week at the latest! I'll definitely let you know what I think after I've watched it. :)
elfundeb
Jun. 21st, 2007 05:22 pm (UTC)
Emma was my first excursion into Austen, and I almost gave up after the first two chapters, primarily because of the emphasis on class. I did finish it and enjoy it, but I think Emma is the most class-conscious heroine (despite her supposed befriending of Harriet, whose appeal seemed to lie partly in Emma's ability to manipulate her) and perhaps because of that she remains my least favorite Austen heroine.

BTW, Clueless is Emma. The Mr. Elton counterpart is even named Elton, just in case we were too clueless to pick up on the connection. I thought it was a hoot.
here_be_dragons
Jun. 22nd, 2007 08:17 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to hear that you found "Emma" to be really class-conscious, too; I had thought that maybe I was just imagining this, since it's been a few years since I've read any Austen. I thought maybe I'd become more sensitive, or something. Funny, because really you'd think P&P would be more class-oriented, considering that Darcy and Elizabeth really DO break a class barrier in that book. But somehow, I never found P&P obnoxious with the class stuff, while "Emma" was.

It's funny; I don't dislike Emma. In fact, I probably like her better than what's-her-name from "Persuasion" (because she was just too wimpy early on, and look what it cost her). It seems I am less bothered by someone who manipulates others than I am by someone who allows herself to be manipulated. (At least when we're talking about character with whom we're meant to identify; I guess this indicates that I would rather manipulate than be manipulated).

As an aside, In her class-conciousness, Emma actually seems somewhat progressive for her time. You know, like people in the 1960s (or, indeed, today) who would give lip service to the civil rights movement, but who would never actually socialize with someone from another race. Part of her seems to understand that all the social stratification is wrong, or at least based on invalid ideas, and yet she can't quite overcome it, can she? Even so, I still did find myself liking her, enough that I really did want her to end up happily with Knightley; I'd have been disappointed if Emma ended the book being miserable. (Maybe that's just because I'm a sap, though). :D
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