‘A heroine whom no-one but myself will much like’, Jane Austen called her eponymous heroine when she was writing Emma. But readers do like Emma, very much, despite her faults of snobbery and vanity. She is an affectionate and patient daughter, a delightful aunt, and a loving friend to Mrs Weston. But it is the play of her mind that perhaps entrances us most.
Emma is often playful. It is one of the qualities which Mr Knightley loves her for, and which seems to promise them a happy partnership. But she can also be rational. We are told early in the novel that though she dearly loves her father, he is no companion to her. ‘He could not meet her in conversation, either rational or playful’. Mr Knightley can. They are both natural leaders of their society, and function well together, long before they have recognised their mutual love. Consider this exchange, early in the novel, when a sudden fall of snow has produced panic in all the rest of the company:
While the others were variously urging and recommending, Mr Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences, thus:
“Your father will not be easy; why do not you go?”
“I am ready, if the others are.”
“Shall I ring the bell?”
And the bell was rung, and the carriages spoken for.
Emma dominates her novel to an extent not equalled by any other Jane Austen heroine, and it is rightly named after her. While most of the novels begin by explaining the family circumstances before coming in to focus on the heroine, the first words of this novel are: ‘Emma Woodhouse’, and the first sentence is a description of her personality: ‘handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition’.
All Jane Austen’s narratives are seen through a young woman’s eyes, but Emma Woodhouse does not just experience, she shapes events. Rich and powerful within her home and her community – a rare state for an unmarried woman – she enjoys exceptional freedom of action. Other heroines are called on to react to what happens about them; Emma is, by contrast, proactive. Because there are relatively few external constraints on her behaviour, she has all the more scope to make mistakes: some comic, some seriously affecting other people’s lives, some seeming to jeopardise her own happiness. The catalogue of Emma’s mistakes gives most of the impetus and interest to the story.
A detective story
The novelist P D James has called Emma a great detective story, and it has claims to be the first of that genre. Not, of course, the kind of detective story that revolves around murders, police detectives and amateur sleuths. But the novel certainly has at its heart a secret, which is hidden until nearly the end from both the central consciousness – Emma – and the reader.
Almost no first-time reader of the novel even guesses that there is a secret, much less what it is. But the pleasure is by no means diminished on a second or subsequent reading; if anything it is enhanced. Now the enjoyment lies in picking up the clues and being amused by Emma’s obliviousness to what is going on under her nose. The clues are all there, so well hidden by Jane Austen that they make no impression before the secret is known, and yet so precise that we cannot accuse her of leading us astray.
Our first reading brings home to us directly the very lesson Emma herself has to learn, namely how difficult it is to interpret other people’s behaviour. Subsequent readings of the novel have an added intellectual dimension in appreciation of Jane Austen’s artistry.
A sense of community
Emma is unusual among the novels in focusing on the heroine as a member of a community. Other heroines will achieve this position with marriage, beyond the span of the book; Emma has it already, and her marriage will only confirm and perhaps enlarge her sphere of influence. So while the other novels follow their heroines away from home on a variety of learning experiences, Emma is static. The action takes place wholly in Highbury, the ‘large and populous village, almost amounting to a town’ where Emma has lived all her life.
In another departure from Jane Austen’s practice, Emma embraces different levels of society. Speaking parts are confined, as usual, to members of the gentry, but other classes have a physical presence; individuals are names and differentiated, their various doings acknowledged. The impression is gradually built up of a thriving, busy community. We hear of shopkeepers, schoolteachers, lawyers, a physician, an innkeeper, an ostler, a bailiff, a tenant farmer and servants from the various households, as well as the family of a sick cottager visited by Emma.
All these people, to a greater or lesser extent, are subject to the patronage and goodwill of Emma Woodhouse. She has been placed by her creator in a more comfortable and privileged position than any other of the heroines, and the lesson she must learn in the course of the novel is how to fulfil the duties it entails. In one sense the community exists to test Emma; this is a novel about village life because Emma’s particular character demands this particular trial. In another sense, of course, the community has a life and reality of its own, and Emma over-estimates her importance to it. This is another lesson that this heroine, ‘faultless in spite of all her faults’ as Mr Knightley thinks of her, has to learn.