Emma Woodhouse is an early 19th century matchmaker. She’s also very rich (I saw a modern comparison put her wealth at $3 million or so in 21st century value), very bored and a snob - and a spoilt brat with a sense of superiority and inflated ego.
In the 19th century, the only way a woman could make her mark on the world was to marry; it was the only way she could secure her future and the future of her children. Marriage to the right man was all that mattered. And when I mean the right man, I mean a richer one. Everyone in 1815, it seems, was a social climber.
It’s background like this that you need to have before you go into this book, or Emma’s attempts at matchmaking and her refusal to marry won’t mean a thing. Once you get that idea of the social set, you’re on your way.
I had a hard time getting into this book. No fault of Austen; I was reading thirty minute snippets at lunchtime in a very noisy and distracting environment at work, and not much seemed to be happening – endless dinner parties or arrangements for dances or visits, mixed in with Emma’s hopeless attempts at matchmaking and discerning human behaviour.
I didn’t feel I was being fair to the book, so I started reading where it was quiet. Suddenly, something about Austen seemed to click. I practically heard it. Everything she was doing with the characters and situation started to make sense.
And let me tell you something: Austen is a bloody brilliant writer. Her characters are warm, witty, full of life and idiosyncrasies and funny. They are human and jump right off the page. Her small cast of characters and her observations of humanity are spot on.
Here’s an example. Mrs Bates: That woman. Will. Not. Shut. Up! And then Emma calls her on it, and realises how much it has hurt Mrs Bates.
As a reader, I thought, I’m just as bad as Emma. I’m just as rude for not listening to her, or at least tolerating her. Brilliant.
Emma and her life herself take some dissection. Her social set consists of about ten people in one village, and she has no means of travel for long periods away from home. Her father worries a lot about everything, convinced some disease will strike her down if she does, and Emma respects that.
Her life is boredom, essentially. She matchmakes the people around her to stretch her strait-jacketed life and to alleviate the tedium – a tedium I felt as keenly as her as she arranged yet another trip to Randalls, or discussed the best place to hold a ball.
The only thing about Emma’s matchmaking...she’s not very good at it. No; she’s useless at it, completely misunderstanding everything that’s going through other people’s heads and hearts. Her ego and self-assurance won’t admit to any fault on her part though. She’s convinced she can’t be wrong.
She also refuses to mix with people below her, or those she considers ‘inferior’, like Jane Fairfax. She’s not an easy person to like. But despite that, you stick with her because you glimpse the good in her – in her respect for her father, her heeding advice for Mr Knightley, she shows the good woman she could be. And she does get better. A whole lot better, by the end of the book – she’s a woman transformed.
I enjoyed this a whole lot more than Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps now I’ve got the hang of Austen – she’s a writer having a blast and a whole lot of fun – I might go back and give it another try.
I certainly have a lot more time for her now.