Author: Jane Austen
Paperback: 416 pages
Date Published: 1997
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd
The very first subject, after being seated, was Maple Grove, ‘My brother, Mr Suckling’s seat’; a comparison of Hartfield to Maple Grove… ‘Very like Maple Grove indeed! She was quite struck by the likeness! That room was the very shape and size of the morning-room at Maple Grove; her sister’s favourite room.’ Mr Elton was appealed to. ‘Was not it astonishingly like? She could really almost fancy herself at Maple Grove.
‘And the staircase. You know, as I came in, I observed how very like the staircase was; placed exactly in the same part of the house. I really could not help exclaiming! I assure you, Miss Woodhouse, it is very delightful to me to be reminded of a place I am so extremely partial to as Maple Grove. I have so many happy months there!’ (with a little sigh of sentiment.) ‘A charming place, undoubtedly. Everybody who sees it is struck by its beauty; but to me it has been quite a home. Whenever you are transplanted, like me, Miss Woodhouse, you will understand how very delightful it is to meet with anything at all like what one has left behind. I always say this is quite one of the evils of matrimony.’
Emma made as slight a reply as she could; but it was fully sufficient for Mrs Elton, who only wanted to be talking herself.
–Emma by Jane Austen, pages 217-218
I finished this book almost a week ago after being stuck in it for about six months. I’ve wanted to give it time to sit and think about it before making an official judgment by way of a review. And, while I still say it was the hardest Austen book so far and my least favorite, I have to admit a serious amount of respect for the women of the era. I’m definitely grateful times have changed since then!
Long and short of things, Emma Woodhouse more or less grew up the Miss Woodhouse of her father’s home, meaning she was the society keeper. The golden daughter, beautiful and clever, she has never been denied anything by her father, who’s a bit of a hypochondriac, nor by her governess Miss Taylor, who has just married Mr. Weston in the beginning of the novel. Emma believes she is responsible for making this match and decides to aim her powers at the single vicar, Mr. Elton. Her brother-in-law’s brother, Mr. Knightly, however, admonishes her to leave match-making be, to let love take its course, but she doesn’t listen (OF COURSE!) and this sets a series of events into motion that forces Emma to grow up and re-evaluate her own position and judgments and that of those around her.
What Austen does in Emma is to recreate the sense of isolation and near-claustrophobic sensations of the life and choices living as an early 19thcentury English woman. She equates the life of a governess as a polite form of slavery. She also conveys the sense of captivity and inertial force of the class stratification of the era. Everyone had a place, and everyone had acceptable and unacceptable pools of “friends” within the system to choose from: Either their equal or many levels beneaththem so as to help improve them, but no one only a little below them.. lest they degrade themselves. Those who tried to improve their social standing by latching onto those above them and trying the seem their equal were treated with civil incivility: Invitations “forgotten,” stories told to remind them where they belong, arguments about things immaterial that vented hostilities and prejudices.
Emma by Jane Austen presents the parlor life of emotional constipation and gilded-cage existence without choices beyond who to invite for dinner that ran on and on until death was begged for. In this day and age, when I can tell my neighbor flat-out, he’s an ass, and go on. He and I live a life of pretending the other doesn’t exist, which works well.
The book also conveys the sense of the inescapable lot assigned to a person because of who one’s family is and what they’ve done. Harriet is a persona somewhat non grata because her parentage is unknown. She could never expect to marry a gentleman, because no respectable man would take in the chance of social disaster if her father ever turned out to be a criminal or worse. You are who your grandparents were, and if you screw up your life, you ruin your grandchildren’s chances for a future, destroy your siblings’ reputation and shame your parents.
It amounted to a suffocating life where the most seemingly trivial choices could destroy one’s life and reputation. While Emma by Jane Austen is not one of my favorites, it’s a worthwhile book to read. I’m glad to have read it, as much as I am glad I’m DONE reading it. 4 out of 5 stars.
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tagged: 19th century, 19th century England, Austen, class stratification, classic literature, classism, Emma, Emma Woodhouse, english literature, Harriet Smith, Jane Austen, marriage, match making, Miss Taylor, Mr Elton, Mr. Knightley, Mr. Weston, slavery, society | 6 Comments »