I don’t believe human nature (in aggregate, not our individual stories) doesn’t change over time. It’s this constant, our humanity, that allows us to see ourselves in well-drawn characters written 100, 200 or even 300 plus years ago. And that is why, after over 200 years after Austen created her, we still see ourselves in Emma – and we still adore her.
Although we might not want it widely known, I suspect we each have Emma’s capacity for self-delusion, arrogance, selfishness and manipulation.
The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself: these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.
Yet we also have her capacity for understanding, empathy, sacrifice and selfless love – even if it takes a little loving correction to get there. Remember Mr. Knightley’s, “Badly done, Emma!”
She was vexed beyond what could have been expressed—almost beyond what she could conceal. Never had she felt so agitated, so mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!
Another aspect of our natures is to understand one another above and beyond the words we speak. Words and conventions can lead to misunderstandings – and Emma as a novel is certainly full of them. But cut all that away and, Austen proposes, two hearts seeking each other, putting the other first, will finally reach an understanding.
Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.
I doubt my life will be summed up as Knightley called Emma, “This sweetest and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults.” But I’m so glad Austen pegged human nature so well that I can enjoy and even relate to this wonderful woman’s journey.