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 or vex her. ~Chapter 1, Vol. 1
I first read Emma when I was in high school, and I can’t say that I finished the book just absolutely loving or hating it. I can say that as I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that Emma is very far from a favorite heroine of Austen’s, but that Mr. Knightley is generally one of her most popular heroes. Yet Jane Austen didn’t title the novel, Mr. Knightley, so on this re-reading I decided to pay more attention to Emma–what was it about her that made me dislike…or simply like her less than my favorite heroines (Anne Elliott, Fanny Price, Elizabeth Bennet, Elinor Dashwood). Upon first impression, Emma is spoiled, privileged–her help does more harm than good to Harriet Smith and for most of the novel she ignores Jane Fairfax, who would have made a better BFF. But you know what, I found that I liked Emma–she may not be the Austen heroine most in tune with reality–she often has her own vision of things, but she does care for her friends and family. And I have to say that I think Highbury/Hartfield is one of Austen’s best settings. It is much less stuffy than Mansfield Park and certainly better than any of the settings poor Anne Elliott must endure (“smoky” Bath, her sister’s and brother-in-law’s house–her only reprieve, really, is Lyme). The familiarity of Ms. and Mrs. Bates, Emma’s father (overly anxious about his health and the health of everyone else), Mr. Perry, and though we never meet him–the William Larkins that Emma teases Mr. Knightley about. I think Austen crafted some of her most lovable and equally frustrating characters in Emma and I am certainly glad I gave it a second chance!