Hey guys! Recently, I’ve been venturing into some more classic literature novels and once I started reading Jane Austen’s novels, I knew I’d found something special. One that particularly resonated with me was Emma, the tale of a spoilt heiress and her life in Highbury. Emma herself is such a complex and interesting character and seeing her grow emotionally across the course of the novel from narrow minded and closed off to more compassionate and giving felt rewarding as a reader. She’s fast become one of my favourite female characters and hopefully this review of the book where she is the eponymous heroine will help you to understand why.
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.‘Emma’ by Jane Austen, Chapter one
Was Jane Austen a feminist? I’ve been thinking about that quite a lot since I started reading her books. She features interesting main female characters in all novels. There’s Catherine Morland, Elinor Dashwood, Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet, Anne Elliot and of course Emma Woodhouse. Focusing in on Emma, she is strong willed, opinionated and entitled. These were not the traits expected in a lady of the time. Women were living in a patriarchal society and were considered less than men in every possible way. This is exactly why I think Austen was a clandestine feminist and she dropped subtle hints of this into her books as result. She had to be careful to not be too open about her feminist views or she risked not being able to publish any of her novels. This kind of pro women rights message would not have been supported by the male publishers of the time. This is not even mentioning what it would’ve done for her family’s reputation. But instead of bowing down to the patriarchal expectations society placed on her in her novels, she opposes them, presenting passionate and unique female characters that have resonated with audiences for centuries now.
Emma Woodhouse seems to be a different breed of the Austen heroine. Of the Austen novels I have read so far, I can see quite a lot of similarities between Catherine Morland (Northanger Abbey) and Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) whereas Emma seems to stick out like a sore thumb. Her main advantage is her economic situation. She is a wealthy heiress and states quite a few times in the beginning of the novel that she has the desire not to marry. This sticks out in contrast to Catherine and Elinor who although they sometimes got way laid had the same goal to marry throughout their respective novels. Marrying in their case could’ve raised their social status if they married the right person. For Emma, marrying for the sake of it would’ve caused more harm than good since in that time period, all her money would’ve belonged to her husband the moment they got married. She flirts with the idea of marrying as she gets closer to Frank Churchill but I don’t think she truly considers it as an option for herself until she realises at the end of the novel that she’s in love with Mr Knightley. But is this supposed to be a happy ending for our heroine or is Jane Austen sprinkling a hint of irony into the novel? Is marrying as jubilant as literature often presents it to be or will Emma eventually miss the freedom and independence of her single life?
A key part of Emma’s character is that she is often fully loved but not fully known by those around her. Mrs Western, her father, Frank Churchill, Harriet… all of them adore her and praise her but fail to see or help her develop any of her flaws. This isolates Emma from the people she loves and I think subconsciously she spends the whole book trying to find someone who loves her and understands her simultaneously. She first tries to discover it in Harriet but Harriet idolises her too much and is blinded to the many faults Emma possesses. She then attempts to find it with Frank Churchill but unbeknown to her and the rest of Highbury, his heart belongs to another and Emma simply becomes a smoke screen for what is truly happening. I think this is part of why she channels so much energy into matchmaking because the idea of finding someone who loves her despite her flaws is very much a secret goal for her and out of the kindness in her heart she wants to help others find that too. In the end she realises that the person she has been looking for has been right by her side the whole time. Mr Knightley spent the whole novel patiently loving her while not being afraid to point her flaws and grievances. His guidance is what helps Emma to recognise how she can better herself and that is just what she spends the novel doing.
Thank you for reading this post! Have you read ‘Emma’? Let me know in the comments! There’ll be another post out soon but until then bye for now!
Amelia Grace a.k.a Amelia in Hull