I am Emma Woodhouse, or so says the “Which Austen Heroine are You?” quiz, available on the excellent Emma Adaptations website. For years I’ve proudly displayed the badge on my blog, but when I have to actually tell fellow Janeites that Emma is the heroine to whom I can most relate, I am always nervous about their reaction. What if I am written off then and there as the consummate snob? I certainly don’t think I am, but then again neither does she. What I know we share is a tendency to trust our own opinions with small regard for those of others, as well as an intense devotion to family. Still it’s intimidating, for so many despise Miss Woodhouse. Why all the hatred?
That doesn’t seem like a hard question to answer. Emma is undeniably guilty of abusing her powerful position within the small
community of Highbury, interfering in the lives of others and even demeaning them for her own amusement. Remind you of anyone? Maybe Lady Catherine de Bourgh? Yet Emma is the heroine of the story, not a side character engaged in peripheral torment, and her wildly privileged state sets the reader’s back up from the very first line of the book:
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
This is no Dashwood sister cast out from the comforts of home into the uncertain world, nor a Fanny Price, dependent on the whims and caprices of an often insensitive family. Unlike every other Austen heroine, Emma’s life is amazingly secure. Ensconced in the good opinion of her friends and family, with thirty thousand pounds to provide for her future, Emma has very few worldly cares. Her mother has died, but even this tragedy Austen leads us to consider inconsequential:
Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.
On the surface, Emma’s life seems virtually perfect, a state which she has done very little to earn. That’s frustrating, I know. Yet if we place her unrestrained ego aside, Emma has many fine qualities that ought to inspire our sympathy. She is intelligent, benevolent, and takes her responsibilities seriously. Fundamental to her character is her role as caregiver to her invalid father: no easy task for anyone, let alone a spoiled twenty-one year old. When Austen’s other heroines are struggling to secure their own happiness, Emma complacently and consistently puts her father’s needs above her own. Her care for him, so central to the introduction of her character in the first chapter of the book, should invoke our approbation. Emma also bears an endearing resemblance to Austen’s most beloved heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, as both place too much faith in their first perceptions of others and share a capacity to learn from their mistakes. So why don’t we like her? Because our beloved authoress doesn’t want us to.
Austen described Emma as “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” It’s marvelously audacious, but we’re not supposed to like her, especially at first. Austen was masterful at toying with her readers, and in Emma we see her at the height of her powers. The result is that we cannot trust this narrative: it is intentionally trifling with us.
In January 1814, Jane Austen sat down to write a revolutionary novel. Emma, the book she composed over the next year, was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction.
Thus begins John Mullan’s excellent article, “How Jane Austen’s Emma changed the face of fiction,” published last December in The Guardian in honor of the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication. The article is filled with spoilers, so I only recommend it to those of you who have read Emma before, but I’m referencing it because Mullan describes far better than I can (and repeatedly tried to during our Lady Susan read along) how Austen revolutionized the novel. As he explains:
[Emma] was certainly not revolutionary because of any intellectual or political content. But it was revolutionary in its form and technique. Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf. Woolf wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, ‘She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust’. In Emma, she is.
Mullan goes on to pinpoint Austen as the pioneer of the free indirect narrative style, so commonplace now that most writers use it unconsciously. Louise Flavin provides a definition in “Free Indirect Discourse and the Clever Heroine of Emma“: “Free indirect discourse is a mode of speech or thought presentation that allows a narrator to recount what a character has said while retaining the idiomatic qualities of the speaker’s words,” (Persuasions #13, 1991). Essentially, a third person narrative takes on the qualities of the first person. This is how Austen achieves her unreliable narrative voice. Mullan elaborates:
The novel’s stylistic innovations allow it to explore not just a character’s feelings, but, comically, her deep ignorance of her own feelings. … Her capacity for self-congratulation deceives her about even the workings of her own heart. Austen does not tell us this, as George Eliot would eloquently tell us: she simply lets us inhabit Emma’s consciousness, simply lets us see the world according to Emma.
There are several ways in which Emma revolutionized literature. Many have argued that it is the forerunner to the mystery novel (most notably P.D. James in a 1998 address given at the Jane Austen’s Society’s AGM), while David H. Bell calls Emma “literature’s most perfectly constructed plot” in “Fun with Frank and Jane: Austen on Detective Fiction” (Persuasions, Vo. 28, No. 1). The novel is unlike anything that proceeded it, altered the landscape of much that followed, and remains one of the cleverest books ever written. Mullan sums it up well: “Austen almost seems to be tempting inattentive readers to overlook her technical audacity – to miss her tricks.” Consider yourselves waned, first time readers. And for those of you who have taken the Emma journey before, be alert to Austen’s maneuvers! Her manipulations are everywhere. I find more hints, clues, and misdirections every time I revisit the novel.
Do I sound sanctimonious enough? There’s a bit of my Miss Woodhouse coming out! As you embark on this remarkable story, be it for the first of fortieth time, try to keep in mind Emma’s virtues rather than her blunders. After all, Austen liked her, even if she intended no one else to do so, and do you know a better arbiter of good taste?
Please feel free to use your favorite edition of Emma for this read along, but if you require a text, we recommend utilizing Mollands.net. There you will find complete and searchable texts of all six major Austen novels, along with Lady Susan, Love and Friendship, and her unfinished novel, The Watsons. Also included are images from illustrated editions of the novels, like those from C.E. Brock featured above. This week we are focusing on the first two chapters. Please joins us at The Writer’s Block with your quotes, questions, and fine conversation. We’ll be at it, a few chapters a week until the end of the year, every Wednesday here at Austen Authors. Also look for my reimagination (or renightmarization?) Emma & Elton: Something Truly Horrid, which I will be posting to the forum soon.
And for more instant Emma goodness, be sure to check out yesterday’s blogpost by Leenie Brown, “Before We Begin.” It’s chockfull of quotes, links, and other lovely things from the novel. Also today’s post by Rebecca Jamison, “Emma’s Movie Maker.” It’s an Emma happy week here at Austen Authors. Have fun and happy reading!
Our discussion of the novel takes place at the Writer’s Block Forum: https://austenauthors.net/writers-block/emma-read-along/emma-chapters-1-2/. Please join us!