Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

Genre: Comedy of Manners
Publishing Info: Kindle Book – AmazonClassics Edition (originally published by John Murray in 1815)
Pages: 480

Publisher’s Summary:

Charming, rich and clever, heiress Emma Woodhouse has no need for an occupation – or a husband. Still, she considers herself quite skilled at matchmaking. Although her dear friend Mr. Knightley advises against it, there is nothing that she enjoys more than entangling herself in the romantic lives of others. But when one of her well-intentioned plans goes awry – as Mr. Knightley rightfully predicted – Emma must face the consequences of her meddling.

Despite being published more than two hundred years before I sat down to read it, Jane Austen’s Emma is still as enjoyable a read as it was then, thanks in part to a sparkling and somewhat radical protagonist and a sense of humour that transcends the period it was written in.

Emma is one of those classical novels that can still be enjoyed more than two hundred years after it was published, as the elements and themes explored can still be relevant to a modern audience. One example of this is the portrayal of Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of this novel, when compared to other female heroines of Austen’s work. Readers are introduced to her as someone rich and handsome, but one who goes against the expected path for young women of the period and doesn’t allow herself to become entangled with a man; the only male figure she is devoted to is her father. When compared to the other female characters in this novel, of varying sensibility and manners, there is a sense that Austen is making a comment of the representation of young women portrayed in literature and society in the period. Yet it is too early for the character of Emma to be accepted and thus she is said to gain “wisdom” and follows the expected path and finds her match in marriage. The general personality of Emma must have been radical for the period, yet it does allow readers in the twenty-first century to relate with her more.

Before commencing with this novel, I was unsure whether the writing style of the period would alienate me from the more comedic moments of this text. Though there doubtless were a few scenes that contained humour of the time that passed over my head, I found the text far funnier than I expected. The character of Miss Bates – someone who filled a page or more with their uninterrupted verbal diarrhea – was a triumph; reading these sections aloud really helped convey what a delightful presence this character had in scenes. Likewise, Emma’s internal monologue when reacting to potential matches she disagrees with, or reflecting negatively on the behaviour and manners of others, particularly the odious Mrs. Elton, left me in fits of laughter. I think much of this reaction has to be attributed to the way in which Austen writes these sequences, focusing just as much on the way the speeches are presented than the actual words said in them. It is this style that allows these humourous moments to still be enjoyed by readers two centuries on.

For the most part, I also found that the narrative itself was very good. With the exception of one or two more random sequences (Harriet getting ambushed by an angry mob of gypsies springs to mind), many of the major events were explored in enough depth to dissect the comedic touches. The arrivals of Jane Fairfax (a traditional heroine of the period perhaps?) and Frank Churchill, the ball and dinner sequences, the awkward morning on Box Hill and the revelations made by characters confessing their love for each other all were brought out in enough depth, with maybe a chapter or two too long spent discussing the repercussions of said events, it was pleasant and occasionally humourous reading. The final part of the novel does pale in dramatic effect next to some of Austen’s other novels – Pride and Prejudice being the best example – and rather too much time is given to revelations made by characters outside of the central coupling. Overall though, a modern reader would not be alienated or bored by reading Emma, if they have an appreciation of the themes and expectations readers of the period would have had.

Emma was the last novel published in Jane Austen’s lifetime, and her protagonist suggests a slight dismissal of the expectations of young women in that society, even if she does submit to those in the end. That, combined with scenes full of humour that is actually funny to someone reading in the twenty-first century, means that this novel remains a great read, more than two hundred years after it was published.

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆½

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