Emma by Jane Austen (re-read)

Having read all of Jane Austen’s novels, I decided that for the Austen in August event hosted by Adam of Roof Beam Reader, I would re-read the only one I didn’t really like the first time – Emma. I didn’t hate it on my first reading, but I definitely enjoyed it less than the others, and the problem I had with the book, unfortunately, was the character of Emma Woodhouse herself. I was curious to see whether, on returning to this book after a gap of a few years, my opinion of her would have changed.

Emma is the youngest daughter of Mr Woodhouse of Hartfield and is “handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition”. The story begins just after the marriage of Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor, to a widowed neighbour, Mr Weston. Although Emma is sorry Miss Taylor is leaving Hartfield, she is pleased that they have married because she was responsible for introducing them to each other. She decides to continue matchmaking by finding a husband for her new friend, Harriet Smith, but it seems that the man she chooses, Mr Elton, has other ideas. As Emma continues to meddle in other people’s lives, she slowly becomes aware of who she herself is in love with.

Jane Austen herself once said that in Emma she had created a heroine nobody apart from herself would like. This is obviously not true, as I’ve seen so many people name Emma as their favourite Austen novel and talk about how much they love Emma despite her flaws. But the first time I read this book I found it difficult to see past her treatment of Harriet Smith near the beginning of the story and I remember having such a negative reaction to Emma’s character that it spoiled the rest of the book for me.

As several years have now passed since that first read I wanted to give Emma another chance. And guess what? This time I found myself really liking Emma! Her snobbish attitude and superiority still irritated me but I was able to be more tolerant of her faults and to admire the way she learned from her mistakes and grew as a person as the story progressed. Yes, she can be insensitive at times and yes, she causes a lot of trouble by interfering in her friends’ lives, but she does eventually accept that she was wrong.

Although it has been a while since I read this book, I was surprised to find how many little details of the plot I remembered: Harriet’s book of riddles, for example, and the mystery of Jane Fairfax’s piano. Yet this is a very character-driven story, even more so than Jane Austen’s other novels. Nothing very dramatic or exciting happens, but the story is never boring and this is due to the wonderful collection of characters. Mr Knightley is one of my favourite Austen heroes, and who could forget Emma’s hypochondriac father and his obsession with his own health and everyone else’s, the obnoxious Mrs Elton and Miss Bates, who never stops talking. The last three characters I mentioned make this one of Austen’s funniest novels, at least in my opinion! As well as the humour, Emma is filled with clever, sparkling dialogue and insightful observations. I posted some of my favourite quotes last week for the Classics Challenge I’m participating in so won’t repeat them here.

Finally, I liked the way Austen took the time to tie up all the loose ends in this novel. I was happy with the way Emma’s story ended and with Harriet’s – I think everyone probably ended up with the right partner!

Have you read Emma? What is your opinion of Emma Woodhouse?

26 thoughts on “Emma by Jane Austen (re-read)

  1. Roof Beam Reader says:

    I’m almost wishing I had selected this one instead of Mansfield Park as my final read for the event, as I have been reading MP for a week or so and haven’t gotten very far into it… it’s just not interesting me much (yet). Hopefully that changes. Persuasion is the only other Austen novel that I’ll have left to read!

    I’m glad you at least found things to appreciate in Emma on your re-read, even if it’s still not your favorite. 🙂

  2. Lisa says:

    I love Emma the book, and also Emma the character, despite the mistakes that she makes – most of them through over-confidence, I think, and also from her youth & inexperience. She has a good heart and she truly does mean well. I can still remember how surprised, the first time reading this book, when I realized how Jane Austen had hoodwinked me – I was just as wrong as Emma about Mr Elton and Frank Churchill!

    • Helen says:

      I remember being surprised too the first time I read the book. Reading it for a second time I was able to pick up on little clues and hints that I had missed on the first read.

  3. Liz Bailey says:

    I agree with you about Emma. She’s very irritating, but a flawed heroine is so much more interesting and I do like her. Also think Mr Knightley is one of the best of Austen’s heroes, if not the best. He’s witty and clever and you can see how much he cares for Emma. Such a lovely man. My favourite film performance was Jeremy Northam as he totally got the character.
    I love Persuasion, and think that is probably my favourite Austen – wickedly funny and yearningly romantic.

    • Helen says:

      Mr Knightley is one of my top three Austen heroes, along with Captain Wentworth and Henry Tilney. And I agree with you about Persuasion – it’s my favourite too.

  4. Charlie says:

    Whilst I loved (the book) Emma, I can see why you didn’t previously. Though Austen makes it fun, Emma’s assumptions can grate on you. I was happy when Harriet [spoiler alert] managed to choose her own husband.

    But I loved the way Emma saw everything except what was happening to herself. Reading your thoughts have reminded me of everything I liked. It’s scary that I read it less than a year ago but have already forgotten so much!

    • Helen says:

      Yes, she did really grate on me the first time and because of that I struggled to finish the book. I was determined to keep an open mind this time and try to be more sympathetic towards her!

  5. jessicabookworm says:

    I haven’t read all of Austen’s work yet but of what I have read this is still my favourite. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your thoughts on the humour and colourful characters of this book, because I think that’s why I love this book so much. As for Emma herself I do like her but I didn’t always like her, my opinion changed through out the book depending what she’d done now! On the whole I think her heart is in the right place even if she goes about everything completely the wrong way. There was only one moment where I really dis-liked her which was when she made a nasty joke about Miss Bates (I think) it actually really upset me. However Emma’s redeeming feature is she does learn from her mistakes. I think overall Emma’s mixture of virtues and faults makes her one of the most interesting of Austen’s heriones to watch grow.

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I remember the scene with the joke about Miss Bates and it wasn’t very nice, though at least she realised afterwards that she had been wrong to say it. I loved the way Emma’s character developed over the course of the story.

  6. Deb Atwood says:

    Hmmm…I’m one of those diehard Emma fans. I really feel her pain in that moment when Mr. Knightley scolds her, and I admire her ability to humble herself. I also recommend the movie Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow as well as the re-make movie Clueless.

  7. Jo says:

    I have never read Emma, I am slowly working my way through Austen books having just read Northanger Abbey.

    I have a vague idea of the story of Emma but need to actually read it to understand more and also the nuances of Austen’s writing.

  8. Karen K. says:

    I’d seen the movie before I read the book, but she was so annoying I nearly threw it under the sofa several times. I have listened to the Naxos audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson (Mrs. Elton) and it is just brilliant. I need to give Emma another chance.

    I’m currently listening to the Naxos audio of Persuasion, also by Juliet Stevenson. Just wonderful! Ms. Stevenson did four or five Naxos audios of JA, all except P&P which is by Emilia Fox (Georgiana Darcy) and Lady Susan which is by Harriet Walter (Fanny Dashwood). They’re wonderful if you can get hold of them.

  9. Anbolyn Potter (@anbolynp) says:

    I have tried to read Emma several times and have never been able to finish it (Mansfield Park also), but I do love the recent tv adaptation with Romola Garai. I know I would love this if I just gave it another chance.
    Of the Austen I have read, Sense & Sensibility is my favorite.

  10. heavenali says:

    I think I would enjoy re-reading Emma, I re-read Northanger Abbey in July, and it made me want to re-read all of Austen. I have got Jane Austen’s selected letters on my pile to be read this month.

  11. Rachel says:

    My mom keeps trying to read Emma and she just CAN’T get herself to like the character, so I totally see what you’re saying. 😉 Emma sort of had to grow on me, too. I like Emma, though, because she’s realistic. She has faults, but she’s a good person by nature. She makes a lot of mistakes but she learns from them. These are all good traits.

  12. Kerry says:

    This was my first read of Emma (also for Classics Club!) and like you on your first read, I just COULD NOT get past my dislike of Emma and her treatment of others. Some have commented on her growth in the novel, which I did appreciate, but ultimately I did not like the book. Still glad to have read it, though.

  13. Melody says:

    Again and again I see examples of people who don’t like Emma (person or book) very well to begin with, until they get to know her better, which often happens on the second reading. I hold to the opinion that this is how Jane Austen designed it. As for me, I saw all the main movie versions of Emma before I read the book (which I’ve now read twice), so by that time I was quite prepared to adore it. (The 2009 BBC version is indisputably best according to me. 😉 )

    Besides, it’s the story that has Mr. Knightley. Need I say more?

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