35 before 35: Reading – Emma by Jane Austen

After reading a couple of other books, I decided it was time to get back to my 35 before 35 BBC Big Read challenge, so I picked up a copy of Emma by Jane Austen from my local branch of Thalia (you can purchase English classics there for the bargain price of  €3.99!). Here’s my review.

Emma by Jane Austen

Plot summary

English: "The sight of Harriet's tears&qu...
English: “The sight of Harriet’s tears” – Emma tells Harriet that Mr. Elton is not interested in marrying her. Austen, Jane. Emma. London: George Allen, 1898, page 144. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Emma Woodhouse, the title chatacter of the book, lives alone with her “invalid” (read: hypochondriac!) father. At the start of the book, the two of them have been “abandoned” by Emma’s old governess, Miss Taylor, who has just married and thus moved out of their house.  Throughout the entire book, Mr Woodhouse refers to the ex-governess as “poor Mrs Weston” (her married name). Emma’s sister, who is also married, is “poor Isabella”. According to Mr Woodhouse, nobody who has moved out of their own house to get married can possibly be happy.

Emma, who has led a charmed life as the spoiled favourite daughter of a wealthy man, fears that she is going to be bored now that her constant companion for years has gone off and left her, so she decides to take a young girl named Harriet Smith under her wing. Because she introduced Miss Taylor (as was) to her now husband, Emma has come to the conclusion that she has a talent for matchmaking and decides to find someone for Harriet. But first she has to persuade her to turn down Mr Martin, a farmer, who she feels is entirely beneath Harriet’s station. Harriet duly does so, and Emma sets her sights on Mr Elton – a family friend of the Woodhouses – as the perfect match for Harriet. Meanwhile, Mr Knightly, another family friend who has known Emma all her life, warns Emma not to give Harriet ideas above her station. He is proved right when it transpires that Mr Elton has never felt any affection for Harriet at all, and in fact had his sights set on someone else (trying not to give too much away here). Harriet is heartbroken, and Emma resolves never to do any matchmaking again.

Later, Mr Weston’s son, Frank Churchill (who was adopted and then brought up by his aunt and uncle after his mother died when he was very young, hence the different surname), turns up and starts flirting with Emma, who duly flirts back causing various people to think there’s something developing between them. Due to a  misunderstanding, Emma then comes to the conclusion that Harriet is in love with Frank and basically tells her to go for it if she wants, but not to expect any help from Emma (who is done with matchmaking, after all). Harriet takes encouragement from this and starts looking for signs that the object of her affections feels the same about her. When Frank turns out to be engaged, Emma assumes Harriet will be upset, only to find out that actually she’s in love with someone else. At which point Emma realises that she, too, is in love with that someone else and has been all along…

My thoughts
So, a rather long summary of the plot (some aspects of it anyway – more does happen). Now for my review.

First of all, I have to say that in the beginning I did not like Emma as a person at all. She’s spoilt, selfish, vain and thinks she knows best about everything. Some of her thoughts about the neighbours are just plain bitchy (and towards the end she even makes one horrible comment out loud, although she does have the grace to feel bad when Mr Knightly points out that what she said was just plain rude and the person being insulted understood her perfectly well). She does redeem herself later when she realises she’s been wrong about pretty much everything, despite thinking herself oh-so-clever.

Harriet Smith annoyed me as well, with her “Oh dear Emma, if you say it then it must be true” attitude. Way to make a spoiled little rich girl even more big headed! And as for the father, with his imaginary illnesses and insistance that practically every food you can think of is bad… including apples (unless they are baked in exactly the right way… Let’s just say I certainly wouldn’t have pandered to his every whim as the characters in this book did! I think my favourite character was Mr Knightly, one of the few people that actually treated Emma like a real person and not some kind of goddess. With everybody else constantly fawning around her and telling her how wonderful she was, every time Mr Knightly pointed out that she had done wrong (the verbal equivalent of the good slap that I felt she desperately needed when the novel started!), I found myself rooting for him.

All that said, I did actually like the book. It was well written, and Emma’s observations were often quite clever, even if there was a mean element to them. I thought the story, with all its twists and turns, was interesting as well and found myself genuinely hoping that Harriet did end up with someone, especially once she got some self-confidence and stopped fawning at the wonderful Emma’s feet. Emma herself did change towards the end of the novel, and at that point I started to like her more. looking back, it seems a lot of her faults were related to her age (at the start of the novel, she was only 21), and the arrogance of youth. Underneath it all, she always did mean well, even if she did go about things in entirely the wrong way and seemed to have trouble understanding that anybody could ever think differently than how she wanted them to. Once she fell in love and started to grow up a bit, she became much more likeable and I was left thinking there was hope that she could actually become a decent person in time!

Overall, I thought that Emma gave some great insights into what life was like in the 1800s (particularly for women), but in many ways the story is timeless. Not many people these days have as much time on their hands as Emma Woodhouse, but how many women can honestly say they’ve never tried to matchmake their friends, or come to an wrong conclusion  based on their own flawed interpretation? At eighteen, I probably could have been an Emma… although hopefully not quite as oblivious to everyone else’s opinion… Emma is not about to become my favourite book, but I’m sure I will read it again some day.

Aside from reading Emma, I have also managed to read one non-fiction book The Importance of Being Trivial: In Search of the Perfect Fact by Mark Mason. Here’s the synopsis: Convinced that our love of trivia must reveal something truly important about us, Mark Mason sets out to discover what that something is. And, in the process, he asks the fundamental questions that keep all trivialists awake at night: Why is it so difficult to forget that Keith Richards was a choirboy at the Queen’s coronation when it’s so hard to remember what we did last Thursday? Are men more obsessed with trivia than women? Can it be proved that house flies hum in the key of F? Can anything ever really be proved? And the biggest question of them all: is there a perfect fact, and if so what is it?

I quite enjoyed this book, although some of his conclusions about women made me want to track the author down and punch him! The random facts he inserted were interesting though, as were the various conversations he had with experts. This was perfect light-hearted reading for my daily commute.