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A Basic Gal’s Guide to Jane Austen: Emma

Emma is the first — and only — Jane Austen novel where the main character is the title of the book. So straight out of the gate you know who will dominate this story. But in Emma, Austen creates a character who is totally unique from the other Austen leading ladies. In a time when women were encouraged to marry, Emma Woodhouse was having none of it.

Let’s dive in.

In Emma, we find a story where the heroine is completely in control of her life and decisions. She is wealthy, independent and DOES NOT WANT TO GET MARRIED (I can hear Mrs. Bennett gasping in horror all the way from Pride and Prejudice)! None of our main Austen gals have entered an American Gladiator-style battle for a man, no ma’am, but I think our other heroines always figured marriage would be a part of their lives at some time. And because of her wealth (which the other heroines lack), Emma doesn’t need to. If Emma had a theme song, I imagine it would be “Independent Women” by Destiny’s Child. ‘Cause the shoes on her feet — she definitely bought them.

Emma is the 21-year-old Queen Bee of Highbury. She lives with her father, who is a hypochondriac and opposes change. They are visited often by old family friend Mr. George Knightley (his brother John is married to Emma’s sister Isabella). Mr. Knightley has known Emma since she was a baby (he is about 16 years older than her) and in many respects is almost a family member to the Woodhouses. Mr. Knightley is the only person in her life who tells her the complete truth about her behavior and actions. I bet you can see where this is going ;).

Emma’s governess Miss Taylor has recently married a gentleman in town named Mr. Weston, and so Woodhouse is going through a time of transition. The two women are very close, and Emma credits herself with matching Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston. Since the new Mrs. Weston, who still gives a lot of her time to Emma and her father, isn’t around as much, Emma befriends a young woman named Harriet Smith.

Emma takes Harriet under her wing. After Harriet receives a marriage proposal from a man Emma deems unworthy of her friend, she tries, and fails, to match Harriet with several of the gentlemen in town. Her pursuits include Mr. Elton (who actually had eyes for Emma) and Frank Churchill (who it turns out was actually secretly engaged to another woman). But when Harriet tells her friend she has the hots for Mr. Knightley, Emma realizes she has actually been in love with Mr. Knightley all along. Her sentiments are heartily reciprocated by the fellow, and they marry. Knightley decides he will live with Emma and her father until Mr. Woodhouse passes, because Knightley knows she does not want to leave him. Moving in with your in-laws to make your spouse happy? Now THAT is love!

So it turns out the woman who didn’t seem to have a romantic bone in her body can love after all! I think that is what makes her marriage to Mr. Knightley all the more precious. She wasn’t looking for it, and she still managed fall for him. Emma and Mr. Knightley’s romance isn’t as passionate or moving as other Austen relationships (*cough* Mr. Darcy *cough*), but it is still sweet in its own respect.

I will say, there are many cringe-worthy moments where Emma either puts her foot in her mouth, steers a friend in the wrong direction or is downright snobby in this book. Sometimes you love her, sometimes you hate her, but by the end of the novel you feel like you really know her.

Clueless DVD cover

Being a girl who grew up in the ’90s, I could not help but relate characters and events in the novel back to the movie Clueless, which was based loosely off of the story of Emma. I mean back in the day “as if” and “whatever” were in my daily lexicon, I rushed out and bought a tiny backpack and I think at one point even had one of those pink feathery pens the main character Cher uses in school. It’s a great movie, and if you haven’t seen it, you really should.

It actually does carry over a lot of story lines from the book, right down to the “Why does it bother me that my best friend likes this man? Oh…it’s because I love him” moment. Or when Cher tries to set her new friend Tai (the Harriet Smith character of the movie) with a guy who really has a thing for Cher. Or how she dotes on her father and his health. I could go on and on about the similarities. It’s fabulous.

So to wrap things up, Emma is a great story, but doesn’t take over the top spot. It wasn’t as emotionally stirring as Pride and Prejudice, nor was it as interesting as Northanger Abbey, but I liked it better overall than Persuasion.

Allison’s Ranking of Jane Austen Novels

1. Pride and Prejudice

2. Northanger Abbey

3. Emma

4. Persuasion

Next time, I’ll head to Mansfield Park, which is the Austen novel I know least about. Which probably means I will love it. Stay tuned!

Have you read Emma? What was your take?


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Allison works at CLP – Main in the External and Government Relations Department as a Development Associate. She enjoys long walks, good books and bad reality television.


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