The first classic up to bat in my project for 2011 was Emma.
I haven’t read a ton of Jane Austen. I haven’t read the big ones. I’ve read Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park. I remember gushing about MP and saying that even though I hadn’t read Austen’s other works, this particular one was probably her best. I don’t know what gave me the idea that I could say that since I hadn’t read anything other than P&P. I guess it was just that much better than the one book. However, even though I now don’t remember in detail the plot of Mansfield Park or the individual nuances that made me gush about it after I read it a few years ago, I can safely say that Emma didn’t make me feel the same way. In short, Emma is a book I enjoyed but not a book I loved.
For those who haven’t read it (and/or haven’t seen the 1995 movie Clueless), Emma is the story of a spoiled debutante shamelessly intent upon matchmaking her acquaintances and friends, even to the point of humiliating disaster.
Luckily, Emma is not a flat character, so my progressive reactions to her throughout the novel were interesting to experience. First I was awed by her overtly pretentious nature; then amused by her ignorance of reality; then saddened by her stubborn refusal to be more inclusive of others (mentally and otherwise); then annoyed with her petulant attitudes, mentalities, and ceaseless attempts to make romantic matches despite the fact that she broke her “friend” Harriet’s heart more than once. Then I was embarrassed to notice similarities between Emma’s immature personality and my own. Finally, I was relieved and proud to see that she is redeemable and that she ultimately comes around to be a rather pleasing character in the end – which, of course, made it much easier for me to be happy for her when she and Mr. Knightley finally get their ducks in a row and decide they want to get married (an event I am proud to say I predicted on page 112 [of 387]).
Not all pieces of the plot are as predictable as Emma’s eventual marriage to Mr. Knightley, though. There are a few intrigues and twists that keep things interesting along the way (and which would certainly benefit from a second read), although I have to say that Austen has a knack for increasing the yawn factor right in the middle of her books. Though I don’t remember specific nuances and details, I do remember particularly feeling this way in both my reads of P&P and Mansfield Park.
This is a surefire indication that she was in need of a good editor. Of course, my friend Katie unearthed an article awhile back (wish I could find a link to the actual article, but I can’t) that discussed some early manuscripts of Jane Austen’s that had been found and which indicated – by their being riddled with errors and poorly fleshed-out ideas and being vastly different from her published works – that Austen did indeed have a good editor. So I suppose I merely conjecture that she needed a better one – one who wouldn’t have made bones about cutting text, perhaps. (What is it, by the way, with authors of “classics” needing to be so long winded? This is why I haven’t read your books, you dummies! And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of my criticisms in light of the fact that I write such long blog posts.)
The reason I kept reading until the end, then, was twofold: 1) Emma matures and changes throughout the novel; 2) I find pieces of myself in Emma that, while sometimes embarrassing, are also identifying and understandable. And I think these two reasons are as good as any to finish a novel. After all, isn’t connecting with an author via a tangible character one of the highest pleasures of reading in the first place?
One comment further in relation to character development: One thing (among many) that Jane Austen does well is develop her principal characters in a way that, as I wrote in the margin of my copy of Emma, “is logical and consistent. Their actions make sense in conjunction with who they have been presented to be.” Austen expertly balances her characters’ level of humanity (a reader’s ability to relate to them and identify with them) and predictability (their actions are not surprising based on what the reader knows to be true about them), while also leaving room for a believable amount of maturation and redemption. She also does a good job of showing the progression of said maturation so it feels natural to the reader (maybe this is why the boring middle parts of her novels are necessary; the character progression would perhaps feel too sudden otherwise).
Predicting the end of the book wasn’t difficult, so it’s lucky that my reason for reading any book has never been “to see how it ends.” Otherwise I would’ve been disappointed to be right. My disappointment with the ending did come, however, for the same reason that Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park disappointed me. We spend so much time falling in love with these men alongside the principal characters (Mr. Darcy and Edmund in P&P and MP and of course Mr. Knightley in Emma), and then we are finally rewarded with marriages, but then the books end.
I know this is “normal” and formulaic, but I guess I’m waiting for something to come along that doesn’t end at happily ever after. I like to know how things worked out once the sought-for conclusion does arrive, but I guess nobody writes about that because nobody truly believes in happily ever after, and perhaps marital spats and trouble with disciplining children and financial troubles and identity crises and crises of faith – maybe nobody wants to hear about any of these things because they are too real, and we read to “escape,” right? Not to be reminded that life is life and that sometimes it sucks.
However (and maybe I’m merely going through a phase right now), the realness of these struggles and truths is exactly why I do want to hear about them. It gives me more of a reason to identify with the characters and more of an opportunity to. I can’t identify with someone who has never experienced hardship or heartbreak or struggle because I myself am and have been broken.
In any case, I don’t regret having read Jane Austen’s Emma (not sure if I could say I regret having read any piece of literature, even those I didn’t like – being exposed to variety is the spice of life, after all). And I’d like to leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the book because, as any seasoned Austen reader knows, Jane has mastered sarcasm, almost to a fault:
“Highbury, the large and populous village, almost amounting to a town…”
Mr Knightley to Emma: “Better to be without sense, than misapply it as you do.”
Emma to herself: “Humph—Harriet’s ready wit! …A man must be very much in love, indeed, to describe her so.”
Emma, explaining why it’s better to forget about the poor rather than dwell on thoughts of their plight: “If we feel for the wretched, enough to do all we can for them, the rest is empty sympathy, only distressing to ourselves.”
“She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr. Weston’s good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense.”
Miss Bates about Mrs. Bates: “My mothers [sic] deafness is very trifling you see—just nothing at all. By only raising my voice, and saying anything two or three times over, she is sure to hear.”
“Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person who either marries or dies is sure of being kindly spoken of.”
“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.”
“…Curiosity could not be satisfied by a bride in a pew, and it must be left for visits in form which were then to be paid, to settle whether she were very pretty indeed, or only rather pretty, or not pretty at all.”
“…How peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry.”
Jane Fairfax: “The post office is a wonderful establishment! The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!” [This quote only included because it reminds me of my good friend Reese, who feels this way both about the post office and about airline travel.]
“It was well that he took everybody’s joy for granted, or he might not have thought either Mr. Woodhouse or Mr. Knightley particularly delighted.”
“Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty upon Mrs. Elton’s beginning to talk to him.”
“Emma perceived that her taste was not the only taste on which Mr. Weston depended, and felt, that to be the favourite and intimate of a man who had so many intimates and confidantes, was not the very first distinction in the scale of vanity.”
“Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private.”
“Indeed, the truth was, that poor dear Jane could not bear to see anybody—anybody at all—Mrs. Elton, indeed, could not be denied—and Mrs. Cole had made such a point—and Mrs. Perry had said so much—but, except them, Jane would really see nobody.”
“…It was really too much to hope even of Harriet, that she could be in love with more than three men in one year.”