I first read Jane Austen’s Emma in an undergrad literature class. I read it for a second time in a grad school Jane Austen seminar. I wasn’t thrilled with the book either time. It all seemed so bland. Even Frank Churchill’s deception was dull. Out of Austen’s six novels this one was solidly ranked as number five for me with Mansfield Park at the bottom. On this my third reading of the book something happened. Maybe it was because I wasn’t expecting much. Maybe it’s because I have been rereading one Austen a year and this is year six making Emma last. Whatever the case may be, I very much enjoyed the book this time around. I enjoyed it so much I can’t decide if I should move it up just one notch to fourth or all the way to third. It doesn’t matter since no one cares but me, but it does help me give you an idea how much I suddenly liked the book.
I don’t have to like the protagonists of my books in order to like the book, but there has always been something about Emma herself that just rubbed me the wrong way and made me grind my teeth. Snobby, self-centered, privileged meddler about sums up how I saw her. That hasn’t changed but I found myself more sympathetic to her. A good amount of that sympathy is because of her hypochondriac of a father, Mr. Woodhouse. Oh my goodness, he sometimes made me want to break something in order to relieve my frustration over all his little worries. Emma is infinitely patient with him and should be considered for sainthood.
I believe I also unknowingly primed myself to like Emma by reading Being Wrong, a book about all the various ways we can be spectacularly wrong regarding anything and everything. And Emma turns out to spend so much time being wrong that it is almost funny especially since she prides herself on being so perceptive. Because she is a lady, however, she, for the most part, admits her errors with grace and good humor even while completely mortified by them.
I still have a problem with Mr. Knightley who is 37 or 38, even Austen can’t say for sure. Emma is 21. Mr. Knightley always talks about watching Emma grow up and even says he’s loved her since she was a girl. Isn’t that just a bit creepy? Plus, for 95% of the book he acts like he, to put it in a vulgar way because I am no lady, has a stick up his butt. Or maybe he’s a robot? No, it’s a stick since he eventually does display enough human feeling to pass the Turing Test. Mr. Knightley has all the reserve of Mr. Darcy without the wit. Even when he does declare his love for Emma and begins to act like a living person, I still can’t picture them as married. I mean, he has spent the whole book frowning at Emma, correcting her every wrong and expressing his displeasure when she violates social rules that I can’t imagine he would behave any differently once married. How insufferable to have a husband who is always right and always correcting you on everything! Since Mr. Knightley is moving into Hartfield so as not to upset Mr. Woodhouse, I frankly fear for Emma’s sanity, trapped in a home with a hypochondriac and a control freak.
What won me over with the book is the tight plot. Austen is a pro with the red herrings. All the twists and turns of who likes whom is delightful. And since the story is told mainly through Emma’s eyes we are fairly limited to her view of events which means we believe the wrong things too unless you’ve read the book before like I have and know what happens or you are an extra perceptive first-time reader. The clues are all there. Even more fun, since this is Austen we know there will be a happy ending; there will be weddings. But we are kept in suspense for most of the book about who will be marrying whom. It’s all so expertly done.
These last six years rereading one Austen novel every year have been enjoyable. At first I thought when I was done I should do it all over again, but no. Much as I liked it I think I will wait a few years before doing it again. That I will do it again I am quite certain.