Persuasions #5, 1983 Pages 15-16
ON READING EMMA FOR THE FIRST TIME
Ann C. L. Hanaway
I loved Emma and Emma. Jane Austen’s dry humour and constant attention to detail made life in the village of Highbury seem very real. For me, the characters are the most appealing part of the book. Eight-tenths lady and two-tenths mischief, Emma Woodhouse is my favourite. As unpredictable, flighty, mischievious, and short-sighted as she is, she is also generous, patient, loving. She managed to secure Mr. Knightley as her husband, so she must have had some saving graces! Mr. Knightley, well-named because he was Emma’s knight in not-so-shining-armour, served as a counselor, friend, and foil for Emma. As much as she claims to think and act independently of him, Emma always considers what Mr. Knightley would think of her if she carried out such-and-such a plan. This serves to solidify their relationship, and to make quite obvious from the beginning that “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself.”
Emma’s dynamic personality makes it easy to compare her with the other female characters in Emma: Mrs. Weston (“poor Miss Taylor that was”), Mrs. Elton, and Jane Fairfax. Through her interaction with Mrs. Weston, Emma shows her intelligence and good breeding. Through her “friendship” with Harriet (“you have been no friend to Harriet Smith …”) we see how strikingly similar Emma is to Mrs. Elton. The two women are powerful personalities: both want to dominate the society around them, but they differ in the degree in which they make themselves annoying. Although both want very much to manage other people’s lives, Mrs. Elton is ill-bred and considerably more vulgar than Emma. Mrs. Elton’s exaggerated sense of self-importance shows Emma in a favourable light after Jane Fairfax (who was never indiscreet) makes Emma appear somewhat unattractive.
Harriet Smith’s lack of vitality and spirit is shown when she interacts with Emma. Harriet is a poor excuse for a seventeen-year-old girl; she is so wishy-washy and weak that she collapses when she sees a band of gypsies. These qualities make it simple for Emma to dominate Harriet and take some unfortunate decisions with respect to Harriet’s life.
Valetudinarian is the perfect description of Mr. Woodhouse. The height of feebleness, he assumed that he could impose all his tastes on those around him, automatically requiring them to conform to his whims. His sending back the asparagus to the kitchen while his guests watched forbearingly and with watering mouths is one example of how entirely oblivious he is to the very basic rules of courtesy and hospitality. He treated his guests like children.
Emma Woodhouse is certainly the most interesting and alive character in Emma. Although I did not always agree with her, or like what she did, I sympathized with her. Her tears when Mr. Knightley scolded her, and her remorse at treating Harriet unjustly were genuine and sincere. At times I wanted to shake Emma and scold her myself, and at times I laughed out loud at her schemes, but I always appreciated her for what she was. If I could meet Emma Woodhouse today, I know that we would get along famously; I would like her very much.