Monday, October 20, 2014

Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

Jane Austen’s Emma is viewed by some as highly irritating—and by others as being arguably her finest novel.

I’ve always felt it was slightly different and couldn’t figure out why…but (since first picking it up at about fourteen :-) and progressing through various subsequent stages from irritation to enthusiasm), I’ve run across some most intriguing clues as to some of the possible why’s and wherefore’s of the difference.

First of all, Austen is always definitively and recognizably Austen, but—almost in how Elizabeth Gaskell was later playing with her style in North and South—I think Austen was doing something similar in Emma.

To begin with, she offers very little narrative commentary. Of course, in all her writing she’s most deftly and masterfully using character and action (which is part of why it’s so amazing!), but in Emma—to a quite incredible degree—she really seems to let the characters speak for themselves—saying (or observing) almost everything that has to be seen or said.

All the relationships are also very natural and understated—indeed almost offhand—taken for granted (except that they very much aren’t). Relationships are built years before the story starts so that when it does all the situations and tensions are already of longstanding. Everyone knows each other extremely well (or thinks they do)—but even when they don’t, there’s a ready familiarity between them; and all of it’s done with a very familial tone—family members and old friends left and right in need of direction, communication, charity, and love. Even the lover in Emma is a brotherly figure!

Emma has the distinction of having the only section from a man’s point of view (that I can think of) in all Austen’s work. Men are closely described, write letters, and have long dialogue passages in her other books, but (except for perhaps a very brief paragraph with Sir Bertram at the end of Mansfield Park), I think Chapter 41 in Emma (the alphabet box/‘blunder’ scene) told from Mr. Knightley’s perspective, stands alone as being narrated from within a male character—showing his thoughts and cogitations. 

As an heiress, Emma has a fortune of 30,000£ (equal to Miss Darcy’s in P&P!) and bright and headstrong, she sets out to order her world according to her own desires. (And a note: generally I try not to mix book and movie reviews, but this aspect was brought out superbly in the ’09 film with their inclusion of Emma’s dolls and the line from Milton. Very well done, indeed!)

At the same time, while Emma likes to think of herself (and as she does) set the tone and manners, when it comes to men particularly she is very influenced by her company. She’s always analyzing different men’s qualities and personalities: her father, Mr. John Knightley, Frank, Mr. Weston, Mr. Elton, Mr. Martin, (Mr. Dixon), and Mr. Knightley (about whom there is much to be said ;-)). Ultimately, there are two main figures battling for sway over her: the false lover (who is dishonest even in the level of interest he shows) and the true lover who honestly refuses to give up on her, loving her through and through—challenging her with a zealous, tenacious love.

His love for her—and hers for him—shapes her even before she’s aware of it. It’s remarkable how almost incessantly she actually thinks about him—measuring her opinions against his. Her very definition of a man is clearly shaped by him.

And the goodness of Emma ultimately comes when Emma, seeking to control her world, comes to realize she can’t—can’t box things up and can’t order the lives of those around her. That is for God and God alone. (In this regard, Emma—as a story—is pretty amazing: on the one hand stressing the importance of respecting others’ God-given lives and particular callings, and yet—by definition—emphasizing each person’s responsibility towards and connectedness to everyone else!) 

So as life around Emma desperately begins spinning out of control, as everything is slipping through her fingers, she finally realizes the full truth—both of what she’s done and to whom her heart belongs. Love—coming as a shock completely unarranged and unexpected—gives her world its final turn upside down (or rather right side up). And seeing the truth of her love and waywardness of errors, she turns and begins bearing fruit before her gardener (speaking metaphorically) returns from his trip to London near the end. And, of course, he does return—and love is wonderfully—incredibly—requited by love.

Yet for both of them, true love isn’t blind passion. Honesty, truth, and forbearance are the strong foundation for all their sudden, bewildering, breathtaking passion and desires. And in the truth of their love—rejoicing in the goodness of the loved one given by God in His perfect ways and time—each would contend humbly and gratefully that all of it is undeserved—all is a richness of blessing.


  1. You know... perhaps the reason I don't like Emma herself all that well is that we're a bit too much alike in some ways, and I don't the things I recognize of myself being shown in such an unflattering light? I too like to direct and order things, and people or things being outside my control can really frustrate me. You make such an excellent point that the story shows Emma she can't be in control, and I think I really dislike that outcome on some level because I myself hate having to relinquish control. It's my biggest struggle as a Christian, surrendering everything to God.

    Which means I'll have to reread this again with that in mind. When I find the time! Perhaps I'll like it better when I do.

    1. I agree! I think Austen draws some pretty strong lines in Emma--almost to the point where it's hard to be ambivalent about the story (which is remarkable, as it's such a quietly moving story from a plot-point perspective). It is quite confrontational--confronting the reader I think, too (at least that's how I've felt). And I know exactly what you can be so hard to (actively) let go and surrender to God's having His way with us and everything around us. Yes....Christianity is definitely not for the faint of heart. Far from apathy, I think submitting to Him takes tremendous discipline, faith and perseverance--which (most thankfully) He promises to give. :)

  2. "she turns and begins bearing fruit before the gardener returns from London." Excuse while I go squeal like a socially awkward Tumblr fangirl...

    No, seriously, I love your take on this. I guess Emma never irritated me because she did remind me of myself. I shake my head and smile when I read it, because we're so much alike. But there's stuff I admire about her, too, like how she learns to swallow her pride and be kind to Miss Bates. And I'm always humbled by Mr. Knightley's love for Emma. He manages to love her still after watching her be opinionated and fall on her face time and again. There's part of me that hopes I could some day be worthy of a good man's opinion like that.

    1. Joanna,
      (You're most thoroughly excused! ;)) But yes, thank you...I so appreciate your comment! And about Mr. Knightley....yes....quite and entirely incredible. He's such a thoroughly amazing figure--yet remains so real and human.

      I haven't met *my* Mr. Knightley yet, but that's really one of the things I find so encouraging with Emma, too. Obviously, you must be striving persistently and progressing in sanctification, etc., but it's such a good reminder that you don't reach this *height of perfection* before marriage. If you have some (small) struggles you're honestly trying to overcome--it doesn't mean some godly, upright man won't want to come alongside you--desiring and working to bring further beauty--and that you can't come alongside him and join him as a help meet. (...Did that all make sense?)

    2. Yep, makes perfect sense. I found a quote on Pinterest once that says "Austen isn't about desperately searching for your hero, but about learning and growing so you will deserve him when he appears." That basically sums up Emma's point, doesn't it? And, really, marriage is about learning and growing together, too. I think you shouldn't stop improving yourself just because you found someone to accept you for you.

  3. Heidi, this was a wonderful review! I'm continually amazed with how deeply to you get into the heart of the story and not just "this happened, then this, and then the end, I loved it". I think you really have a gift for that sort of thing. I suppose reading it many times has helped you, too, though! ;)
    I've only read it once not too long ago, but I really want to read it again!
    I never noticed that about chapter 41 being narrated by Mr. Knightley. That's so interesting!
    Your points on love and how Emma had to learn to let go of "her" control was very good as well. :) I'm so enjoying the Emma blog party!
    ps. I am working on a review of Emma 1996-hopefully I'll finish it before Monday, but if not, is it okay if it's a little late?

    1. Natalie,
      Thank you!! And thank you so much for your kind words.... :) I do love doing it -- and I'm pretty thrilled with how this one came together....(and at the final hour! ;))

      Chapter 41 is really interesting. I think (obviously) for the purposes of the story she needed someone outside Emma herself observing that particular sequence, and I think at the same time it masterfully serves to underline several of the different things she seemed to be doing with the story as a whole....but that she would actually opt for going with Mr. Knightley rather than a narrator! It's fascinating.

      So another hearty thank you.... I'm so very glad you enjoyed it (and that you're enjoying the party)! (And again, that's just fine on your review.... I'm looking forward to it! ;))

  4. Yes! Very fascinating and great that she chose Mr. Knightley to narrate! :)


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