Why Jane Austen’s “Emma” might not be so bad after all
This week I read “Emma” (1815), arguably Jane Austen’s most successful published novel, and unfortunately my initial reaction was to feel pretty underwhelmed. However, after racking my brains and desperately searching for a reason to like this book, I think I’ve finally found one.
While I can appreciate that not that much action actually happens alongside the excess of description, inner thought, and sidetracking that can possibly justify a sizable 333 pages, this is what I have concluded is kind of the point.
Austen doesn’t attempt in any way to compel the reader with action, rather, she aims to draw the reader into the small world of Highbury to become just as consumed with the village gossip as the characters we feel so close to. The sense of intimacy we experience by being claustrophobically chained to Emma’s internal and external workings through the clever blurring between omniscient narration, internal monologue and direct speech gives us no choice but to experience events and gossip form a quasi-first person perspective.
In this sense, the social Chinese whispers of Highbury where nothing is actually going on except childish feuds, playing Cupid and misinterpretations, actually acts as something we can all relate to. The distinctly “classroom-like” drama that has little substantial meaning still feels, certainly to the characters and by extension, to us, ultimately real and fundamentally important — in order to create a sense of realism, then, Austen has to take us the long way round with all this descriptive bulk, otherwise we won’t truly feel the sensationally cringe-worthy moments of dramatic irony coming to light for Emma, or the butterflies of excitement when she finally catches on to what we’ve been wanting her to notice for 30 pages now!
I feel like I was too harsh on Austen initially, and can now begin to understand the existence of the self-proclaiming “Austenite” cult following of her writing. “Emma” invites us to enjoy a world of gossip in which we ourselves are never the target, instead left to enjoy a lighthearted, yet at times socially political, setup of characters who complement each other’s virtues and vices neatly. The eye-rollingly awkward misunderstandings are resolved with multiple unions, and the novel concludes on what appears to be a clean slate — though how long this will last in Highbury, who knows?
Now that I can appreciate this novel for what it is, rather than critique it for for it’s missing, I can honestly say that I wouldn’t mind reading it again. Fair play, Austen.