Jane Austen's Emma was published in 1816 in London, and was the second-to-last novel written by the author1. Her most famous novels are Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, which were published in 1811 and 1813 respectively. Mansfield Park is also well known, and was published in 1814. Emma has been described as a 'mystery story without a murder', or as the world's first detective story. Typical for a novel of the time, the action centres around the marital status of the characters.
Emma is set in Highbury, which was then a small town 16 miles from London, in the early 19th Century. Highbury is a stratified society, and the heroine Emma and the hero Mr Knightley are at the top of the social ladder. The other characters, including Mr Elton, Frank Churchhill, Jane Fairfax, and Harriet Smith, are of differing social status, and their position in society is largely controlled by Emma. Throughout the book, Emma assumes that she knows 'the secret of everybody's feelings', so she interferes with relationships and continually makes the same mistakes until the truth is revealed to her at the end of the novel, mostly thanks to Mr Knightley.
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.
That is the famous opening line to the novel, and describes Emma well. The use of the word 'seemed' gives the reader a vital clue to the events in the rest of the novel. This first line tells the reader Emma's attributes; later, Jane Austen discusses her flaws.
The real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much in her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.
Her pride, arrogance and vanity cause her to think herself better than all the other characters and is the major cause of her misunderstandings and mistakes throughout the book. Emma's gradual education takes the form of a series of rebukes and sudden revelations about her behaviour and has the result of giving Emma a less prejudiced view of the world and her own society.
George Knightley is seen as being both protective and critical of Emma.
Mr Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them.
Mr Knightley acts as Emma's conscience and is proven to be right on every occasion that Emma is found to be wrong. He tells her that 'I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful council'. His motives are revealed at the end of the book, as he declares his love for Emma – he had only wanted her to act as the best person he knew she could be.
Harriet Smith is described as the 'natural daughter of somebody'2. Emma considers her beautiful and wanting only of 'a little more knowledge and elegance to be quite perfect. She decides to 'notice' and 'improve' her, 'detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her to good society; she would form her opinions and her manners.' Harriet becomes very attached to Emma and rejects Mr Martin's offer of marriage because of Emma's subtle guidance and threats.
Mr Elton is a well-off vicar who Emma thinks would be perfectly suited for Harriet. He is relatively new in Highbury, and therefore is considered by Emma to be an even match with Harriet socially. She goes about encouraging their relationship, but misunderstands Mr Elton's intentions. Mr Elton believes that Emma was encouraging him to ask her to marry him. Emma receives several warnings that Mr Elton may be interested in her, and not Harriet, from both Mr Knightley and his brother John Knightley, and Emma herself notices that Mr Elton seems to pay more attention to her than Harriet. However, she does not consider Mr Elton as a possible match for herself as 'the Eltons were nobody', and Emma considers herself 'greatly his superior'. She thinks that he acted with affrontery to think that she would consider marrying him and believes that he merely wishes to 'aggrandise and enrich himself'. Mr Elton is offended when Emma tells him that she thought he was interested in Harriet: 'I need not so totally despair of an equal alliance, to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!' His true nature reveals itself later in the novel when he leaves and marries Augusta Hawkins (Mrs Elton). He is cruel to Harriet and his wife is despised as a boastful nouveau riche who sneers at others but does not realise that her own actions are considered vulgar.
Miss Hetty Bates is a woman who was born into privilege but has since sunk into relative poverty. She is described as enjoying 'a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married'. She is a popular woman because of her good nature and contented temper, but Emma considers Miss Bates to be very annoying. She talks incessantly about nothing and is described by Emma as being one of the 'second and third rate of Highbury', but she is essentially harmless and friendly. Emma is mean to her during an excursion to Box Hill and is made to feel extremely penitent by Mr Knightley.
Jane Fairfax is Miss Bates's niece. She was orphaned at the age of three and she was brought up by Miss Bates and her mother (Jane's grandmother) until the age of nine, when she went to live with an army friend of her father's. Although Emma is expected to like Jane, she doesn't. Mr Knightley suggests that the reason she does not like Jane is because she reminds Emma of the 'really accomplished young woman which she wanted to be thought herself'3.
Frank Churchhill is the son of Mr Weston, who recently married Miss Taylor (Mrs Weston), Emma's old governess. After his mother's death, Frank was raised by her parents and rarely sees his father. He comes to Highbury for the first time just after Jane Fairfax arrives. He spends a lot of time with Emma, encouraging Mr and Mrs Weston's hopes that the two of them will someday marry. Emma considers Frank to be her match 'in age, character and condition' even before she meets him; and later fancies herself to be 'a little in love with him' and says that 'he is undoubtedly very much in love'. Frank is actually engaged to Jane Fairfax, and uses Emma and her assumptions to hide the engagement.
The plot of the novel is fairly complicated. Emma meets Harriet at a party and decides that she will 'improve' her, socially. She convinces Harriet to reject Robert Martin's offer of marriage and encourages her to believe that Mr Elton wants to marry her. Mr Elton appears to be interested in Harriet but he is actually interested in Emma. There are a series of small clues that show that Mr Elton is really trying to woo Emma, not Harriet, but Emma believes what she wants to. Mr Elton eventually proposes to Emma, who is horrified and refuses. She feels bad for Harriet, who is devastated, and vows never to interfere in relationships again.
Frank Churchhill arrives in town, and Emma flirts with the idea that she is in love with him. He seems to be in love with her, but then he appears to lose interest. He is actually engaged to Jane Fairfax, but Emma and the readers don't discover this until near the end of the book. Emma decides that Harriet is in love with Frank, and encourages her. Harriet is actually in love with Mr Knightley (or she thinks she is). Harriet thinks that Emma is encouraging her to pursue Mr Knightley, but Emma does not want Mr Knightley to marry anyone. She suspects for a time that he is interested in Jane, and is jealous.
Frank and Jane's engagement is announced and Emma is again horrified for Harriet. She discovers that Harriet is actually in love with Mr Knightley. Emma believes that Mr Knightley is also interested in Harriet and is terribly hurt. She then realises that she is in love with Mr Knightley herself.
Mr Knightley has acted as the sane voice throughout all of this, and eventually admits to Emma that he is in love with her. The novel ends with Harriet marrying Robert Martin, who never stopped loving her, Jane and Frank committed to marriage in the near future, and Emma marrying Mr Knightley. Everyone is marrying the person they are meant to be with, and (presumably) they all live happily ever after.
The major theme in Emma is of Emma's education from an insecure, vain, spoilt girl into a more tolerant, mature woman. A major example of Emma's growth as a person is in her attitude towards Robert Martin. She originally described him as 'clownish', 'awkward and abrupt' a 'gross, vulgar farmer' and 'illiterate and coarse', but by the end of the book, she says 'it would be a great pleasure to know Robert Martin'.
Emma at the Movies
In 1972 a six-part series starring Doran Godwin and John Carson was aired in Britain. In 1996 the Miramax film starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma and Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley was released and a television version starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong was broadcast in Britain. Arguably the best-known adaptation of Emma is the 1995 film Clueless starring Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz. The film is set in a high school in 1990s Los Angeles and the book's worldview and social structure is reproduced in the movie as the insularity of Cher's life in Beverly Hills and the hierarchy of popularity in the school.
Jane and Emma
Although many of Jane Austen's contemporaries found Emma to be boring4, it is now considered to be one of her greatest works. Jane Austen understood that Emma was very different from her other novels, and confided that her intention was to write about 'a heroine whom no one but myself will much like'5. Emma sold poorly in its first print and Austen died before it became popular. The incredibly detailed descriptions of life in the hierarchical society of Highbury, while considered extremely dull by some of Austen's readers when it was first published in 1816, are what make Emma such a classic today.