Saturday 1 August 2015

Book Review: Emma, by Jane Austen

The thought of ‘reviewing’ a book like Emma sounds ridiculous. A book written 200 years ago has surely been analysed to death by the serious students of literature and could hold little interest for the contemporary readers.

And yet, Jane Austen’s work continues to be adapted to screens, big and small – Emma itself was made into 3 TV series (1972, 1997 and 2009), at least one movie (1996) that I am aware of, and into Clueless, one of the finest rom-coms ever (in my humble opinion), which took the characters and situations into 1990’s Beverly Hills with brilliant felicity.

Poster of Clueless, the 90's take on Emma

Bollywood ripped Clueless off to make Aisha starring Sonam Kapoor, and all I can say about that is while Alicia Silverstone made a brilliant Emma Woodhouse; Sonam Kapoor rarely even makes a good Sonam Kapoor. 

Poster of Aisha, which had the baffling tagline "Don't be Cupid"
So – well, why not?

Emma is set in the town of Highbury, a small town near London, and the drama plays out around the interaction between the four most prominent families of the town —


The Woodhouse family, living at Hartfield, comprising Emma (the titular character) and her hypochondriac father (there is a married elder sister, Isabella, of peripheral importance).

The Knightley family, living at Donwell, the noblest and richest family in Highbury, comprising the elder brother George (who is single) and his brother John (married to Isabella).

The Weston family, living at Randalls, comprising the widower Captain Weston, whose marriage to Emma’s governess, Anne Taylor, kicks off the story. Captain Weston’s son Frank has been raised by the family of his deceased wife, but enters the story later.

The Bates, quite well-born, but since descended to poverty, they live in a small lodging in town, mother and daughter. The grand-daughter, Miss Jane Fairfax, is the only woman in Highbury to rival Emma in looks and accomplishment, but her poverty means she is expected to have to settle for life as a governess at best, if not worse.

And lastly, the two single, attractive people in town – the Vicar, Mr. Elton, and the illegitimate daughter of unknown provenance, Harriet Smith, Emma’s protégée.

The characters are well-defined, Emma makes for a brilliant protagonist, and most of the time, we are experiencing the story through her eyes. Spoilt and capricious, Emma is nonetheless intelligent and thoroughly good-natured, but it is the former qualities that shape the first half of the book. As Emma plays Cupid with the two single acquaintances she has – Harriet and Mr. Elton – Jane Austen lays before us a superlative social comedy. Here is vanity, flattery and naiveté, here is witty repartee and heartfelt concern, the stolid social rules of Victorian England, the social independence afforded to a rich beauty like Emma, the stifling restrictions imposed on a poor beauty like Jane or Harriet.


Playing always within the rules of social morality and class distinction, with many a wink to the hypocrisy of the upper classes, Austen brings forth sparkling dialogues, subtle hints (unseen in the first reading, devilishly clever in the second), and in some places, a wry commentary on her own characters that make this novel deserve an unhurried read. Like a fine wine, every Chapter deserves to be savoured, but I would especially highlight certain portions as being particularly brilliant - one early in the story, when Isabella Knightley and her husband are visiting at Hartfield, and another when the families are gathered at the Randalls and Mr Weston and another character rattle on about their respective favourite topics. Mr Weston wishes to speak of his son, the person he is speaking to would rather speak about her rich brother-in-law – and they each go about it, mostly ignoring what the other says, but their dialogue still retains a tangential coherence that I could only marvel at when it was over.

Emma also has Austen’s nod to hard-headed economics. Here too, Emma does not commit her heart to such emotions as love without a keen sense of social and economic equality, she may make thoughtless mistakes when trying to ascertain the romantic inclinations of her friends, but she is well aware of her own preferences. Like Elizabeth Bennet, a visit to the property she might occupy were she to marry is instrumental in deciding whom she does marry, and any suggestion that she might marry for love – or at least only for love – are quashed quicker than a mercy petition in India.

Negatives? I’m sure those who look for flaws will find them. Austen’s women operate strictly within the mores of society; they are genteel and conscious of their privileges, or lack of them. Emma makes no feminist statements, and the titular character is no ‘fiercely independent’ woman of the sort so popular in more recent literature. But I think Emma passes the Bechdel Test, and might get away with being reflective of it’s time.

Another criticism could be the hardening of social ranks – the families of Highbury are ranked as neatly in Emma’s mind (and for most of Emma, we are experiencing Highbury through her, making this an 80% unreliable-narrator sort of book) as a deck of cards. The Cox family are upstarts, despite their wealth, the Bates are always ‘unfortunate’ despite their unfailing good nature, Jane Fairfax is better than Emma at almost everything she does, but the ‘first place’ in society must always be hers, her father is a truly selfish hypochondriac (and she knows it), but everyone must pay him due respect, even her brother-in-law (In fact, the first conversation I have referred to above is made amusing mostly by the efforts taken by Emma and the elder Mr Knightley to prevent father and son-in-law from having an argument). 

The gentleman landlord — Knightley of Donwell — is first in society, the gentleman invalid — Emma’s father — is second, the retired Captain — Weston of Randall — is third. Those in respectable professions, lawyers and clergymen like Mr Elton, mainly – may claim a place at the social table. Descended nobility like the Bates family can make up the numbers. Tradesmen like the Coxes and Fords, no matter how rich, cannot claim the same privileges — not in this generation, at least — and must always feel grateful to be noticed by the presiding troika of society. And as for the farmers, even those like the Martins who own their land, they are socially beneath notice, below even Mrs Goddard who runs a school for girls and her boarders (of whom Harriet Smith is one); Emma cannot think of visiting them except as charity, and they are unlikely to ever score an invite to a gathering at Donwell, Hartfield or the Randalls.

Austen herself was closest in social rank to the Bates’, and in her depiction of contemporary society, it is perhaps unfair to see an endorsement of the rigid caste system of the time, but rather a stoic acceptance of reality. After all, if Jane Fairfax is Austen’s little nod to herself, let’s not forget that she ends up with perhaps the best match of all.

The cover of the Slacker's Copy
In Conclusion

For they all do end up married, the beautiful single people of Highbury – in a story with many inside jokes and references to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, everyone must find a happy ending, and they do just that, by whatever measures of happiness they allow themselves. No great passions are seen aroused, no untoward controversies, no hysterical breast-beating. Like a warm summer wine, Emma winds her way around the reader’s senses, leaving a happy afterglow.

Finally, though Austen said “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” I think it’s impossible not to like Emma the book. This was my second reading – the first took place largely in trains, buses and lines to file Income-tax returns. This time, it has hit the spot.

TL:DR: Ignore the labels, ignore those who suggest it’s too long, and give a kick to any man who dismisses it as chick-lit. If you savour delicious prose, if you love witty dialogue, if you can laugh at shades of yourself in characters created in 1815, go ahead and buy it here:

Poster from Miramax production of Emma


  1. I will need to pick up EMMA once again :).. Indeed a wonderful review.

  2. Oh this sounds delightful! This is going to be my next Austen read. :D Thank you!