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Jane Austen – Emma

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Perhaps the best example of how wonderful Austen’s ability to create characters was.

Publisher: N/A (but I’d wager Vintage’s a good one)
Pages: N/A
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: N/A (Vintage’s is 978-0-09951-1168)
First Published: 1816
Date Reviewed: 13th October 2011
Rating: 5/5

Emma Woodhouse is rather well off, and intelligent and charismatic to boot. She wishes to add to this list a talent for matchmaking, and indeed already has introduced a widowed neighbour to her governess and they are a fine couple. Now she wants to enhance her new friend Harriet’s position in society, and the man who wants Harriet’s hand does not fit the proposed expectations. Emma doesn’t want to marry herself, but will she able to carry on her initial success?

Emma is a fantastic examination of what happens when a person tries to involve themselves in other people’s affairs, and what this means for that person’s knowledge of their own feelings. The events in Emma are largely held in the same one place, in fact Emma herself never leaves her village, and yet Austen succeeds in being perhaps more witty and introducing a more detailed cast of characters than in any other of her books (Mansfield Park aside as this reviewer has yet to read that one).

It cannot be disputed that what makes Austen so readable is her cast of characters. In Emma every single person is very different to all the others so that it wouldn’t be difficult to know who was speaking even if you stripped the manuscript of all names. If it seems that some characters are similar it is only because they are less talkative. Of the ones who speak often you can clearly discern the man of sense, the woman who talks too much, the joker who wants entertainment, the hypochondriac who tries to push his hypochondria onto others, and so on. There is a particular chapter in volume 2 of the book, chapter 11, that is simply sublime – hilarious, all show and no tell, and a prime example of how these very different characters interact. Surely Austen is one of very few authors from whom this reviewer would be happy to read all dialogue and no description.

“Did you ever see such dancing? – Was not it delightful? – Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill; I never saw any thing equal to it.”
“Oh! very delightful indeed; I can say nothing less, for I suppose Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill are hearing every thing that passes.”

Austen undoubtedly had a whale of a time writing this book. The discourses between Mr. Knightley and Emma are brilliant, Mr. Knightley being the one this time round who has a level head. And as usual Austen shows us that she was not only ahead of her time but would fit very well in society today.

Where Emma thinks wrongly, Austen is always ready to have a laugh and put her on the straight and narrow in the form of her Mr Knightley. As is the case with Northanger Abbey, bar the narration itself in that novel, Austen employs a male character to voice her feelings. In a way, the reader may wonder why Austen, a woman in a male-oriented society, would often want to make her male characters the ones with the most sense, but in doing so she opens up her work to a wider audience.

It is this continual discourse between Mr Knightley and Emma that sets the reader up with the knowledge of what is to happen. In the character of Emma we have Austen trying to test the boundaries of class and seeing what happens when people try to get around them, even if it is only for their own benefit and fun.

As a counsellor she was not wanted; but as an approver, (a much safer character,) she was truly welcome.

Emma herself is fun for being so intelligent yet so out of her depth when it comes to matchmaking, and for having the inept ability to choose entirely wrong people for her friends.

It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively, without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind…

The reader might say that the set up of matchmaker could have been continued longer, with more people involved, but what is included is so well thought out that it doesn’t really matter. The way that Emma provokes her friends to follow her ideas and, as is once the case, literally follow her around, is worth a lot more than numerous matchmaking attempts.

Pride And Prejudice may be perhaps the most famous of Austen’s novels, but Emma makes a good run for Elizabeth Bennett’s money. Whether or not Emma would have chosen Mr Darcy for Elizabeth however cannot be speculated. The phrase that would conclude this review best is “read it”.

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Susan (Reading World)

November 5, 2011, 2:40 pm

I love all of Austen but Emma was my favorite. Wonderful review. Makes me want to read the book again!

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