21 year old Emma Woodhouse has been raised by a beloved governess Miss Taylor, but played matchmaker for her and got her married off, leaving Emma alone with her dull father. Emma decides she has a talent for matchmaking and set her eyes on new couples, but her sister’s brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley, the only person ever willing to criticize Emma, advises her against it.
Why Emma might be hard to identify with: “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’s previous heroines had been in need of a good marriage, but now she tried to get us to like a spoiled rich girl. Austen invites us to judge Emma for flaws that she can’t perceive about herself, so our POV is distinct from the heroine’s
- The boringness of her father takes the form of an object: backgammon.
- She’s got values: “Mr. Weston was a man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune, suitable age, and pleasant manners; and there was some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying, generous friendship she had always wished and promoted the match.” But we can see that she doesn’t hold herself to the same standards she holds others.
- “Sorrow came—a gentle sorrow—but not at all in the shape of any disagreeable consciousness.—Miss Taylor married. It was Miss Taylor’s loss which first brought grief. It was on the wedding-day of this beloved friend that Emma first sat in mournful thought of any continuance.”
- She feels she has to be “on” all the time around her father, which is wearying: It was a melancholy change; and Emma could not but sigh over it, and wish for impossible things, till her father awoke, and made it necessary to be cheerful. His spirits required support.
- She’s too smart for her father: “She was now in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude. She dearly loved her father, but he was no companion for her. He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.” And indeed when Mr. Knightley comes in and starts sparring with her, we can see that she’s smart and lively.
- She has done a good thing in matchmaking for Miss Taylor, so she does have some talent in her chosen avocation, though, as Mr. Knightley points out, she overestimates her contribution. We admire her for giving up her only happiness.
I haven't read the novel, but I just watched the recent movie, which I liked quite a lot. But man, encountering Emma for the first time, it's really hard to like her at the start! Maybe this was partially choices made by the director and/or not having the interior access of a novel, but I found Emma herself pretty unlikeable at first, and stuck with it mostly to see how she'd be redeemed. Of course by the midpoint when she really starts to become self-aware I was hooked, and the second hour of the movie flew by.
Oh, the movie is pretty accurate to the book. She's pretty insufferable until she suffers a bit. Austen is testing her abilities here by seeing if she can get us to like a pretty unlikeable heroine.
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