Recently a friend and I were chatting novels and I said “Emma is considered the most perfect English novel.” After all, British essayist Ronald Blythe’s commented that Emma was “the climax of Jane Austen’s genius and the Parthenon of fiction.”
“Why?” She asked.
“I have no idea.” I replied.
Now, after a little research, I have an idea…
After much reading, I have learned that Emma earns this preeminent position on multiple levels. First, the novel’s structure is ideally proportioned, at the scene level and at the aggregate. Second, there is nothing extraneous within its pages. Every character, every interaction serves to inform and drive Emma’s (the heroine not the novel) evolution. Third — and perhaps this isn’t why it’s considered great but makes it more groundbreaking than we often remember — Emma is the first novel to employ what I learned is now called the “free indirect style.” That means Austen employed a third person narration limited by a character’s point of view. Sometimes I suspect we forget how cutting-edge Jane Austen really was.
But let’s get into the story. After all, that’s why we love it.
I find it remarkable that when one digs into Emma today, we encounter a timeless story that feels fresh and relevant, despite being written over 200 years ago. Emma struggles with pride, friendships, understanding love, discerning character, accepting change, responsibilities, and her own preconceptions, misconceptions and foibles. And 200 years later, that sums up life to me.
And despite all the accolades thrown at the novel, that is why I delight in Emma. I shake my head at her and roll my eyes at times, but I see myself within her — without the position and wealth, the control over my small village, or the doting Dad. But I too get things wrong and continually need transformation as Emma undergoes hers.
Long ago I read an article that claimed Emma was a novel about humility. I carried that thought through subsequent readings and wondered how I had never seen it before. Each slow step leads Emma to truth, away from self-possession, from pride to humility, to other from self. And one has to love Austen’s irony in exposing Emma’s self-absorption and singular transformation by naming the novel only Emma.
Here are few lines in which Austen lets us in on her secret — the awakening of her heroine.
Upon my word […] I begin to doubt my having any such talent. – Emma’s doubts emerge
A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress. She touched—she admitted— she acknowledged the whole truth. – She is a clever girl and now beginning to see.
With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing—for she had done mischief. – Emma is getting there… Slowly.
Perhaps that’s why it’s the most “perfect novel.” Austen taught me a valuable lesson wrapped in such a wonderful story I never saw it coming. One writer closed her musings on Emma with this wonderful line “Emma is flawed, but Emma is flawless.”
How do you feel about Emma?