Emma, by Jane Austen, is a novel about youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance. The story takes place in the fictional village of Highbury and the surrounding estates of Hartfield, Randalls, and Donwell Abbey and involves the relationships among individuals in those locations consisting of "3 or 4 families in a country village". The novel was first published in December 1815, with its title page listing a publication date of 1816. As in her other novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian–Regency England; she also creates a lively comedy of manners among her characters and depicts issues of marriage, gender, age, and social status.
Title page of first edition, volume 1 of 3
|Genre||Novel of manners|
|Published||23 December 1815 (title page gives 1816) John Murray|
|Preceded by||Mansfield Park|
|Followed by||Northanger Abbey|
Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." In the first sentence, she introduces the title character as "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich." Emma is spoiled, headstrong, and self-satisfied; she greatly overestimates her own matchmaking abilities; she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people's lives; and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.
Emma, written after Austen's move to Chawton, was the last novel to be completed and published during her life, as Persuasion, the last novel Austen wrote, was published posthumously.
This novel has been adapted for several films, many television programmes, and a long list of stage plays. It is also the inspiration for several novels.
Emma Woodhouse has just attended the wedding of Miss Taylor, her lovely friend and former governess, to Mr. Weston. Having introduced them, Emma takes credit for their marriage and decides that she likes matchmaking. After she returns home to Hartfield with her father, Emma forges ahead with her new interest against the advice of her sister's brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley, and tries to match her new friend Harriet Smith to Mr. Elton, the local vicar. First, Emma must persuade Harriet to refuse the marriage proposal from Robert Martin, a respectable, educated, and well-spoken young farmer, which Harriet does against her own wishes. However, Mr. Elton, a social climber, thinks that Emma is in love with him and proposes to her. When Emma tells him that she had thought him attached to Harriet, he is outraged. After Emma rejects him, Mr. Elton leaves for a stay at Bath and returns with a pretentious, nouveau-riche wife, as Mr. Knightley expected. Harriet is heartbroken, and Emma feels ashamed about misleading her.
Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son, arrives for a two-week visit to his father and makes many friends. Frank was adopted by his wealthy and domineering aunt, and he has had very few opportunities to visit before. Mr. Knightley suggests to Emma that, while Frank is intelligent and engaging, he is also a shallow character. Jane Fairfax also comes home to see her aunt, Miss Bates, and grandmother, Mrs. Bates, for a few months, before she must go out on her own as a governess due to her family's financial situation. She is the same age as Emma and has been given an excellent education by her father's friend, Colonel Campbell. Emma has not been as friendly with her as she might because she envies Jane's talent and is annoyed to find all, including Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, praising her. The patronizing Mrs. Elton takes Jane under her wing and announces that she will find her the ideal governess post before it is wanted. Emma begins to feel some sympathy for Jane's predicament.
Emma decides that Jane and Mr. Dixon, Colonel Campbell's new son-in-law, are mutually attracted, and that is why she has come home earlier than expected. She shares her suspicions with Frank, who met Jane and the Campbells at a vacation spot a year earlier, and he apparently agrees with her. Suspicions are further fueled when a piano, sent by an anonymous benefactor, arrives for Jane. Emma feels herself falling in love with Frank, but it does not last to his second visit. The Eltons treat Harriet poorly, culminating with Mr. Elton publicly snubbing Harriet at the ball given by the Westons in May. Mr. Knightley, who had long refrained from dancing, gallantly steps in to dance with Harriet. The day after the ball, Frank brings Harriet to Hartfield; she had fainted after a rough encounter with local gypsies. Harriet is grateful, and Emma thinks this is love, not gratitude. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston wonders if Mr. Knightley has taken a fancy to Jane, but Emma dismisses that idea. When Mr. Knightley mentions the link he sees between Jane and Frank, Emma denies them, while Frank appears to be courting her instead. He arrives late to the gathering at Donwell in June, while Jane leaves early. Next day at Box Hill, a local beauty spot, Frank and Emma continue to banter together and Emma, in jest, thoughtlessly insults Miss Bates.
When Mr. Knightley scolds Emma for the insult to Miss Bates, she is ashamed and tries to atone with a morning visit to Miss Bates, which impresses Mr. Knightley. On the visit, Emma learns that Jane had accepted the position of governess from one of Mrs. Elton's friends after the outing. Jane now becomes ill and refuses to see Emma or receive her gifts. Meanwhile, Frank was visiting his aunt, who dies soon after he arrives. Now he and Jane reveal to the Westons that they have been secretly engaged since the autumn, but Frank knew that his aunt would disapprove. The strain of the secrecy on the conscientious Jane had caused the two to quarrel, and Jane ended the engagement. Frank's easygoing uncle readily gives his blessing to the match, and the engagement becomes public, leaving Emma chagrined to discover that she had been so wrong.
Emma is confident that Frank's engagement will devastate Harriet, but instead, Harriet tells her that she loves Mr. Knightley, although she knows the match is too unequal, Emma's encouragement and Mr. Knightley's kindness have given her hope. Emma is startled and realizes that she is the one who wants to marry Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley returns to console Emma from Frank and Jane's engagement thinking her heartbroken. When she admits her foolishness, he proposes, and she accepts. Now Harriet accepts Robert Martin's second proposal, and they are the first couple to marry. Jane and Emma reconcile, and Frank and Jane visit the Westons. Once the period of deep mourning ends, they will marry. Before the end of November, Emma and Mr. Knightley are married with the prospect of "perfect happiness".
Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of the story, is a beautiful, high-spirited, intelligent, and 'slightly' spoiled young woman from the landed gentry. She is twenty when the story opens. Her mother died when she was young. She has been mistress of the house (Hartfield) since her older sister got married. Although intelligent, she lacks the discipline to practice or study anything in depth. She is portrayed as compassionate to the poor, but at the same time has a strong sense of class status. Her affection for and patience towards her valetudinarian father are also noteworthy. While she is in many ways mature, Emma makes some serious mistakes, mainly due to her lack of experience and her conviction that she is always right. Although she has vowed she will never marry, she delights in making matches for others. She has a brief flirtation with Frank Churchill; however, she realises at the end of the novel that she loves Mr Knightley.
George Knightley is a neighbour and close friend of Emma, aged 37 years (16 years older than Emma). He is her only critic. Mr Knightley is the owner of the estate of Donwell Abbey, which includes extensive grounds and farms. He is the elder brother of Mr John Knightley, the husband of Emma's elder sister Isabella. He is very considerate, aware of the feelings of the other characters and his behaviour and judgement is extremely good. Mr Knightley is furious with Emma for persuading Harriet to turn down Mr Martin, a farmer on the Donwell estate; he warns Emma against pushing Harriet towards Mr Elton, knowing that Mr Elton seeks a bride with money. He is suspicious of Frank Churchill and his motives; he suspects that Frank has a secret understanding with Jane Fairfax.
Frank Churchill, Mr Weston's son by his first marriage, is an amiable young man, who at age 23 is liked by almost everyone, although Mr Knightley sees him as immature and selfish for failing to visit his father after his father's wedding. After his mother's death, he was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle, the Churchills, at the family estate Enscombe. His uncle was his mother's brother. By his aunt's decree, he assumed the name Churchill on his majority. Frank is given to dancing and living a carefree, gay life and is secretly engaged to Miss Fairfax at Weymouth, although he fears his aunt will forbid the match because Jane is not wealthy. He manipulates and plays games with the other characters to ensure his engagement to Jane remain concealed.
Jane Fairfax is an orphan whose only family consists of her aunt, Miss Bates, and her grandmother, Mrs Bates. She is a beautiful, bright, and elegant woman, with the best of manners. She is the same age as Emma. She is extraordinarily well-educated and talented at singing and playing the piano; she is the sole person whom Emma envies. An army friend of her late father, Colonel Campbell, felt responsible for her, and has provided her with an excellent education, sharing his home and family with her since she was nine years old. She has little fortune, however, and is destined to become a governess – a prospect she dislikes. The secret engagement goes against her principles and distresses her greatly.
Harriet Smith, a young friend of Emma, just seventeen when the story opens, is a beautiful but unsophisticated girl. She has been a parlour boarder at a nearby school, where she met the sisters of Mr Martin. Emma takes Harriet under her wing early on, and she becomes the subject of Emma's misguided matchmaking attempts. She is revealed in the last chapter to be the natural daughter of a decent tradesman, although not a gentleman. Harriet and Mr Martin are wed. The now wiser Emma approves of the match.
Robert Martin is a well-to-do, 24-year-old farmer who, though not a gentleman, is a friendly, amiable and diligent young man, well esteemed by Mr George Knightley. He becomes acquainted and subsequently smitten with Harriet during her 2-month stay at Abbey Mill Farm, which was arranged at the invitation of his sister, Elizabeth Martin, a school friend of Harriet's. His first marriage proposal, in a letter, is rejected by Harriet under the direction and influence of Emma, (an incident which puts Mr Knightley and Emma in a disagreement with one another), who had convinced herself that Harriet's class and breeding were above associating with the Martins, much less marrying one. His second proposal of marriage is later accepted by a contented Harriet and approved by a wiser Emma; their joining marks the first out of the three happy couples to marry in the end.
Philip Elton is a good-looking, initially well-mannered, and ambitious young vicar, 27 years old and unmarried when the story opens. Emma wants him to marry Harriet; however, he aspires to secure Emma's hand in marriage to gain her dowry of £30,000. Mr Elton displays his mercenary nature by quickly marrying another woman of lesser means after Emma rejects him.
Augusta Elton, formerly Miss Hawkins, is Mr Elton's wife. She has 10,000 pounds, but lacks good manners, committing common vulgarities such as using people's names too intimately (as in "Jane", not "Miss Fairfax"; "Knightley", not "Mr Knightley"). She is a boasting, pretentious woman who expects her due as a new bride in the village. Emma is polite to her but does not like her. She patronises Jane, which earns Jane the sympathy of others. Her lack of social graces shows the good breeding of the other characters, particularly Miss Fairfax and Mrs Weston, and shows the difference between gentility and money.
Mrs Weston was Emma's governess for sixteen years as Miss Anne Taylor and remains her closest friend and confidante after she marries Mr Weston. She is a sensible woman who loves Emma. Mrs Weston acts as a surrogate mother to her former charge and, occasionally, as a voice of moderation and reason. The Westons and the Woodhouses visit almost daily. Near the end of the story, the Westons' baby Anna is born.
Mr. Weston is a widower and a business man living in Highbury who marries Miss Taylor in his early 40s, after he bought the home called Randalls. By his first marriage, he is father to Frank Weston Churchill, who was adopted and raised by his late wife's brother and his wife. He sees his son in London each year. He married his first wife, Miss Churchill, when he was a Captain in the militia, posted near her home. Mr Weston is a sanguine, optimistic man, who enjoys socialising, making friends quickly in business and among his neighbours.
Miss Bates is a friendly, garrulous spinster whose mother, Mrs Bates, is a friend of Mr Woodhouse. Her niece is Jane Fairfax, daughter of her late sister. She was raised in better circumstances in her younger days as the vicar's daughter; now she and her mother rent rooms in the home of another in Highbury. One day, Emma humiliates her on a day out in the country, when she alludes to her tiresome prolixity.
Mr Henry Woodhouse, Emma's father, is always concerned for his health, and to the extent that it does not interfere with his own, the health and comfort of his friends. He is a valetudinarian (i.e., similar to a hypochondriac but more likely to be genuinely ill). He assumes a great many things are hazardous to his health. His daughter Emma gets along with him well, and he loves both his daughters. He laments that "poor Isabella" and especially "poor Miss Taylor" have married and live away from him. He is a fond father and fond grandfather who did not remarry when his wife died; instead he brought in Miss Taylor to educate his daughters and become part of the family. Because he is generous and well-mannered, his neighbors accommodate him when they can.
Isabella Knightley (née Woodhouse) is the elder sister of Emma, by seven years, and daughter of Henry. She is married to John Knightley. She lives in London with her husband and their five children (Henry, 'little' John, Bella, 'little' Emma, and George). She is similar in disposition to her father and her relationship to Mr. Wingfield, (her and her family's physician) mirrors that of her father's to Mr. Perry.
John Knightley is Isabella's husband and George's younger brother, 31 years old (10 years older than Jane Fairfax and Emma). He is an attorney by profession. Like the others raised in the area, he is a friend of Jane Fairfax. He greatly enjoys the company of his family, including his brother and his Woodhouse in-laws, but is not the very sociable sort of man who enjoys dining out frequently. He is forthright with Emma, his sister-in-law, and close to his brother.
Mr. Perry is the apothecary in Highbury who spends a significant amount of time responding to the health issues of Mr. Woodhouse. He and Mrs. Perry have several children. He is also the subject of a discussion between Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax that is relayed in a letter to Mr. Frank Churchill that he inadvertently discloses to Emma. He is described as an "...intelligent, gentlemanlike man, whose frequent visits were one of the comforts of Mr. Woodhouse's life."
Mrs. Bates is the widow of the former vicar of Highbury, the mother of Miss Bates and the grandmother of Jane Fairfax. She is old and hard of hearing, but is a frequent companion to Mr. Woodhouse when Emma attends social activities without him.
Mr. & Mrs. Cole have been residents of Highbury who had been there for several years, but have recently benefited from a significant increase in their income that has allowed them to increase the size of their house, number of servants and other expenses. In spite of their "low origin" in trade, their income and style of living has made them the second most prominent family in Highbury, the most senior being the Woodhouses at Hartfield. They host a dinner party that is a significant plot element.
Mrs. Churchill was the wife of the brother of Mr. Weston's first wife. She and her husband, Mr. Churchill, live at Enscombe and raised Mr. Weston's son, Mr. Frank Churchill. Although never seen directly, she makes demands on Frank Churchill's time and attention that prevent him from visiting his father. Her disapproval is the reason that the engagement between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is kept secret. Her death provides the opportunity for the secret to be revealed.
Colonel and Mrs. Campbell were friends of Jane Fairfax's late father. After a period of time when Jane was their guest for extended visits, they offered to take over her education in preparation for potentially serving as a governess when she grew up. They provided her every advantage possible, short of adopting, and were very fond of her.
Mrs. Goddard is the mistress of a boarding school for girls in which Harriet Smith is one of the students. She is also a frequent companion to Mr. Woodhouse along with Mrs. Bates.
Mr. William Larkins is an employee on the Donwell Abbey estate of Mr. Knightley. He frequently visits the Bateses, bringing them gifts, such as apples, from Mr. Knightley.
Emma was written after the publication of Pride and Prejudice and was submitted to the London publisher John Murray II in the autumn of 1815. He offered Austen £450 for this plus the copyrights of Mansfield Park and Sense and Sensibility, which she refused. Instead, she published two thousand copies of the novel at her own expense, retaining the copyright and paying a 10% commission to Murray. The publication in December 1815 (dated 1816) consisted of a three-volume set in duodecimo at the selling price of £1.1s (one guinea) per set.
Prior to publication, Austen's novels had come to the attention of the Prince Regent, whose librarian at Carlton House, a Mr. Clarke, showed her around the Library at the Prince Regent's request, and who suggested a dedication to the Prince Regent in a future publication. This resulted in a dedication of Emma to the Prince Regent at the time of publication and a dedication copy of the novel sent to Carlton House in December 1815.
In America, copies of this first publication were sold in 1818 for $4 per copy, as well as an American edition published by Mathew Carey of Philadelphia in 1816. The number of copies of this edition are not known. A later American edition was published in 1833 and again in 1838 by Carey, Lea, and Blanchard. A French version was published in 1816 by Arthus Bertrand, publisher for Madame Isabelle De Montolieu. A second French version for the Austrian market was published in 1817 Viennese publisher Schrambl.
Richard Bentley reissued Emma in 1833, along with Austen's five other novels, in his series of Standard Novels. This issue did not contain the dedication page to the Prince Regent. These editions were frequently reprinted up until 1882 with the final publication of the Steventon Edition. Emma has remained in continuous publication in English throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In addition to the French translation already mentioned, Emma was translated into Swedish and German in the nineteenth century and into fifteen other languages in the twentieth century including Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, German and Italian.
Prior to publishing, John Murray's reader, William Gifford, who was also the editor of the Quarterly Review, said of the novel that "Of Emma I have nothing but good to say. I was sure of the writer before you mentioned her. The MS though plainly written has yet some, indeed many little omissions, and an expression may not and then be amended in passing through the press. I will readily undertake the revision." Early reviews of Emma were generally favourable, and were more numerous than those of any other of Austen's novels. One important review, requested by John Murray prior to publication by Sir Walter Scott, appeared anonymously in March 1816 in the Quarterly Review, although the date of the journal was October 1815. He writes:
The author is already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title page, and both, the last especially, attracted, with justice, an attention from the public far superior to what is granted to the ephemeral productions which supply the regular demand of watering- places and circulating libraries. They belong to a class of fictions which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel...Emma has even less story than either of the preceding novels...The author's knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting. The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand: but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.
Two other unsigned reviews appeared in 1816, one in The Champion, also in March, and another in September of the same year in Gentleman's Magazine. Other commenters include Thomas Moore, the Irish poet, singer and entertainer who was a contemporary of Austen's; he wrote to Samuel Rogers, an English poet, in 1816:
"Let me entreat you to read Emma - it is the very perfection of novel-writing - and I cannot praise it more highly than by saying it is often extremely like your own method of describing things - so much effect with so little effort!"
A contemporary Scottish novelist, Susan Edmonstone Ferrier, wrote to a friend, also in 1816:
"I have been reading Emma, which is excellent; there is no story whatever, and the heroine is not better than other people; but the characters are all true to life and the style so piquant, that it does not require the adventitious aids of mystery and adventure."
There was some criticism about the lack of story. John Murray remarked that it lacked "incident and Romance"; Maria Edgeworth, the author of Belinda, to whom Austen had sent a complimentary copy, wrote:
there was no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet's lover was an admirer of her own – & he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow – and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma's father's opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel!!
Austen also collected comments from friends and family on their opinions of Emma. Writing several years later, John Henry Newman observed in a letter about the novel:
Everything Miss Austen writes is clever, but I desiderate something. There is a want of body to the story. The action is frittered away in over-little things. There are some beautiful things in it. Emma herself is the most interesting to me of all her heroines. I feel kind to her whenever I think of her...That other women, Fairfax, is a dolt- but I like Emma.
Later reviewers or commenters on the novel include Charlotte Brontë, George Henry Lewes, Juliet Pollock, Anne Ritchie, Henry James, Reginald Farrer, Virginia Woolf, and E.M. Forster. Other reviewers include Thomas Babington Macauley who considered Austen to be a "Prose Shakespeare", and Margaret Oliphant who stated in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in March that she prefers Emma to Austen's other works and that it is "the work of her mature mind". Although Austen's Pride and Prejudice is usually recognized as the author's masterpiece, critics such as Susan Morgan of Stanford University have placed Emma as being their personal favourite among all of Austen's novels.
Highbury as a character
The British critic Robert Irvine wrote that unlike Austen's previous novels, the town of Highbury in Surrey emerges as a character in its own right. Irvine wrote that: "In Emma, we find something much closer to a genuinely communal voice, a point of view at work in the narrative that cannot be reduced to the subjectivity of any one character. This point of view appears both as something perceived by Emma, an external perspective on events and characters that the reader encounters as and when Emma recognises it; and as an independent discourse appearing in the text alongside the discourse of the narrator and characters". Irvine used as an example the following passage: "The charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of as many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience: the story told well; he had not thrown himself away-he had gained a woman of £10,000 or therebouts; and he had gained with delightful rapidity-the first hour of introduction he had been so very soon followed by distinguishing notice; the history which he had to give Mrs. Cole of the rise and progress of the affair was so glorious". Irvine points out the adjective "charming" appears to the narrator speaking, but notes the sentence goes on to associate "perfect" with "usual", which he pointed out was an incongruity. Irvine suggested the next sentence "would always be called ten" is in fact the voice of the community of Highbury, which wants the fiancée of Mr. Elton to be "perfect", whom the narrator sarcastically calls the "usual" sort of community gossip is about a new arrival in Highbury, whom everyone thinks is "charming". Since the character of Mrs. Elton is in fact far from "charming", the use of the term "charming" to describe her is either the gossip of Highbury and/or the narrator being sarcastic.
Likewise, the Australian school John Wiltshire wrote one of Austen's achievements to "give depth" to the "Highbury world". Wiltshire noted that Austen put the population of Highbury as 352 people, and wrote though clearly most of these people don't appear as characters or as minor characters at best, that Austen created the impression of Highbury as a "social commonwealth". Wiltshire used as an example of Mr. Perry, the town doctor who is frequently mentioned in the town gossip, but never appears in the book, having a "kind of familiarity by proxy". Wiltshire also noted that the scene where Emma and Harriet visit a poor cottage on the outskirts of Highbury, and during their walk, it is made clear from Emma's remarks that this part of Highbury is not her Highbury.
The character of Frank is a member of the "discursive community" of Highbury long before he actually appears, as his father tells everyone in Highbury about him. Emma forms her judgement of Frank based on what she hears about him in Highbury before she meets him. Irvine wrote that Austen's use of three different voices in Emma—the voice of Highbury, the narrator's voice, and Emma's voice, can at times make it very confusing to the reader about just whom is actually speaking. However, Irvine wrote that one accepts that the voice of Highbury is often speaking, then much of the book makes sense, as Emma believes she has a power that she does not, to make Frank either love or not via her interest or indifference, which is explained as the result of the gossip of Highbury, which attributes Emma this power.
This is especially the case as Emma is born into the elite of Highbury, which is portrayed as a female-dominated world. Irvine wrote that Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park enjoy the moral authority of being good women, but must marry a well-off man to have the necessary social influence to fully use this moral authority whereas Emma is born with this authority. Emma herself acknowledges this when she says to Harriet that she possesses: "none of the usual inducements to marry...Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want". However, political power still resides with men in the patriarchal society of Regency England as the book notes that Mr. Knightley is not only a member of the gentry, but also serves as the magistrate of Highbury. Emma clashes with Knightley at the beginning of the novel over the all-important "distinctions of rank", namely does Harriet Smith belong with the yeoman class together with Robert Martin, or the gentry class that Emma and Knightley are both part of. Knightley declares his respect for both Smith and Martin, but argues that as part of the yeomen class, that neither belongs with the gentry, while Emma insists on including her best friend/protegee in with the gentry. In Regency England and in Emma, the term friendship describes a power relationship where one higher party can do favors for the lower party while the term "claim intimacy" is a relationship of equals. Mrs. Elton has "friendship" with Jane Fairfax while "claims intimacy" with Mr. Knightley. The use of the these terms "friendship" and "claim intimacy" refers to the question of who belongs to the local elite. Neither Emma nor Mr. Knightley question the right of the elite to dominate society, but rather their power struggle is over who belongs to the elite, and who has the authority to make the decision about who to include and who to exclude, which shows that in a certain sense that Emma is just as powerful socially as is Mr. Knightley. Further complicating this power struggle is the arrival of Mrs. Elton, who attempts to elevate Jane Fairfax into the elite. This is a cruel struggle as Jane is not rich enough to have properly belong to the elite, and Mrs. Elton is showing Jane a world that she can never really belong, no matter how much parties and balls she attends. In addition to her annoyance at Mrs. Elton's relationship with Jane, Emma finds Mrs. Elton an "upstart", "under-bred" and "vulgar", which adds venom to the dispute between the two women. Mrs. Elton is only a first generation gentry, as her father bought the land that she grew up on with money he had raised in trade. Her snobbery is therefore that of a nouveau riche, desperately insecure of her status. When Mrs. Elton boasted that her family had owned their estate for a number of years, Emma responds that a true English gentry family would count ownership of their estate in generations, not years.
Of Emma's two rivals for social authority, one shares a common class while the other a common sex. The marriage of Emma to Mr. Knightley consolidates her social authority by linking herself to the dominant male of Highbury and pushes Mrs. Elton's claims aside. Irvine wrote: "On this view, and in contrast to Austen's two previous novels, Emma works to legitimate established gentry power defined in opposition to an autonomous feminine authority over the regulation of social relations, and not through the vindication of such autonomous authority". However, as the novel goes, such a reading is countered by the way that Emma begins to take in the previously excluded into the realm of the elite, such as visiting the poor Miss Bates and her mother, and the Coles, whose patriarch is a tradesman. Likewise, Jane Fairfax, who is too poor to live off her wealth and must work forever as a governess, which excludes her from the female social elite of Highbury, does marry well after all, which makes her the story of one real feminine worth triumphing over the lack of wealth in Emma.
Wiltshire wrote about Austen's use of "gendered space" in Emma, noting the female characters have a disproportionate number of scenes in the drawing rooms of Highbury while the male characters often have scenes outdoors. Wiltshire noted that Jane Fairfax cannot walk to the post office in the rain to pick up the mail without becoming the object of town gossip while Mr. Knightley can ride all the way to London while attracting any gossip. Wiltshire described the world that the women of Highbury live in as a sort of prison, writing in the novel "...women's imprisonment is associated with deprivation, with energies and powers perverted in their application, and events, balls and outings are linked with the arousal and satisfaction of desire".
Emma unlike other heroines in Jane Austen's novels is a wealthy young lady having a personal fortune amounting to £30,000. Therefore, there is little pressure on her to find a wealthy partner.
Nationhood and the "Irish Question"
The novel is set in England, but there are several references to Ireland, which were related to the ongoing national debate about the "Irish Question". In 1801, the Act of Union had brought Ireland into the United Kingdom, but there was a major debate about what was Ireland's precise status in the United Kingdom; another kingdom, province or a colony? Austen satirizes this debate by having Miss Bates talk about Mrs. Dixon's new house in Ireland, a place that she cannot decide is a kingdom, a country or a province, but is merely very "strange" whatever its status may be. Austen also satirized the vogue for "Irish tales" that become popular after the Act of Union as English writers started to produce picturesque, romantic stories set in Ireland to familiarize the English people with the newest addition to the United Kingdom. The travel itinerary that Miss Bates sketches out for the Campbells' visit to Ireland is satire of a typical "Irish tale" novel, which was Austen's way of mocking those who had a superficial appreciation of Irish culture by buying the "Irish tales" books that presented Ireland in a very stereotypical way. Austen further alludes to the Society of United Irishmen uprising in 1798 by having the other characters worry about what might happen to the Dixons when they visit a place in the Irish countryside called "Baly-craig", which appears to be Ballycraig in County Antrim in what is now Northern Ireland, which had been the scene of much bloody fighting between the United Irishmen Society and the Crown in 1798, an enduring testament to Ireland's unsettled status with much of the Irish population not accepting British rule. The American scholar Colleen Taylor wrote about Austen's treatment of the "Irish Question": "That Emma applies a distant and fictionalized Irish space to her very limited and dissimilar English circle, turning a somewhat ordinary English young woman, Jane Fairfax, into an Irish scandal, proves that the object of English humor is--for once--not the stage Irishman but the privileged English woman who presumes to know what he and his culture are really like."
In contrast to other Austen heroines, Emma seems immune to romantic attraction, at least until her final self-revelation concerning her true affections. Unlike Marianne Dashwood, who is attracted to the wrong man before she settles on the right one, Emma generally shows no romantic interest in the men she meets and even her flirting with Churchill seems tame. She is genuinely surprised (and somewhat disgusted) when Mr Elton declares his love for her, much in the way Elizabeth Bennet reacts to the obsequious Mr Collins, also a parson. Her fancy for Frank Churchill represents more of a longing for a little drama in her life than a longing for romantic love. For example, at the beginning of Chapter XIII, Emma has "no doubt of her being in love", but it quickly becomes clear that, even though she spends time "forming a thousand amusing schemes for the progress and close of their attachment", we are told that "the conclusion of every imaginary declaration on his side was that she refused him".
It is only Mr Knightley who can willingly share the burden of Emma's father, as well as providing her with guidance, love and companionship. He has been in love with her since she was 13 years old, but neither he nor she have realized that there is a natural bond between them. He declares his love for her: "What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.". Mr Woodhouse is reconciled to the wedding a marriage of his mother/daughter because Mr Knightley will come and live with him and therefore protect him from chicken thieves.
In Emma, Emma Woodhouse serves as a direct reflection of Jane Austen's feminist characterization of female heroines, in terms of both female individuality and independence (romantically, financially, etcetera). In terms of romantic independence, Emma's father, Henry Woodhouse, very consistently preaches against the idea of marriage. He plays an integral role in Emma's own initial perception of matrimony, leading her to make use of her free time by becoming the town “matchmaker,” which leaves her happily single and unwed for the majority of the novel. One of the predominant reasons Emma is able to live a comfortable and independent lifestyle is her gifted inheritance—given to her by a past family member—which allows her to depend on no one other than herself for a sustainable, wealthy, and self-sufficient life. Austen portrays Emma as educated and capable, and despite not constantly being in pursuit of/pursued by a man, is extremely popular and well-liked in her hometown of Highbury.
Literary scholar Laurence Mazzeno addresses Austen's narrative in regard to female individualism and empowerment, stating, “…Austen deals honestly and with skill in treating relationships between men and women, and insists Austen presents women of real passion — but not the flamboyant, sentimental kind that populate conventional romances...Austen is not “narrow” in her treatment of character, either; her men and women furnish as broad a view of humanity as would be obtained by traveling up and down the world...Austen was conservative in both her art and her politics — suggesting that, even from a woman's point of view, Austen was hardly out to subvert the status quo."
In the Bedford Edition of Emma edited by Alistair M. Duckworrth, there are five essays to accompany the text that discuss contemporary critical perspectives. One of which is about the Feminist Criticism. The Feminist Criticism essay was written by Devooney Looser. In her essay, she proposes the question of if Jane Austen is a feminist. She also states in her essay that your answer to the question not only depends one understands Austen's novels, but also how one defines feminism.
Looser states that if you define feminism broadly as a movement attending to how women are limited and devalued within a culture then Austen's work applies to this concept of feminism.
Looser also states that if you define feminism as a movement to eradicate gender, race, class, and sexual prejudice and to agitate for a change, then Austen's work doesn't really apply to this concept of feminism.
The Bedford Edition essay on Feminist Criticism also includes the perspectives of French, British, and American feminists from the 1970s and early 1980s. Thinking about how each group looks at feminism can also help to expand one's own thinking of the feminist critique and gain a better understanding of feminism in Emma and in Austen's other works.
Mr. Woodhouse adopted a laissez faire parenting style when it came to raising Emma. In fact, most of the time it seems that Emma is parenting her father, taking on the role of both daughter and mother, at the young age of twelve, in the wake of her mother's death. Emma is entirely responsible for the wellbeing of her father and therefore encumbered to stay with him. Her father is a selfish but gentle man and does not approve of matrimony. If Emma were to marry he would lose his caretaker. This is not to say that Emma feels restrained by her father, in fact quite the opposite, Emma has the power over the world she inhabits. The narrator announces at the start of the novel: “The real evils of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments” (Austen, 1). While Mr. Woodhouse lacks as a father figure, Mr. Knightley acts as a surrogate father to Emma. Mr. Knightley is not afraid to correct Emma's behavior and tell her what she needs to hear. Mr. Knightley reprimands Emma when he learns of her match-making games and later when Emma is extremely rude to Miss Bates. Still, the reader cannot ignore the developmental damage that has been caused by Mr. Woodhouse's indifferent parenting style as Emma struggles to form healthy adult relationships.
Class is an important aspect to Emma. The distinctions between the classes is made explicitly clear to the reader by Emma and by Austen's descriptions. The social class structure has the Woodhouses and Mr. Knightley at the top, the Eltons, the Westons, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax below them, and even further down the line Harriet, Robert Martin, and the Bates. This social class map becomes important when Emma tries to match Mr. Elton and Harriet together. Harriet is not considered a match for Elton due to her lowly class standing, despite what Emma encourages her to believe. Emma's initial disregard for class standing (in regards to Harriet at least) is brought to light by Mr. Knightley who tells her to stop encouraging Harriet.
The scholar James Brown argued the much quoted line where Emma contemplates the Abbey-Mill Farm, which is the embodiment of "English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive" is a fact meant to be ironic. Brown wrote Austen had a strong appreciation of the land as not only a source of aesthetic pleasure, but also a source of money, an aspect of pre-industrial England that many now miss. In this sense, the beauty of the Abbey-Mill Farm is due to the hard work of Mr. Knightley's tenant, the farmer Robert Martin, a man whom Emma dismisses as the sort of person "with whom I feel I can have nothing to do with" while Knightley praises him as "open, straight forward, and very well judging". Brown argued that the disconnect between's Emma's contempt for Mr. Martin as a person and her awe at the beauty that is the result of his hard work was Austen's way of mocking those in the upper classes who failed to appreciate the farmers who worked the land.
There is an abundance of food language in Jane Austen's Emma. Food is given, shared, and eaten by characters in almost every chapter. Most of the research on Jane Austen's food language is found in Maggie Lane's book titled Jane Austen and Food. Lane's text provides a general examination of the symbolism of food in Emma and invites further interpretations. Food is used as a symbol to convey class hierarchy, stereotypes and biases throughout the novel. The language and actions that surround food bring the characters of Highbury's inner circle closer together. For Emma Woodhouse, food is a symbol of human interdependence and goodwill. No one in Highbury is starving; everyone is well-fed and takes part in the giving and receiving of food. However, food is a strong class divider though it is rarely openly discussed by characters in the novel. There are a few instances when characters allude to lower class individuals outside of their well-fed society. For instance, when Emma discusses her charitable visit with a poor family, Harriet's encounter with the gypsy children, and Highbury's mysterious chicken thieves. For the most part, the poor in Emma are overlooked by the characters in the novel due to their socioeconomic status.
The constant giving and receiving of food in this novel does not occur without motive. Characters are either trying to climb the social ladder or gain the approval or affections of another. The interpretation of the giving and receiving of food in Emma can be taken in these different directions; however in terms of love: “The novel (...) is stuffed with gifts of food: Mr. Knightley sends the Bates family apples; Mr. Martin woos Harriet with some walnuts; and, to further her son's suit, Mrs. Martin brings Mrs. Goddard a goose”. These gifts are not without motive, and food - as it pertains to Emma Woodhouse - only becomes interesting when it pertains to love. “[R]omance is a far more interesting subject than food. Emma quickly reduces the topic of eating to a bottom-of-the-barrel ‘any thing,’ and arbitrary and empty screen that only becomes interesting when projected on by those in love”. This becomes evident to the reader when Emma overestimates Mr. Elton's affections for Harriet from their engaging conversation about the food at the Cole's party. Emma Woodhouse interprets food conversation and gifts of food as means of affection between two lovers.
Austen explores the idea of redefining manhood and masculinity with her male characters: particularly Mr. Knightley, Mr. Woodhouse, and Frank Churchill. In Emma, Austen includes typical ideals of English masculinity, including, “familial responsibility, sexual fidelity, and leadership transition…” Mr. Woodhouse is portrayed chiefly as a fool and an incompetent father figure. Clark comments on Mr. Woodhouse's age and how this affects his masculine identity. He resists change and pleasure, yet he is still respected in the community. Mr. Knightley is Jane Austen's perfect gentleman figure in Emma. He has manners, class, and money. Further, he is presented as, “a well-adjusted alternative to these more polarized understandings of masculinity seen in characters of John Willoughby and Edward Ferrars.” Men in Emma are more representative of modern-day intersectionalities of masculinity.
Allusions to real places
The fictional Highbury is said to be in Surrey, 16 miles (26 km) from London and 8 miles (13 km) from Richmond. (It must not be confused with the real Highbury, which is 4.5 miles (7.2 km) north of Charing Cross, now part of inner London but in Austen's day was in Middlesex). Highbury was not modelled on a specific village; however, it is likely that it is modelled after several that Austen knew, such as Cobham and Box Hill. Leatherhead, Surrey is another town that could have been a source of inspiration for Highbury. There is a Randalls Road in the town, which is an important name within Emma. It has also been noted that there is a Mr. Knightly mentioned in Leatherhead Church. Emma's sister Isabella and her family live in Brunswick Square, between the City of London and the West End; the fields had just been transformed at the turn of the century into terraces of Georgian houses. Richmond, where Frank Churchill's aunt and uncle settle in the summer, is now part of the greater London area, but then was a separate town in Surrey.
Most of the other places mentioned are in southern England, such as the seaside resort towns of Weymouth, Dorset, South End, and Cromer in Norfolk. Box Hill, Surrey is still a place of beauty, popular for picnics. Bath, where Mr Elton went to find a bride, is a well-known spa city in the southwest. The place furthest away is the fictional Enscombe, the estate of the Churchills, in the real Yorkshire, in the north.
The school is based on Reading Abbey Girls' School, which Austen and her sister attended briefly:
"not of a seminary, or an establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense, to combine liberal acquirements with elegant morality upon new principles and new systems — and where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity — but a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies."
Emma has been the subject of many adaptations for film, TV, radio and the stage. The profusion of adaptations based on Jane Austen's novels has not only created a large contemporary fan base but has also sparked extensive scholarly examination on both the process and effect of modernizing the narratives and moving them between mediums. Examples of this critical, academic work can be found in texts such as Recreating Jane Austen by John Wiltshire, Jane Austen in Hollywood edited by Troost and Greenfield, and Jane Austen and Co.: Remaking the Past in Contemporary Culture edited by Pucci and Thompson and Adapting Jane Austen: The Surprising Fidelity of 'Clueless' by William Galperin to name a few.
- 1995: Clueless, a loose American modern adaptation of the novel, set in Beverly Hills and starring Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz (Emma)
- 1996: Emma, an American comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma
- 2010: Aisha, an Indian modern adaptation of the novel, starring Sonam Kapoor as Aisha (Emma).
- 2020: Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse and Johnny Flynn as Mr. Knightley.
- 1948: Emma, live BBC TV broadcast, starring Judy Campbell (who also wrote the screenplay) as Emma, and directed and produced by Michael Barry
- 1954: Emma, live NBC TV broadcast, starring Felicia Montealegre as Emma
- 1957: Emma, another live NBC TV broadcast in their Matinee Theater series, starring Sarah Churchill as Emma
- 1960: Emma, live BBC TV serial in six parts, starring Diana Fairfax as Emma and directed by Campbell Logan
- 1960: Emma, live CBS TV broadcast in their Camera Three series, starring Nancy Wickwire as Emma.
- 1972: Emma, a six-part BBC miniseries, starring Doran Godwin as Emma
- 1996: Emma, an ITV TV film, starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma
- 2009: Emma, a four-part BBC miniseries, starring Romola Garai as Emma
- 2013: Emma Approved, a YouTube web series produced by Pemberley Digital and developed by Bernie Su, starring Joanna Sotomura as Emma.
- 2017: The Emma Agenda, a YouTube web series produced by Quip Modest Productions, starring Selis Maria Vargas as Emma. In this version, The role of Mr. Knightley is a female hence makes it the first lesbian version of Emma on screen.
- 1991: Emma, a stage adaptation by British playwright Michael Fry, first produced by the Cloucester Stage Company in 1991, and since then produced by a number of theatre companies in Britain and the US
- 2000: Emma, a musical written by Stephen Karam and first showed by the Brownbrokers student theatre group at Brown University under the direction of Darius Pierce. In 2004 Karam's musical was played at the New York Musical Theatre Festival under the direction of Patricia Birch.
- A theatrical adaptation by Michael Napier Brown was performed at the Royal Theatre in Northampton in 2000
- 2007: Jane Austen's Emma – A Musical Romantic Comedy, a musical written by Paul Gordon, which premiered at TheatreWorks in Menlo Park, California. This musical has since been performed at the Cincinnati Playhouse, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.
- 2009: Emma, a stage adaption by Rachel Atkins for the Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, directed by Marcus Goodwin with Sylvie Davidson in the title role
- Joan Aiken wrote a companion novel, Jane Fairfax: The Secret Story of the Second Heroine in Jane Austen's Emma.
- Alexander McCall Smith has written a modern version, titled Emma: A Modern Retelling (2014)
- Reginald Hill wrote Poor Emma in 1987, included in the 2007 paperback There is no ghost in the Soviet Union, where finance plays a crucial role.
- The importance of being Emma, a novel published in 2008 by Juliet Archer, is a modern version of Emma
- Emma and the Werewolves: Jane Austen and Adam Rann, Adam Rann, is a parody of Emma which by its title, its presentation and its history, seeks to give the illusion that the novel had been written jointly by Adam Rann and Jane Austen, that is, a mash-up novel.
- Emma and the Vampires, a 2010 installation of the Jane Austen Undead Novels by Wayne Josephson, preserves the basic plot of Austen's original while adding contemporary humor and a thematic flair for the undead.
- The Matchmaker: An Amish Retelling of Jane Austen's Emma (2015) by Sarah Price
- Emma Ever After, a 2018 modern retelling of Emma by Brigid Coady. In this version, Emma is a PR manager for celebrities and George "Gee" Knightley is the former member of a boy band.
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