Jane Austen herself said about her main character of Emma Woodhouse that she was a heroine “no one but myself will much like.” It’s an interesting statement, I think, for Jane Austen to have made: firstly it implies her expectation that readers may not like Emma very much– but secondly, Austen’s words clearly mean that she does like Emma.
Emma is described in the opening of the novel as, “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition.” She is twenty years old, and motherless. Her father is rather foolish and fretful, and leaves the running of the household entirely to Emma. She has no one save Mr. Knightly to correct her behavior, so it’s maybe not surprising that she has an inflated sense of her own intelligence and abilities.
Emma is genuinely kind and considerate of her father and of other characters in the book. But she is also headstrong and at times snobby. She takes pretty Harriet Smith, ‘the natural daughter of somebody,’ under her wing– more as a cause than as a true friend. Guided by Emma’s snobbery, Harriet refuses a proposal from a local farmer, Robert Martin. Emma is hopeful that she can engineer a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, the vicar. Unluckily, Mr. Elton misunderstands the intrigues and believes Emma is interested in him for herself. He is also proved to be a social snob, and declares that marrying Harriet Smith would be far beneath him.
Of course, Emma’s gravest mistake in the book is her unkindness to Miss Bates at the picnic. Miss Bates is a kindhearted spinster who lives in poverty compared with Emma– and Emma’s insult is both unprovoked and cruel. It’s certainly not the act of a likeable heroine. And yet, when Knightley reprimands Emma, she weeps and does resolve to change.
Something that I’ve repeatedly emphasized to my own daughters is that people who feel the impulse to put down and belittle others are almost always unhappy with themselves. Although it doesn’t overtly show, it’s possible that Emma’s insult to Miss Bates stemmed in fact from Emma’s own deeply buried insecurities, and the knowledge that she IS a flawed character and not a perfect one.
I don’t approve of some of Emma’s behaviors and choices, but I do like her for her strength of character and for her willingness to learn from her mistakes in the end.
What do you think? Do you think Jane Austen was right in her statement that Emma is a character that “no one but myself will much like”? Or do you like her for being imperfectly human, but still trying to improve?