Emma – Jane Austen

I’ve just reread Emma by Jane Austen, and I can completely understand why it didn’t particularly engage the younger Rukaya, who had even less patience than I do with idiots.

To be fair, I don’t really know enough about the period to understand how important class was in those days, and whether the opinions and prejudices which lie so openly in Emma were the norm. I suppose they must have been, but I know Lord Byron and his fashionable set were around at that sort of time and quite contrary to the stuffiness we see in Emma I think it would be fair to say there was a veritable hurricane of excitement whirling around that dear little island. Anyway I have no problem with Emma being a snotty, arrogant, stuck up, self righteous and self important bitch as long as her character develops and grows. Now perhaps I’m revealing my own bigotry here, but at the end of the book I really wanted to see, besides the inevitable acquittal of her evils by her lover, some kind of shame and some kind of change in her opinions of the importance of class.

Take her friend Harriet. At the beginning of the novel Harriet, a sweet blonde curvy ingenue with – ah, how do you say it? As one of the characters in flight of the conchords put it, she’s at that perfect age for a woman when there’s no fat on their bodies and they haven’t yet developed a thought of their own. Emma is terribly taken with Harriet’s prettiness and decides – so generously – to rescue sweet little Harriet from her pitiful situation, that of having to associate with the Lower Upper Class of Highbury. Horrors! And yes, believe me, there is a Lower Upper Class, there’s even a Lower Lower Upper Class; Emma has a very nice and exact idea of the exact hierarchy of everybody in Highbury’s society (naturally plants herself right at the top of the ladder – next to Mr Knightley of course).

To be fair to Emma all of the other characters do too, and they’re sickeningly grateful to Emma for deigning to associate herself with them – apart from the eventual Mrs Elton whose dubious character is quite thoroughly skewered and lambasted by Austen. Mrs Elton is interesting actually, because she’s basically Emma on steroids, even snobbier and snootier, vulgar enough to witter on about how rich her brother-in-law is (the height of Emma’s lack of sophistication is in snubbing Jane Fairfax and in being breathtakingly rude to an old family friend, Miss Bates). Emma is reflective enough (with Mr Knightley’s help) to realise when she behaves badly and Mrs Elton isn’t, but the way they look at the world is fundamentally the same: Mrs Elton is obsessed with money and standing and Emma is obsessed with class and standing.

One of Mr Knightley’s landowners falls in love with Harriet, and it’s obvious that she really likes him too. Emma is horrified at the idea of her lowering herself to marry somebody so decidedly below her in situation, and quickly instructs her to reject him. I don’t like Harriet much either it must be said, she’s as pliable as candyfloss and has about as much substance. I can just about stand Jane Fairfax, although again I have little patience with her putting up with Churchill’s fuckwittery and instead just being madonna-like and pining away. Well I suppose in those days women couldn’t really stand up for themselves, and Georgette Heyer’s romantic vision of saucy, independent young women determinedly ploughing their way through the world has so little similarity to how things actually were that it might have been set on mars (in which case you might as well read http://www.scottlynch.us/ironsands.html Queen of the Iron Sands instead, as it is excellent).

Harriet then falls in love with a Mr Elton, whom Emma believes is just about suitable. She encourages the match and thinks that the inordinate amount of time Elton spends with her and Harriet means that a proposal can’t be far away. And she’s right, only of course Elton proposes to her instead of Harriet. Emma has to reject him and then go and break the news to Harriet. The same thing happens with Frank Churchill, although he obviously is engaged to Jane rather than to Emma. And it turns out Harriet isn’t interested in him anyway, which I guess makes it OK. Harriet finally falls in love with Mr Knightley, and of course he’s in love with Emma, who eventually accepts his proposal and has to break the news to Harriet yet again. That’s Martin, Elton, Churchill and Knightley, 4 different times Emma ends up telling Harriet she can’t marry.

Predictably Harriet ends up getting a second proposal from Robert Martin, the first dude, and – possibly a little desperately – accepts him. Now this is what bothers me. No doubt in order to show the growth and maturity which Emma’s character has undergone we learn that she’s pleased about the match. Ahh, you think, how sweet. But mark this, she’s pleased about the match because it turns out that Harriet was merely the daughter of a tradesman after all, and it wouldn’t be right for her to set her sights higher anyway.

Well, at least Emma doesn’t fall about swooning because she’s passed a camp of gypsies I suppose, like certain characters in the novel. Still, she’s definitely a very unlikeable heroine, although not as bad as that chick in Mansfield Park. I suppose I am rather simple and unsophisticated in my taste in heroines, but frankly I like them to have some balls. Katniss from the Hunger Games was pretty good, because she had self-doubt as well. Surely there must be some happy marriage between Georgette Heyer’s saucy, romantic, perfect heroines and Jane Austen’s flawed miserable ones? I think I was just too much in the mood for romantic fluff to give Emma the fair chance she deserved, but all in all I have to say I think she’d try the patience of a saint. Jane Austen apparently in writing Emma set out to write “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, and in with me at least she certainly succeeded.


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