“A heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” is Austen’s famous description of Emma Woodhouse. And yes, Emma is not very likeable. She is a self-important busybody who doesn’t even understand how badly she has ruined Harriet’s life. And that is the whole point of her involvement with poor Harriet. The girl is an illegitimate nobody of little value to Emma, so she feels she can do with her what she wants, under the guise of improving her life. And who doesn’t love the fact that Emma thinks she’s a whiz at matchmaking precisely because she introduced one couple to each other? One match! One match, Emma! That’s just beginner’s luck! Her smug self-importance knows no bounds.
Mr. Knightley does his best to open Emma’s eyes to the dangers of her scheming, and he gets really angry with her a number of times. Emma’s saving grace is that when she is called to account for her behavior, she does feel guilty. But Emma! Why does it take you so long to see that you are so mean to Miss Bates?
Like many Austen readers, Emma’s personality turned me off. But I’ve come to love the book, not just for the plot, but as always, for the wonderful background that Austen draws of the little village that is the setting for Emma’s antics. Also, how can you not love these lines, when her brother-in-law gives her instructions for taking care of her nephews:
“Well, Emma, I do not believe I have any thing more to say about the boys; but you have your sister’s letter, and every thing is down at full length there we may be sure. My charge would be much more concise than her’s, and probably not much in the same spirit; all that I have to recommend being comprised in, do not spoil them, and do not physic them.”
Yeah, basically he’s saying, your sister wrote down a whole long list of instructions about taking care of the boys. I’ve got two rules: Don’t spoil them, and don’t let your father give them medicine. For a woman who famously never married and never had children, Austen knew a whole hell of a lot about what whackjobs parents are. Just wait until we get to Persuasion.
And then there’s Mrs Elton. Oh, Mrs. Elton. She marries Mr. Elton, who Emma had designs on for Harriet, and immediately takes on the role of the leading member of society — not knowing that Emma already has that job. The two clash, and for all that Emma is so annoyingly obtuse, Mrs. Elton makes her look as if she’s the most introspective heroine this side of Sylvia Plath. (Sorry — too soon?) Anyway, Mrs. Elton, with her caro sposo, and her pastoral picnic in which she arrives on a picturesque donkey, and the ball at the community center (what? It’s totally a community center!), drives Emma nuts.
And then there’s the paragon of virtue, Jane Fairfax. I don’t get Jane, but we’re not supposed to get Jane. Jane is there to be the person Emma is supposed to aspire to be, and Emma is so incredibly jealous of Jane, and Jane has far more serious problems that she can’t do anything about, so she has no time to feel anything other than annoyed by Emma, as if Emma were a gnat. For one thing, she’s engaged to Frank Churchill.
With every Austen novel, there’s always one thing that I come up against as a headscratcher, and in this case it’s Frank and whatever Jane saw in him. Then again, Anne’s mother in Persuasion also fell for a stupid man, and Mr. Bennet is famously contemptuous of Mrs. Bennet, so bad marriages are a pretty common theme in Austen’s books. Maybe one of Austen’s goals was to warn her fellow women. No matter how pretty the boy is, make sure you respect him too.
So why is Emma Austen’s masterpiece? It is the most assured of all her novels. She doesn’t put a foot wrong at any moment. Everything works, from plot, to character, to setting, to dialog — she is at the top of her game. As I said, I love Persuasion the best of all Austen’s books, but Emma, man — Emma is amazing. If you haven’t read it in a while, or if you’ve only seen the adaptations with Gwyneth Paltrow or Romola Garai, you owe it to yourself to visit Highbury.
Oh: Not a romance. Yes, she finally marries Mr. Knightley, and Harriet marries her farmer, Mr. Martin, and the whole book revolves around Emma’s attempts at matchmaking, but this is so not a romance. In fact, this is like the anti-marriage plot, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Austen was doing that on purpose.
Oh, Persuasion. Best of all Austen novels. It’s unabashedly a romance, and a Romance, with its depiction of the wildness of nature (the seaside, where Louisa falls) and the melancholy of autumn echoing the melancholy of Anne Eliot. Although Persuasion ends up in Bath, its heart is in the countryside. Austen describes the natural world with a yearning that is missing from her other novels. I think it’s the most personal of her work.
In Persuasion, Austen illustrates family dynamics and human nature in scenes so modern as to be almost uncanny. Here are some examples:
Mary’s declaration was, “I hate sending the children to the Great House, though their grandmamma is always wanting to see them, for she humours and indulges them to such a degree, and gives them so much trash and sweet things, that they are sure to come back sick and cross for the rest of the day.” And Mrs. Musgrove took the first opportunity of being alone with Anne, to say, “Oh! Miss Anne, I cannot help wishing Mrs. Charles had a little of your method with those children. They are quite different creatures with you! But to be sure, in general they are so spoilt!”
The visitors took their leave; and Charles, having civilly seen them off, and then made a face at them, and abused them for coming, began with —
And this is straight out of an American high school:
“She is pretty, I think; Anne Elliot; very pretty when one comes to look at her. It is not the fashion to say so, but I confess I admire her more than her sister.”
“Oh! so do I.”
“And so do I. No comparison. “
I could quote from Persuasion for pages, but will restrain myself, except to mention The Letter. The letter is Captain Wentworth’s Grovel, in which he apologizes for being angry and insulted when Anne turned him down ten years before. Go read the book. When you get to The Letter, you’ll see what I mean.
The theme of influence and persuasion run through all of Austen’s books. In P&P, it’s Darcy’s influence over Bingley, for instance. In Persuasion, Lady Russell is guilty of convincing Anne of turning down Wentworth when they were young. She’s practically a mother to Anne, and she saw exactly what happened when her friend married a pretty face — she married Sir Walter Elliot. She wanted to spare Anne that fate. But Austen sticks to her guns. Persuasion never turns out in the best interests of the persuadee.
I’ll leave it to other readers to wonder if Austen’s continued return to the action of persuasion is a clue to her own happiness and unmarried state. I for one am glad that she never married, because if she had, I doubt she would have written her books. But she does redemption very well, and Persuasion is a ripe example of it. Anne and Wentworth get their second chance at love, and only the most curmudgeonly reader would have it otherwise.
Persuasion: Most definitely, gloriously, emphatically A Romance.
Part II: Sense & Sensibility and Northanger Abbey
Part I: Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park