This is how Jane Austen herself described Emma, her most flawed heroine. I’m going to focus on this issue because I think it’s the crux of why there are such widely differing opinions on this book.
First I’ll say this isn’t my favorite Austen either. (PRIDE & PREJUDICE and PERSUASION are each my favorite, depending on which one I’ve read most recently.) When I first read EMMA as a teenager, I didn’t like it much. Being insecure myself, I didn’t want to identify with a heroine who made so very many embarrassing mistakes. At the time I would almost (hanging head in shame) rather identify with a Barbara Cartland heroine, though come to think of it they all had that embarrassing inability to complete a sentence in the hero’s presence!
Anyway, once I had outgrown the desire for perfect heroines, Emma grew on me. I’ve become more comfortable with my own flaws so now I also prefer heroines who make mistakes as long as they have the saving grace of learning from them as Emma does.
I even think I’ve come to a better understanding of Emma’s behavior toward Harriet Smith and her unkindness to Harriet’s suitor, the farmer Robert Martin. Emma’s most obvious motivation for “improving” Harriet appears to be an officious desire to manage everything. But reading between the lines, I wonder if part of the cause was loneliness. Emma’s sister married and moved away, then Miss Taylor did the same. She was encouraged to befriend Jane Fairfax but really, Jane Fairfax was not the stuff of which BFFs are made. Even Mr. Knightley admits that she ‘has not the open temper which a man would wish for in a wife.’ That open temper was a quality I think Emma longed for in a friend.
So Emma tried to mold Harriet into something more like herself, with disastrous results. I can sympathise with this because I once made a similar mistake. All I can say is that both Emma and I meant well and we are brave enough to admit when we are wrong. That ought to count for something!
I don’t find EMMA quite as romantic as P&P or PERSUASION, yet there’s a part of the romance that works powerfully for me. I like that Mr. Knightley loves Emma enough to always want to bring out the best in her and that he appreciates her courage in admitting her mistakes. The line from the book, so beautifully delivered by Jeremy Northam in the 1996 film: “I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it” is one of my favorites. I love the idea of someone being totally honest with you and loving you despite–or even because of–your faults.
So anyway, EMMA has grown on me to the point that it’s a strong #3 in my Jane Austen favorites list. But I still understand why it is last on many people’s lists. I have seen reviews of Joan Aiken’s spinoff JANE FAIRFAX (which I haven’t read myself) written by readers who say they detested Emma in the original. Jane Fairfax is a much more obvious choice of heroine by modern romance terms: virtuous, impoverished, an obvious object for sympathy. But being a bit of a contrarian here…why shouldn’t a heroine who is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” have a romance too?
Let me know what you think about EMMA, either the main character or any others you’d like to discuss. And don’t forget, we’ll be giving away a copy of JANE AUSTEN’S WORLD to a lucky winner chosen from comments all this week!