Reading Jane Austen is always a pleasure. There is nothing tedious in her writing, no twaddle. It is as comfortable and refreshing as listening to Bach, and in some ways just as challenging and rewarding. Each of her books is nearly as much its own character in her writing as the characters themselves, if that makes sense. They live and breathe with an identity of their own.
"Emma" is the story of a young woman making the transition from youth to adulthood. When we meet Emma for the first time, she has all the raw material for the making of a fine woman, but it is unrefined. Emma is a bundle of contradictions. She is sweet but a little thoughtless, and a little careless. She is talented but undisciplined, kind but thinks more highly of herself than others, intelligent but too clever in her own opinion. She has not yet been wounded deeply enough by life to have acquired any real depth. All of that is about to change.
As the book opens, Emma is congratulating herself on helping to make a good match for her former governess and successfully marrying her off. It is plain to the meanest observer that Emma had little enough to do with it, but Emma, encouraged by her "success", embarks on a campaign to make a match for a friend named Harriet. This seems good and harmless of itself, but there is an obstacle that must first be overcome; Harriet is of unknown parentage and seems to be of low birth. In order to get around this fact, Emma takes it upon herself to mold Harriet into someone more capable of climbing the ladder to a higher class, something for which Harriet is completely unsuited.
Herein lies one of the deep ironies of the book. At the outset, Harriet knows who she is, is comfortable with her station, and is prepared to accept a man in the same station who would make her happy. Harriet needs no grooming, no maturing. She is complete as a character. Emma, who would play Pygmalion, is the one who needs to be molded and groomed. She is completely unaware of her need, though she is willing enough to project it onto Harriet. This is, perhaps, Emma's greatest weakness; her inability to correctly evaluate the character and intentions of herself and others. This flaw impedes her ability to respond appropriately in nearly every situation she encounters. Confusion ensues and disaster threatens the future happiness of Harriet, Emma, and a number of other characters.
Fortunately for all, there is someone in Emma's life who does possess the gifts that Emma lacks. Mr. Knightly, her lifelong friend, possesses knowledge, insight, tact, and the strength and wisdom to employ them for good. He sees the promise in her for both good and ill, and, as the best type of friend one can have, a friend who is not content to leave those he loves wallowing in their weakness, he does what no one else can. He holds Emma accountable. Gently but firmly, and at the risk of losing much that he treasures in her, Knightly reveals to Emma the damage she has done and the pain she has inflicted on others. For all of her faults, Emma is good at heart and she is honest enough to see the justice in all that Knightly says. She is humble enough to repent. Her illusions about herself and others shatter, but she is now able to see clearly enough to take steps to begin to repair the damage.
Some may consider the wounds Emma receives in the course of the book to be slight. I would disagree. The true source of her pain comes from her growing awareness of how she has hurt others. Is this not the case in real life? How many of our regrets stem from the pain we have caused others rather than the hurt we have personally endured? Was it not the disappointment that we caused that spurred us to reform more than any punishment that may have been meted out? I think this is the case for Emma. When she finally understands the truth about what she has done, she is truly grieved. There is no pretense in her pain, and one gets the impression that she will never be able to look back on these events without a pang of conscience.
I believe Ms. Austen took a number of risks in creating Emma. She had to walk a fine line, drawing a character who possesses a number of glaring faults without making her irritating or annoying. In my opinion, she succeeded, mostly by balancing those faults with a genuine good nature. She also avoids annoying her readers by casting "Emma" as a comedy. There is enough good humor in all that happens to keep us from hating Emma, and happy endings abound for nearly all, even for those characters that we are meant to dislike.
One of the many things I love about Jane Austen's writing is her ability to capture the essences of her characters with a wonderful economy of words. The famous first line, for example, tells us nearly everything we need to know about Emma, and even foreshadows what is to come: "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." It's astonishing that she accomplishes so much with so little, and she does it over and over again.
Another thing I love about Ms. Austen is the sterling character of the heroes. Mr. Knightly is one of her best. He is a man who puts the good of others before himself. Like a knight of old, he takes up the cause of the defenseless and becomes their champion. As stated previously, he possesses the wisdom and insight that Emma so sorely lacks, and is able to navigate the murky waters of other people's intentions, maintaing his integrity while not compromising the less noble unless absolutely necessary. Mr. Knightly is a man that other men can admire, and an example to which they can aspire. The novels of Jane Austen are rich and complex. Like a royal banquet, they are a feast of ideas and topics operating on multiple levels simultaneously. I have only scratched the surface of "Emma" in this review. In doing so, I hope that I have given someone enough of a taste to inspire them to join the feast and enjoy all that there is to find there.