Emma (1815)

by Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich,” prides herself on her judgment and gets everything wrong. This being a typical Jane Austen plot, she learns her lesson and earns love.

Emma lives with her elderly hypochondriacal father in Highbury and presides over the town’s society. Her mother died when Emma was too young to remember her, and she was brought up with a lenient governess who, as the book opens, leaves the Woodhouses to become Mrs. Weston. In her arrogance, Emma meddles. She encourages her illegitimate friend Harriet to reject a suitor Emma thinks isn’t good enough. She tries to attach Harriet to Rev. Elton, only to have him think Emma is interested in him. She flirts with Mr. Weston’s son, not realizing he is secretly engaged. Just when Emma realizes the truth about herself—that she loves her mentor and friend from childhood, Mr. Knightley—it looks like she might lose him to none other than Harriet. Finally, everyone’s true feelings are revealed, and the right people pair up.

In an interesting twist on Austen’s marriage angles, Emma was the first of her heroines who doesn’t have to marry for financial security. Austen worried that Emma was "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” That didn’t prove true. Emma has plenty of flaws, but readers are fascinated by the workings of her complex mind, her mix of self-deception and good intention. All of Austen's novels reward rereading, and Emma most of all, for it is great fun to realize, at the moments Emma errs, just how wrong she is.


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