The year was 1815. Jane Austen was already a successfully published author (although she was not successful by name as all her books were credited as having been written “by a Lady” only). Her novels Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park were all hits. As she sat down to write her next novel she said to her best friend and sister, Cassandra,“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” The heroine she spoke of was Emma Woodhouse. Emma is described in the first paragraph of the book the following way,
“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 of vex her.”
Emma is the richest of Austen’s heroines. She is also the snobbiest, pushiest, and meanest of all of them. She spends most of the novel sticking her nose in other people’s business, giving people horrible advice, and being blind to her own faults to the detriment of others. And yet, she is my favorite Austen character. Yes even more so than Lizzy Bennet of Pride and Prejudice fame. I’ve been re-reading Emma for the past few weeks and have been struck again with a deep love for this very flawed character. As I thought more about it I realized from where this love comes. I see much of myself in Emma. It’s why I find myself very upset when people talk about hating her character, or finding it hard to understand her. I understand her completely. I don’t always agree with what she does, but I see much less malevolence in her actions than other do.
Now I would not deign to call myself rich (the handsome and clever however….), but it’s more in Emma’s mistakes and strengths that I see myself. Emma has decided opinions. Her decisiveness extends not just to the world at large, but to the people she interacts with on a daily basis. If Emma sees someone in her life making a bad choice (a bad choice in her mind, to be clear) she will do everything she can to step in and prevent this mistake from occurring. Emma will also go to great lengths to make any situation fit what she has already decided is the truth. In the overwhelming obviousness of one man being in love with her, Emma still convinces herself that all of his attentions are meant for her close friend instead; simply because she has already decided in her own mind that these two people should get married.
She ends up doing great damage to her friend’s heart and emotions because of course she is completely wrong about the situation. But where some people see a spoiled child playing with humans like they were dolls; I see a woman who steamrolls over people in an attempt to make them as happy as they can possibly be. I’m really good at deciding what the people I love should do to make themselves happier. Sometimes I find myself wondering in complete seriousness why more people won’t just listen to me! I mean, I know what I’m doing. I’m always right….right? Oh boy.
Another thing Emma does often is speak without thinking. If she thinks someone is ridiculous she says so. Out loud. To that person. And the person sitting next to her. And to the next person she runs into. And on, and on and on. Take out Emma in the first sentence of this paragraph and put Janelle, and it wouldn’t really change the sentences that follow at all. Is there anything wrong with pointing out the ridiculous in life? I don’t think so. Like most personality traits I think there are good and bad parts involved with each of them. What makes a personality like Emma’s good is that she is genuine. She’s not going to pretend to be something she isn’t, or like someone she doesn’t, or approve of something she doesn’t. She (and I) just need to apply it in moderation. Not every thought that comes into my head is worth putting to speech. In fact some thoughts are better left unsaid. Late in the novel Emma is brutally honest about a neighbor’s shortcomings. When Mr. Knightley (her true love though she doesn’t know it yet) speaks harshly to her about it he never calls the honesty of her comment into question. Miss Bates (the aforementioned neighbor) is ridiculous! What Emma said is 100% true! But, she should not have said it. Her neighbor is a poor old woman undeserving of Emma’s jokes and sarcasm. As Mr. Knightley says it was “badly done!”
The final way I see myself in Emma is in her inability to just admit when she is wrong. At one point she and Mr. Knightley fight over an issue which the end of the novel tells us she was clearly incorrect about. And yet, when they “make up” as it were she is quick to say
“As far as good intentions went, we were both right.
and I must say that no effects on my side of the argument
have yet proved wrong.”
Newsflash in case you have not read the book. They are NOT both right. Emma is wrong and the “effects” on her side will prove to be very wrong indeed. And yet Emma, even while apologizing cannot fully admit she is incorrect. All of this sound uncomfortably familiar. The words “I’m wrong. I’m sorry” have a really hard time coming out of my mouth without a million caveats attached to them. I think the reason for this is, like Emma, I’m still a little convinced that with time I will be proven right. So why apologize now when later all will see how correct I really was?
So what’s the upside of all this self flagellation I’m doing today? Well, Emma does not end the novel mired in the same problems with which she started it. She has a moment of real self reflection when all that she knows about herself blows up in her face. She admits herself “universally mistaken” about all she thought before. She vows to be better than she has been. The novel ends happily of course. Not just because Emma finds love, but because Emma find her true self. She doesn’t throw away the very things that make her who she is. I can imagine even after the novel closes that Emma will always have decided opinions and express them accordingly. But, she’s learned how to take a breath and listen to the counsel of others. She’s learned she is not infallible.
That is truly why Emma is my favorite literary character. She changes her actions without changing her core. There is nothing wrong with being opinionated, honest, and sure of oneself. But there is also nothing wrong with being open to other’s thoughts, keeping quiet, and being willing to change. Emma may be flawed, but that’s what makes her so real. She seems to jump off the page fully alive. I think this is why Emma lends itself to modern adaptation so much more than any other Austen novel. Clueless is not just a great movie, it is in my opinion the best adaption of an Austen novel.
When Jane Austen wrote that nobody would like the heroine of her next book except herself, I think she was being a little facetious. I think she knew her readers would identify so much with Emma, that they would be more harsh on her than any other heroine. After all, everyone wants to be Lizzy Bennet, but more of us are like Emma than we would care to admit.
What about you? Do you have a favorite Austen heroine? How about any character in pop culture you closely identify with?