Emma (Review)

Labels: Great Works


Jane Austen, 1815
560 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
January 2007

Start the new year off with a dance! A brilliant, complex dance—with skip-steps, turns, and sashays. Emma is Austen’s masterpiece, a story in which triple strands of plot bob and weave in and around one another, and Austen never misses a step.

As Austen herself admitted, Emma Woodhouse is a difficult heroine because she’s not particularly likeable.

Wealthy and beautiful, she is in today's parlance a control freak—bossy and headstrong, insisting that everyone follow her lead whether they hear the same tune or not. She’s a matchmaker extraordinaire, or thinks she is—except that she continually gets it wrong with near disastrous results.

Austen’s witty, critical eye is in fine fiddle, drawing sharp-edged portraits of character types: hypochondriacs, garrulous elders, social climbers, handsome rakes, and salt-of-the-earth yeoman farmers. Of course, what makes Austen so rewarding and endlessly funny is that we recognize these same types in our own era—some 200 years later.

The book is also an interesting study in the strictures of social class. Two characters attempt to break into the rarefied atmosphere of the upper-class gentry but are rebuffed—one gently and the other not so gently. For all of Austen’s often-subversive wit, this book ends with all characters placed securely in their “rightful” 19th-century class divisions. (Not till Persuasion does she champion social mobility and a growing middle-class.)

Nonetheless, you will emerge from this book breathless, as if you’ve just finished a fast-paced, boisterous country reel.

There are two fairly good (not great) film versions: one with Gwyneth Paltrow (1996) and the other with Kate Beckinsale (1997). I actually prefer the Beckinsale version, though it's not as polished as the Paltrow one—and I like Paltrow's Emma better. But the Beckinsale version captures more of the book's humor. Watch them both and decide for yourself.

See our Reading Guide for Emma.

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