The idea of reading Jane Austen tends to split readers into those who will read her over and over, and those, like me, who've never been interested. Since finishing the novel, I can redefine those two groups as those who will read her over and over and those who really should.
One of the reasons I'm reading through many novels that I've never approached before is to create a library for my daughters to grow up with. Today, they're two and half, and five months old so it will be a while before they open up Emma. I'm already looking forward to our first conversation about Austen and her characters, though it's more than a decade away. I hope this review still makes sense and still lives somewhere by then.
Emma, the only novel of Austen's to take its main character as a title, was published in 1815. It follows the romantic life of Emma Woodhouse, a headstrong, smart and wealthy woman who enjoys meddling in the love lives of others but knows very little about herself.
The story of Emma is good and reasonably complicated for something of a farce, but it's the character that makes the novel so special. Emma portrays herself as a love expert, whilst knowing nothing about her own feelings. She lies to herself more than others and we follow her as she begins to notice and understand her own affections. She's a fully-drawn character, conflicted and at times harsh, but all the more human for it.
Austen's eye for social manners, chivalry and class make her something of a chronicler of regency life. Yet, she's much more than a historian, creating some of the most detailed and realistic characters of her time. Emma should be read by anyone experiencing first or early love as a guide to how we can simultaneously know so much and so little about ourselves. For that matter, Emma seems to know more about our hearts that we ever do, no matter how old or experienced we may think we are.
As John Mullen says in his insightful essay How Jane Austen's Emma changed the face of fiction, "the narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist's mind." Read with this insight in mind, Emma is an instruction manual for the love-lost.
Emma was the first Austen novel I've read and I'm certain it won't be the last. I'd recommend it to anyone who's never been interested in Jane Austen or period fiction. Now I just wish I was closer to the end of my list, so I could read her all over again.
Emma is one of the Guardian's Best 100 Novels.
A Note on the Author
Jane Austen was born in 1775 and completed just six novels, but became one of the most famous writers of all time. Her best-known work is Pride and Prejudice, which has been adapted for film and TV many times over. Austen died in 1817, aged 41.