“Mr. Knightley loves to find fault with me you know–in a joke–it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another.”
Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them: and though this was not particularly agreeable to Emma herself, she knew it would be so much less so to her father, that she would not have him really suspect such a circumstance as her not being thought perfect by every body.
(from Emma, page 12)
Finishing Emma was a bittersweet moment for me, as it meant that I have now read all of Jane Austen’s novels and now must be content with re-reading them again and again. Which I will do, of course, I love them that much. I’ve long heard that people either love or hate Emma based on their feelings for the heroine, and thankfully, I found much to like in this book…even when I wanted to shake some sense into Emma or hang my head in disappointment at her actions. I was surprised that my love for it rivals my love for Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion, and I couldn’t help but fall in love with Mr. Knightley.
Emma Woodhouse and her father are the most important people in the town of Highbury. They keep a small circle of friends and don’t venture too far from their home at Hartfield, as the elderly Mr. Woodhouse is so worried about his health and that of all his loved ones that he wants everyone to eat gruel with him and always is complaining about drafts. Emma has long been told that she is a handsome and clever girl, so she has a bit of a swelled head, and despite the protestations of Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law, 16 years her senior, that she is not responsible for successfully pairing her former governess, Miss Taylor, with the widowed Mr. Weston, Emma insists that she must make one more match.
She thinks Mr. Elton, the local curate, should be paired with Miss Harriet Smith, a new friend of unknown origins who already likes a farmer who returns her affections. Emma means well, but she manipulates Harriet into believing she should refuse Mr. Martin’s proposal and makes her think that Mr. Elton has feelings for her. Of course, what Emma believes to be true is only in her imagination, and the truth of the situation makes Emma think twice about matchmaking…for a little bit anyway.
Things get interesting when Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill, comes to Highbury and seems to set his sights on Emma, who can’t decide whether or not she’s in love, though it doesn’t matter because she insists she has no need to marry given her fortune, the fact that she already is essentially the mistress of her own home, and that she is so beloved by her father. Mr. Knightley doesn’t like Mr. Churchill, and since Mr. Knightley is such a perfect gentleman and a good judge of character, you just know there must be a reason. When Emma’s matchmaking exploits blow up in her face, she learns what it means to be in love even as she fears it may be too late for her to find happiness.
Oh, how I loved this book! Austen did a fantastic job holding a magnifying glass over a small village, emphasizing their comings and goings and all of the gossip and painting such complete portraits of so many characters. There are the ridiculous characters, like Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Bates, who babbles on and never lets anyone else get a word in; the intriguing characters, like Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, the niece of Miss Bates who is quiet and disliked by Emma; and the obnoxious characters, like Mrs. Elton, who calls her husband “Mr. E” and can’t take no for an answer when it comes to Jane Fairfax and her future as a governess.
I couldn’t help but love Emma; she was self-important and manipulative, but she did have good intentions where Harriet was concerned. I’m not surprised she thought so highly of herself, given how everyone but Mr. Knightley kept telling her how wonderful she was. And Mr. Knightley! When Harriet is slighted at the ball by Mr. Elton, and Mr. Knightley, dead set against dancing, comes to her rescue, I just about melted. I also loved the conversations between him and Emma, where he doesn’t mince words and tells it like it is. Emma does have some hard lessons to learn, and while he is critical of her, you can tell he has her best interests at heart.
As in her other novels, Austen also touched upon some serious subjects. Social class was a major theme, with Emma indicating that she couldn’t be friends with Harriet anymore if she were to marry Mr. Martin, given his status as a farmer; Miss Bates’ standard of living as a poor spinster; and Jane Fairfax preparing for a life of service because, with both parents dead, she lacked a fortune. Austen did a great job making these heavier topics obvious, but lightening the mood with the humorous characters and Emma’s matchmaking antics.
I could continue praising this book forever, but let’s move on to the discussion. Blodeuedd from Book girl of Mur-y-Castell read Emma with me, and we decided to ask each other some discussion questions. These are the questions I posed. BEWARE OF SPOILERS!
Where does Emma rank among the Jane Austen novels you’ve read?
Blodeuedd: This is only my third Austen novel. And I do find it too hard to rank those I have read, I know the stories too well. I’d just say it’s one of her better novels, but then they are all good. ;)
Anna: I’ve read all six of Austen’s novels, and it is difficult to rank them, especially my favorites. Emma definitely is in the top three, though I suspect that whether Emma, Pride and Prejudice, or Persuasion is my favorite will depend on my mood at the time I am asked.
What did you think of Mr. Knightley? Is he as appealing to you as Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth?
Blodeuedd: Mr. Knightley does have another sort of appeal than Darcy or Wentworth, but then all Austen’s men have their good sides and their bad sides. And I do like Knightley, there is just something calm over him, and he is waiting for her to see him. I have to like him, as much as her other men.
Anna: That’s true, they all have their strengths and weaknesses. What I liked best about Mr. Knightley is that, unlike Mr. Darcy or Captain Wentworth, you never wonder about him. You know from the very start that he is a perfect gentlemen, one of the best men with whom Emma will ever be acquainted. He may be quick to point out Emma’s faults, but when he calls Emma out on something, he’s right.
Did you like Emma as a person?
Blodeuedd: I do like her too. Sure she should think before acting, but she does not mean bad. The things she sometimes says, well to be honest, I would think them too. So I do not find any faults in her. I guess I see a little of myself in her at times.
Anna: For the first quarter of the book, I thought there was no way I was ever going to like her, but you’re right, she means well, and she grew on me after awhile. She appears to have learned many lessons from her meddling, so there is hope for her.
What did you think of the secondary characters, Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates, Frank Churchill, in particular?
Blodeuedd: Mr. Woodhouse, there I do feel sorry for Emma. His constant fear of things, it would be so tiresome. And he is not letting her leave, even if she wants to be there, think of the things she is missing because of how he is. He is not letting go.
Miss Bates, she does mean well too, but after listening to the audio I am more annoyed than ever. There it truly showed how it would be to listen to her.
Frank Churchill is an ass, there is no other way to put it. He did wrong by Emma and well he is an ass.
Anna: I agree about Mr. Woodhouse and feeling sorry for Emma. She can’t even marry without feeling guilty for leaving him. On one hand, he’s ridiculously funny, but on the other, he’s quite sad. Miss Bates was annoying, but I also pitied her. She really needed a friend, I think, and Emma shouldn’t have insulted her like that. Frank Churchill…you’re right, he’s an ass, but I don’t think he’s as bad as the villains in other Austen novels.
What did you think of the pairing of Emma and Mr. Knightley?
Blodeuedd: It’s not a couple I would have guessed for, ok I would have guessed since it’s obvious, but you get the point. They are friends, so in that way they are suited. They know each other, but do I believe there is a burning passion? No, not really.
Anna: There doesn’t seem to be a burning passion, I agree, but I think they are well matched. Mr. Knightley is older and wiser, which Emma needs, and she will certainly add some excitement to his life. I think it’s romantic in a way that no matter what Emma did wrong, Mr. Knightley couldn’t help but love her. I think we all need someone like that, to love us despite our flaws.
Did any parts of the story surprise you?
Blodeuedd: I can’t say it did.
Anna: I agree, though I was a bit surprised by how the romantic declarations are made in dialogue, compared to Persuasion, where Anne reads Wentworth’s letter but when they walk together and discuss their love for one another, it sort of happens off the pages.
Did you have a favorite scene or passage?
Blodeuedd: I do like when he goes all “badly done Emma!” on her. That passage hurts and I feel so sorry for her. When listening if felt like he was yelling at me. Poor Emma.
Anna: I did feel a little sorry for her, but Mr. Knightley was right. I loved when Mr. Knightley asks Harriet to dance when Mr. Elton refuses to dance with her. That was so sweet, as well as the right thing to do.
The description on my copy of the book says Emma is often considered Austen’s most flawless novel. Do you agree or disagree?
Blodeuedd: It is good, so for that yes it would seem flawless. But what makes it more flawless than her other books?
Anna: That’s a good question, wish I knew! I think her handling of the characters and various plots was flawless for sure.
Have you seen any movie adaptations of Emma? How did they compare to the book?
Blodeuedd: I have seen…well a lot. Some good, some not as good, but I enjoy them, and I would say they are as good as the book sometimes. That is horrible to say, but I just love Austen movies. A lot. I am not going to say how much, but they can be so good.
Anna: I’ve only seen the Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam version from 1996, but I thought it was well done. He was a great Mr. Knightley, in my opinion. I watched it the day I finished the book. I know what you mean about loving the movie adaptions. They bring the characters and the time period to life.
Visit Book girl of Mur-y-Castell for the rest of our conversation!
I was saddened to learn that Shanna from Existing’s Tricky lost her battle with cancer in April. To honor her memory and her love of books, I am determined to complete her challenge. May she rest in peace.
Disclosure: Emma is from my personal library.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.