I'm completely unable to believe my eyes. Here I was thinking that I had a faithful Bronte following of eighteen, and yet I am commencing to write the review for Emma by Jane Austen. I didn't think I'd see the day when my blog followers would choose Emma over The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Yet, that day has come. Despair not, Bronte fans. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall will be reviewed next, followed by Anna Karenina. After that, I'll be back to depending on the whims of my fancy. This would also be a nice time to remind you that if you don't pay attention to the poll margin on the right side of my blog, I suggest you start doing so. I take you responses into heavy account, and I always enjoy seeing which way your fancy leans. Often times (such as now) I'm more inclined to follow yours than my own.
Emma is Jane Austen's fourth published novel, and she immediately makes the difference from the others known in the opening line of the first chapter. "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her," Austen quotes.
Emma Woodhouse isn't a daughter robbed of her fortune and home like Marianne or Elinor Dashwood. She isn't one of five daughters living under the roof of a struggling father and a frivolous mother. She is beautiful, rich, and possesses all the elegances that ensure a comfortable life. And yet, Emma is determined that she will never marry and instead devotes her time to finding husbands for those who don't enjoy her fortunate position. When our heroine looks in the mirror, she sees a successful matchmaker, and when she becomes acquainted with Harriet Smith she is provided the perfect opportunity to put her "skills" to work.
Taking Harriet's strings in hand, Emma decides to turn her puppet's head towards a local gentleman, Mr Elton. She persuades Harriet to reject the proposal of the infatuated wealthy farmer, Mr. Martin, and pursue Mr. Elton. This decision leads to an unforeseen catastrophe. Emma fails to comprehend that the gentleman's affections are, in fact, for her. The plan results in an obvious failure that proves Emma's devoted friend and inner conscience, Mr. Knightley, correct. But Emma's intrigues don't stop here. The arrival of two new additions to Emma's social circle throws she and those connected to her into a tangled web of mistaken affections, misread signals, and emotional misconceptions that all succeed in strangling the main character. Somewhere in the midst, Emma may have lost the chance of ever being with the man she loves and has perhaps damaged the hearts of those she's trying to help.
While the plot has its fair share of twists and tonal shifts, altogether I found Emma to be boring and decidedly the least entertaining of Jane Austen's novels. Lizzy Bennet, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood, and Anne Elliot all had financial, emotional, and even physical conflicts to overcome. The aforementioned protagonists each had something to fight for. Emma Woodhouse has nothing. Believing herself to be in the right at all times, she manipulates those around her to secure her own amusement and self-satisfaction. Why? Because she has nothing else to do. She's directly characterized as wealthy, beautiful, and intelligent. In giving life to a character like Emma, Jane Austen failed to do what I personally found to be her best talent. She forgot to create a relatable protagonist.
The faults don't stop at the protagonist, however. They extend to the plot as a whole. There is an obvious lack of conflict in Emma that makes it hard for any reader to honestly take the novel seriously. Upon its release centuries ago, Emma was criticized for its lack of substance. That same fault still holds true now. It's hard to see reality in Jane Austen novels where characters with distinct faults always attain a happy ending without the least bit of punishment for their failings. All the same, Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility are all masterpieces regardless. Emma is incapable of obtaining such a legacy. It might be a favorite to read on a sunny day, but it has not been (and will not be) in the conversation of the greatest pieces of literature.
I do not mean to be pessimistic, though that may be hard to believe after reading the above criticisms. I merely mean to say that Emma, though it possesses all the irony and wit common to Austen novels, is much too superficial to give the reader any sense of real attachment to the story or its characters. However, there are many in the world who would count this as their favorite novel. Opinions will continued to differ until the world ends. Humans were made with distinct mindsets. It will, therefore, do nothing to read my review and abstain from picking up the novel because of what you've read here. That would hold me somewhat responsible for withholding you from a potential favorite book of yours. I actually insist that you do read Emma and form your own opinion. And once you finish, I'd love to see a comment from you.