I am so glad I read Emma after Mansfield Park. It restored my faith in Austen and was a refreshing change in many ways. Not only did I love the story, the characters, and the pacing, but I also loved that Emma is different from the usual Austen heroine. She is rich and beautiful, so immediately the problem of marrying well is eliminated. The source of conflict that drives the plot forward has to be different. It comes from Emma herself – she is a good person, but she is hopelessly spoiled and a bit shallow, and she causes some misunderstandings for the people around her.
At the start of the novel, her governess, Miss Taylor, has just gotten married after 16 years of taking care of Emma. More than a governess, Miss Taylor has become Emma’s friend, and with her departure, Emma is left alone and with no suitable companion to keep her interest. Her father is not on her intellectual level, because his main concern in life seems to be obsessing about his health and forcing others to do the same. Emma is a dutiful daughter and she humors her father, but there is no real connection there. Luckily, Mr. Knightley, a neighbor and old friend of the family, is around to help Emma and be a friend.
But Emma needs a project to focus her energies on, and she settles on Harriet Smith. She befriends Harriet and takes it upon herself to find a suitable match for this poor but worthy woman. This is where all the complications begin. Emma is intent on matchmaking, which has disastrous results. She doesn’t realize that Mr. Elton, the man she has chosen for Harriet, is actually in love with her (Emma). But she has already convinced Harriet to set her sights on Mr. Elton, so Harriet ends up heartbroken when she finds out the truth. At the same time, Emma has also advised Harriet to turn down a suitor, Robert Martin, just because he’s a farmer and therefore not good enough. This, despite the fact that Harriet is actually friends with him, and he in turn genuinely loves Harriet.
Emma gets herself in many more scrapes before things work out. She befriends Frank Churchill, her former governess’ stepson, and mistakenly thinks he is in love with her! She dismisses Jane Fairfax, a childhood friend, thinking that her reticence makes her boring and uninteresting. She does not know that these two are actually secretly engaged, which is why they act strangely.
I totally love Emma – she is smart, funny, interesting, and likable. She has spirit and spunk. (I still haven’t forgiven you, Fanny Price.) But even though her intentions are good, she just can’t read the people around her. She can’t see other people for who they really are, and chooses instead to impose her own views on them. She doesn’t do it willfully – she just has a lot of growing up to do. Luckily for her, Mr. Knightley is not afraid to correct her and tell her what he thinks of her plots, him being 16 years older and all. She can’t even understand her own feelings, because she resolves never to marry and only realizes that she actually loves Knightley when Harriet develops a crush on him!
But because this is Austen, everything is resolved eventually. The secret lovers confess, Harriet gets back together with her farmer man, and Emma – well, of course she gets her happy ending!
I love that the novel is longer than most of Austen’s other work, so she takes all the time she needs to unfold the story and resolve it. This was one of my main complaints about Mansfield Park. But with Emma, Jane Austen is in no hurry, which makes it feel more developed and complete. There are more characters, but every one is fully realized. And even though Mr. Knightley’s confession of his feelings for Emma (“My dearest Emma, for dearest you will always be…”) is exciting and makes you want to get to the ending, you still want to savor the last few pages to see how Austen wraps everything up. It’s a luxury that is most welcome.
Speaking of Mr. Knightley brings up an interesting thought. Up to this point, the ideal Austen hero has always been Mr. Darcy. However, Mr. Knightley is turning out to be a dark horse. It’s true that he is nowhere near as aloof, brooding, mysterious, or darkly handsome as Mr. Darcy. He is actually very pleasant, level-headed, and friendly, even to the lower classes. He is not as much of an overt classist as Darcy, or even Emma herself. He even borders on staid, especially with his tendency to lecture Emma all the time. But all these attributes show that he is, on the whole, a good man. He is someone that Emma needs to balance her impulsiveness and keep her anchored. As far as love declarations go, Knightley does not surpass Darcy yet, but his confession is sweet and heart-warming all the same.
Austen scholars have called Emma her best novel (not necessarily the most popular or the favorite – Pride and Prejudice probably has that locked), and I finally, totally get why. There’s a sense of satisfaction after finishing it, and also an overall sense of well-being. Austen-world is still good, and everything still makes sense. Thank the Regency gods!