Way back when (I’m not going to confess how many years), I attempted to watch a film adaptation of Emma by Jane Austen with my mother. It had Gweneth Paltrow in and I lasted ten minutes. As much as young teenaged me loved Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, I had very little patience for Emma Woodhouse and her incessant meddling.
Of course, fast forward a decade or so and I am as much in love with Jane Austen as I was when I first discovered her novels aged eleven. Except now, Persuasion is my favourite. So when there was a Jane Austen exhibition at the Weston Library in Oxford, I went along as soon as I had a free afternoon. I looked at all the letters and the paraphernalia that was displayed with some interest, and I remember reading some letter that Jane Austen wrote where she started with the promise that she would write a character that no-one but herself could like. And that character was Emma. Having never tried reading this novel, I quickly skated on. There was a bit of the exhibition where they were playing excerpts from various adaptations of Jane Austen’s works. Oh look! There’s Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle! Oh dear, Keira Knightly as Lizzie Bennett, still not a fan. Even better! They’ve got a bit of Sense and why oh why are they not showing a clip of the more recent Persuasion than the weird 1995 one?? And, of course, they showed a clip of Emma, with Jonny Lee Miller (Sherlock to those who watch Elementary – and a very good Sherlock) as Mr Knightley and the person I usually see when I hear Emma Woodhouse. It was from the bit on Box Hill when Emma has been a bit of a bitch, and Mr Knightley calls her out on it with a “badly done Emma!”. I decided to give the only Jane Austen novel I hadn’t read another go. And by give the novel a go, I mean I bought the BBC TV adaptation, enjoyed it, and then picked up a version of the actual novel that was printed in 1927 and given as a gift of thanks from some grateful children to their nurse.
And now, with that very lengthy explanation of how I got here, onto the review! Emma Woodhouse is a spoilt, rich young woman with absolutely no intention of marrying herself, but of matching everyone in her small village to amuse herself (excepting Mr Knightley, he must never marry, otherwise his great estate would not pass to their mutual nephew). She has a very overbearing caricature of a father, who takes fright at the smallest wind, and is rich enough that everyone lets him dictate their lives. As such, Emma has never left her small circle, whereas Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax were both taken away from Highbury at a young age. Jane is constantly talked of by her aunt Miss Bates and Frank Churchill is constantly expected by his father Mr Weston. The story starts when 21 year old Emma’s governess/companion Miss Taylor marries Mr Weston, Emma congratulates herself on the matchmaking and sets her sights on pairing a poor young friend off with the lofty parish vicar (played in the film, coincidently by the same actor who was Edmund Bertram in Mansfield Park opposite Billie Piper). When that goes catastrophically wrong, and her sweet young friend turns down a proposal that Emma deems unworthy, only to be laughed at by the vicar Mr Elton, Emma swears off matchmaking. Then Jane Fairfax returns, and Frank Churchill comes back and their tiny corner of the world becomes a little more exciting. There are lots of miscommunications and misunderstandings and Emma feeling superior and Mr Knightley trying to bring her down a peg or two.
That is a weighty description and not even half the book! I started reading the novel in snatches, and then I went to London for a weekend mini-holiday, and kept the book in my pocket to read on the tube or when having a coffee, or sat on a bench. I had the book in and out of my pocket so frequently the spine has come loose on one side and I was afraid I would lose it on the underground. I very much enjoyed the novel when I read it this time, rather than reading some fifty pages and giving it up in frustration. I am not sure if having watched the TV show helped – having the characters read to picture while reading and having enjoyed the TV show – but possibly it is the benefit of age. Emma makes a lot more sense as an adult than she ever did to me as a teenager. I think it probably helps that there are some cracking feminist things in there – like Emma’s reason for not wanting to get married:
“My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming -one other person at the least. And I am not only not going to be married at present, but have very little intention of ever marrying at all.”
And subverting the patriarchy by hiding it within the patriarchy with Mr Knightley choosing to give up his own house to move to Hartfield to be with Emma, because Emma could not leave her father. Also, it’s a book about misunderstandings and being nosy which appeals to me because I am also completely oblivious and am incredibly nosy. I think there may be something of Emma in all of us, and perhaps that is why Austen wrote that she would write a character no-one would like – because we are all like Emma in some way. We are all a little selfish, and all a little unkind, and all a little oblivious to our faults – just like Emma. And perhaps we all need someone like Knightley, someone with his own faults, and someone who is not blind to your own faults. That being said – they skate over this in the movie, mentioning that Mr Knightley is sixteen years older than Emma, but in the book, there is actually a line which is “I’ve loved you since you were thirteen” (Knightley would have been twenty-nine) which is wrong. Its only just acceptable by the way the movie plays it which is a bit more – we’ve been practically married for years and also I didn’t realise until there were other people here and your head was turned.
I enjoyed Emma very much, and I willing to admit that I was wrong. But I think that I will say that maybe there are some books we need to grow enough to be able to enjoy. I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale at sixteen, and think it a work of art now. Tastes change, and that’s ok.
As I type this, I am watching Emma and we’ve just had the Weston’s ball and Emma and Knightley’s dance and now I’m a gooey middle cookie.