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.