“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like”, was Jane Austen’s famous comment about the main character of her novel, Emma. I have to say that this remark fitted pretty well my first reading of the book. It was more than twenty years ago now and still I can remember how I was annoyed by her match making efforts and all that never-ending tittle-tattle about it. When I finished it, I quickly put it back in the library, never tempted to touch it again, till recently, my good blog friend Chris (Calmgrove) posted not one, but three enthusiastic reviews on the book one after another. Such genuine display of admiration and praise convinced me eventually to give the novel another try. Hence; I would rephrase the incipit as follows:“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like” the very first time you are acquainted with her, but you will change your opinion as soon as you will give her/yourself another chance.
Therefore; I would like to focus my attention on the main character here, as this time I couldn’t but notice some features in the making of this heroine, which I had previously missed, but that now made me better appreciate the exquisite wonder of Jane Austen’s craft even in this novel. I shall start by saying that Emma is very different from almost all the other female characters of Jane Austen’s world, who are mostly concerned in one way or another with one issue only: marriage. In this story there are not the threatening shades of a Mr Collins or a Mr William Elliot ready to dispossess the lady in question of her inheritance as soon as her father ceases to be, thus making marriage a necessity. There is no such danger at Hartfield, as Emma is the mistress of the house, the heiress with a fortune of 30.000 pounds. Furthemore she is” handsome, clever, with a happy disposition” with some little faults, by the way: ” the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself“. However, how can it be that such a young woman at the age of 21 still knows nothing about love? As far as we know, she has never been the protagonist a love reverie typical of her age but rather she prefers to fantasize on other people’s chance of making a match, pretending to be their Cupid, as if they were her dolls in Highbury playground. To her friend Harriet Emma confesses, that she will never marry and she is not afraid of being considered an old maid like Miss Bates, she will never be like her, because she is rich, showing that she is well aware of her social status and what is due to her.
So, if on the one hand we may say that she doesn’t need to marry, on the other we wouldn’t be too far from the truth if we added that she can’t as well, or better she feels she can’t. She has been looking after her old father since her elder sister’s marriage and he depends upon her. It is interesting here the parallelism with old maid Miss Bates who, just like her, is in charge of her mother, but without the comfort money can give. By the way, Mr Woodhouse is a hypochondriac “ easily depressed…hating change of any kind“, particularly any change in the vast, amazing world of human experience, whether it may be a short trip to Box Hill, for example, or an attachment to a man, especially if it regards her daughter. Emma is quite provincial, indeed. She has never travelled or seen the seaside as she says to her nephews, she has never been to London where her sister lives, she has never experience the feeling of love. When, eventually, she imagines herself intrigued by Mr Churchill, Mrs Weston’s step-son, who is so much talked of in the small circle of Highbury even before being introduced to everybody, she confesses to herself that she doesn’t want to fall to the temptation of even thinking about him. Hence; somehow Mr Woodhouse manages to keep her at the pubertal stage of her life.
Having lost her mother at a too young an age and having been in charge of her father for some years, the two figures who have guided her during her adolescence are Miss Taylor, her governess and Mr Knightley, her brother-in-law 16 years older than Emma. As surrogate father and mother, they are often engaged on parental like discussions on Emma’s education as they seem to have different points of view about it. The proof that she needs guidance can be seen soon after the loss of one of these two figures, that is, when Miss Taylor marries Mr Weston. At first Emma tries to replace her company with Harriet Smith, but she is socially not her equal and too young to have any influence on her at all, then she starts to misbehave under the influence of young Frank Churchill. Mr Knightley often tries to correct her lecturing and scolding her, but he understands that his role, as it has been till then, cannot fit him any longer, as, despite his sharp insight and the goodness of his advice, his reasons are not entirely honest as he has found himself in love with Emma and jealous of Frank Churchill . That is why Austen gives him the task to guide her from adolescence to womanhood but no longer as a brother or friend but as a husband and what a husband, since Donwell Abbey, his estate, includes most of the property in Highbury. Ah, Lucky Emma!