The first time I read Emma was a couple of years ago while I was doing a semester abroad in Ireland. I was overjoyed when I walked into the first day of class and learned that the major author I was going to spend the semester studying would be Jane Austen. My joy did not last long. That was one of the most disappointing classes I’ve ever taken because it was so incredibly poorly taught. The one thing that I can say in favor of that class is that it finally induced me to read all of Jane Austen’s novels whereas before I had only read Pride and Prejudice. For that reason alone I am grateful to the class.
Although that class familiarized me with all seven novels it did not teach me to like them all. I loved Pride and Prejudice already, and Northanger Abbey was lovable on first sight, but my relationship with some of the other novels started on rocky footing, and Emma is included in that. The professor for that class had some very strange ideas about Austen and her writing, and the way she ran her classes left no room for discussion or debate. So I dutifully trudged through each novel only half appreciating what I was reading because I was reading for stuff I could use to craft essays specifically suited to this professors taste (since she didn’t really leave room for writing any other kind of essay). With all that being as it was, I did not like Emma the first read through. I found the character shallow and unlikable, and I pretty much left the novel behind a quickly as I could. I don’t know if it was because it’s better on a second read through, or just because I’m not reading with that professors ideas looming over my head, but I really loved Emma this time around.
During this read through of Emma I think I finally figured out what I love so much about Austen’s novels. If you’ve read some of my other reviews then you may have realized that few things bother me more in a novel than a good plot with underdeveloped characters. Characters make or break a novel, you can have the best plot in the world, but if you’re characters aren’t well developed and believable it’s not going to be worth reading. Austen’s characters are some of the best I’ve ever read and that’s what I love so much about her writing.
Austen’s novels take place in limited settings, with very little “action” as we would consider it. And yet they aren’t boring, in fact, they’re completely absorbing, and it’s because Austen’s characters are so good. I could go in depth into all of the different characters in all seven novels, but since this review is technically about Emma I’m going to try and restrain myself. I think Emma is actually a superb example, possibly the best, of what Austen does so brilliantly with her characters. What I found during this read through was that the characters were all vivid and alive, all so believable, that I actually felt like I knew them, and, in a way, I do. Austen’s characters are people, real people that we know. The best way I have to explain what I mean by that is that the characters are caricatures, but not just caricatures since that suggests a certain lack of depth and exaggeration, which definitely is not the case here.
It’s as if there are two layers to each character. The first layer is the base, the fundamental caricature of a certain type of person. Then the second layer is the the unique individual traits, background, and feelings that make each character unique. My favorite example is Miss Bates. The character is so simple and so beautifully done, I feel like I know her, like I understand her. Even more importantly, because her character seemed so familiar to me I was able to understand and relate to Emma’s feeling towards her. That’s the second thing that makes Austen’s writing and characters so wonderful. They’re emotions and actions are so believable and relatable that you feel like you know them and can sympathize with or understand their actions.
Those two things, or rather the one overarching thing, the characters, are what make Austen so brilliant and why I love her so much as an author. Her character Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice once has a conversation about how she loves to make a study of peoples’ characters, and I think that was a little bit of the authors personality slipping into her character. I think she must have enjoyed watching and studying people, finding their idiosyncrasies, their faults, their virtues, and working out how those things all fit together to make a person, and she used that. I also think she must have been very good at it, and that, in turn, made her a fantastic author.
I’ve gone on enough about the characters, but really that’s the best part of this novel. That being said the plot is also top notch, and quite funny as well. Without giving away to much the entire plot is basically made up of characters whose faults and failings cause them to get themselves into some unfortunate messes. Watching the characters dig themselves into holes and climb back out again is quite entertaining. Even if sometimes you do want to reach through the pages, grab Emma by the shoulders and shake her until she realizes how foolish she’s being.
I had a pretty good segue I wanted to use here, but, since using it would give away to much of the story, instead I’m just going to make this awkward transition into my last point. In my review of Northanger Abbey I’d said that I was still trying to decide between Henry Tilney (from Northanger) and George Knightly (from Emma) for my second and third favorite Austen hero (Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice is obviously my first favorite). Having now reread both novels I’ve decided that Henry Tilney wins out in the end. It was a tough decision. The problem with all the Austen heroes is that they are all so perfectly suited to the heroines that when you read each novel you think that that hero is the perfect guy because of how perfect he is for her, but when you read the next novel you think the same thing all over again. But Henry won in the end because, when I really thought about it, he’s the one I would rather know personally and who I think would be more fun to have a conversation with. Although, when it comes to which one has more merit as a person, I think George Knightly would be the winner.
5/5 in case you couldn’t tell. Also read it, read it, read it. It’s so good.