The Edge Reviews the Classics: Emma by Jane Austen

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I have heard so much about Jane Austen’s novels, but have always been sceptical as to whether they actually live up to their reputation. I wouldn’t normally choose a classic as I don’t usually have the patience, but seeing as Jane Austen is on the new ten pound note, I thought I should give at least one of her books a try. And what a pleasant surprise it was!

The story is told from the point of view of Emma: a headstrong, upper-class, twenty-year-old woman living with her father in the small village of Highbury. Determined not to marry, she enjoys spending her time matchmaking her friends, albeit mistakenly. I immediately warmed to Emma’s character; her constant witty remarks and satirical sense of humour (as well as her arguably feminist approach to matrimony) made the book much more enjoyable, even making me laugh out loud more than once.

Admittedly, the book begins rather slowly. It took me a while to adjust to the language and Austen spends the first three chapters introducing the main characters. Although the background to each character is usefully provided, it’s rather tedious to read. We meet Emma’s doting and overly cautious father Mr Woodhouse, Mr John Knightley and his wife Isabella, who is Emma’s older sister, and Mr and Mrs Weston, whom Emma recently brought together whilst Mrs Weston (then, Miss Taylor) was her governess. As well as these characters, we are introduced to Mr George Knightley, John’s older brother and close friend to Emma and her father, who visits the Woodhouse’s home of Hartfield on an almost daily basis. This brings me to my confusion: Austen refers to both the Knightley brothers as Mr Knightley and so it is often quite difficult to decipher which brother Emma is talking to.  Only until I had reached about halfway through the book did I realise that it is mostly George Knightley that Austen is referring to!

After meeting a seventeen-year-old girl called Harriet Smith from the local boarding school, Emma quickly befriends her, takes her under her wing and once again plays the role of matchmaker. Having persuaded Harriet to reject a marriage proposal from Mr Martin, a farmer whom Harriet was infatuated with, Emma directs her attentions higher up, to the local vicar Mr Elton. The only problem is that Philip Elton has set his sights on Emma! In a rather awkward (yet amusing) carriage ride, Mr Elton suddenly declares his love for Emma, which she swiftly rejects, leaving her feeling confused and guilty for poor Harriet.

George Knightley criticizes Emma’s friendship with Harriet, suggesting that she should turn her attention toward Jane Fairfax, a young orphan woman living with Miss Bates and Mrs Bates. At this point I took a dislike to George; he comes across as snooty and I completely disagreed with his opposition to the girls’ friendship. But, as always, he was right. Emma dismisses his suggestion due to her dislike of Jane, but soon realises that her ill-feelings are actually out of jealousy, proving that Mr Knightley knows Emma more than she knows herself. Jane is very similar to Emma: wealthy, intelligent and beautiful… and a threat to her position in Highbury.

The two women come into competition with each other upon the arrival of the mysterious Mr Frank Churchill, Mr Weston’s son by his deceased first wife. Emma soon grows attached to Mr Churchill, ignoring Mr Knightley’s suspicions of Frank (noting how strange it was for Mr Churchill to travel all the way to London simply to get his hair cut!). Nonetheless, misjudgement and heartbreak ensue, threatening to break Emma and Harriet’s friendship.

The novel truly was a page-turner; I was so invested with each character’s story and was therefore very happy with the ending. I love a good romance, and Austen’s skilful use of irony and humour made the novel a true joy to read. Following the entire story from Emma’s point of view ensured that every twist and turn was a total surprise. In spite of the slight language difficulty, I would definitely recommend Emma to anyone looking for a light-hearted, humorous romance, and I could happily read this book again and again!

Emma was written by Jane Austen and first published in 1815.

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Third year History student at the University of Southampton.

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