Emma, by Jane Austen, read by Victoria Morgan
I must admit that although I am deeply fond of Jane Austen , that Emma is my least favorite of her six main novels. Figuring out why is a bit trickier, and as I am a fast reader it is often hard to pinpoint what about this novel I find irritating. When someone listens to thirteen discs that are over an hour apiece, it is much easier to figure out what about a given novel one finds annoying or irritating, and in this case I think it comes back down to the main character. I don’t happen to find Emma very likable. She is snobby and far more confident of judging herself and others than she really is, and the whole dynamic between her and Mr. Knightly is a bit unsettling, not least because he (seriously) says that he fell in love with her when she was thirteen–at which point he must have been around thirty. Perhaps in reading this novel I see myself as someone hot terribly unlike George Knightly, but with (hopefully) better taste and at least equal success, and that’s an uncomfortable reading experience, to be sure.
As far as a novel goes, Emma is nominally a romance, but is really more a novel about the education of a heroine in what it takes to know oneself. At the beginning of the novel, Emma is painfully lacking in self-knowledge and considers herself fortunate for having helped along a match between her former governess and a widower neighbor. After that, Emma makes an unsuitable friendship with a pretty but not very bright illegitimate girl in the nearby village and serves to wreck her love life by taking her from a sensible farmer and throwing her in the way of totally unsuitable gentlemen who have other people on their mind. The interactions between Emma and Frank Churchill are troubling, in that they cause all kind of mischief because of his secret engagement with the aloof and fragile Jane Fairfax, leading to jealousy between that couple, jealousy from Mr. Knightly about Emma, and Harriet getting ideas about marrying the gallant Knightley. The incidents in the novel are pretty trivial, even by Jane Austen’s standards. There are dinner parties, wedding visits, and the most exciting (and traumatic) event in the plot is a trip to Box Hill where Emma acts very harsh towards the silly but dependent Miss Bates. For the most part, though, the book consists of long conversation and action that is hinted at and speculated about but which ends up being far different than is conjectured.
When reading Emma, it is important to know what exactly the author means to accomplish here. There is clearly more than meets the eye, as the details of conversations are both spoken and heard by unreliable narrators. One can get a great deal of insight by paying attention to those who, like Miss Bates, are ignored by others as being useless chatterers. Likewise, one is subject to being greatly surprised the more one is influenced by the unreliable Emma. This work is definitely a deliberate one, and Jane Austen purposefully made Emma deliberately unappealing on purpose. The fact that she and the novel as a whole are found to be pleasant suggests that people aren’t really reading the novel very closely, and even though I do not greatly enjoy the novel I can recognize the skill in it and even more recognize that Jane Austen was doing something very clever in her construction of the novel and her use of unreliable narrators to misdirect the reader. One can appreciate the skill of a work without gaining much personal pleasure in its plot, though.
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