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Saturday, August 24, 2013

In Defense of Emma Woodhouse | guest post from Maria

The timing of today's guest post is kind of perfect, as Wednesday's #AIATwitChat somehow turned into a discussion of defending the less likable women in Austen. It's something I've been mulling over for awhile, and though I've never been one to dislike Emma (love her!), I do have plans to do some 'defending' of my own... Keep an eye out for that, but until then, check out what Maria has to say in defense of Emma.

When Jane Austen wrote Emma, in 1815, she described the heroine as someone “whom no one but myself will much like .”(119) I think I am in the minority who share her opinion. I like Emma Woodhouse because she is funny, clever, and truly wants people to be happy.

However, most readers see her as snobbish, meddling, and spoiled. But from the very first time I read Emma, in an undergraduate class on British literature, I found her to be amusing and thoroughly charming. She made me laugh with the situations she created and found herself in. She struck me as someone who was so wrapped up in her pretty little world that she simply had no clue. Or, as my husband says, “no filter.” And for that reason, I found her delightful.

Personally, I have a higher than usual tolerance for certain types of challenging people. For me, it is simply a matter of accepting people as they are and not expecting anything more--but then always being delightfully surprised when there is! More importantly, it is recognizing they probably won’t ever change and I cannot make them change. To me, this makes them easier to bear. And perhaps this is why Emma Woodhouse appeals to me as a heroine.

After I began reading commentary and critical analysis about Emma and read what others thought of her, I tried to look at it from their point of view. It was difficult.

And I’m still not truly convinced.

Emma cares deeply about her family and her friends.

Emma’s first devotion is to her hypochondriac father, a rather whiny, demanding man who believes the world revolves around him (much like Emma herself). Yet Emma shows only sincere love and patience for him and does her best to see that he is always calm and comfortable. When they are invited out, she makes sure he is taken care of and comfortable. When her sister’s family comes to visit during the Christmas holidays, she tries to head off any unpleasantness that might upset him by trying to change the subject when John, her taciturn brother-in-law, defends his decision of a seaside vacation to South End in a rather heated discussion over dinner.

Emma is always trying to improve herself, although she doesn’t have the patience for it.

This especially endears her to me because I, too, do this very same thing. The difference is that my improvements are for myself alone and not for others. Emma’s desire for improvement extends beyond herself. She does try to read more books in the hopes of improving her education. She tries to become a better friend, especially after her cruel snub of Miss Bates at Box Hill and in her avoidance of Jane Fairfax; she realizes her errors, is shamed by them, and apologizes accordingly.

Emma loves life and tries to share that joy with others.

This kind of ties in with my first point. But this is more the everyday happiness she finds in Highbury. Of course, if I was “handsome, clever, and rich”my life might be as wonderful, too, right?

After her dear friend Miss Taylor marries and becomes Mrs. Weston, Emma befriends young, impressionable Harriet Smith so that she will have something to do and won’t feel lonely on her solitary walks around Highbury. Of course, she tells herself it’s to improve Harriet’s bearing and social standing rather than admit to any loneliness. She is always ready for a party, a picnic, or a ball. Her verbal sparring with Mr. Knightley is especially effusive with this lust for life in her sparkling camaraderie with him.

At heart, I’ve always felt a little sorry for Emma. She’s a beautiful young woman living alone in a large house on an estate with her anxious father in the country. She hasn’t traveled at all--not even to visit her sister in London. Who wouldn’t want to reach out and grab what life has to offer rather than be shut away from society? She doesn’t shrink from responsibility and management; perhaps she has acquired this trait because she has had the command of Hartfield since Isabella married. She’s a natural and accomplished hostess, in control of many situations.

So this is why I cut her a little slack. Perhaps Jane Austen loved Emma Woodhouse because she herself aspired to be more like her vivacious character; handsome, clever, and rich. They say an author sometimes slips in their own traits when they create characters. Based on Austen’s letters, I see a lot of the outspoken Emma Woodhouse in them. And I love her all the more for it.

Austen-Leigh, J.E. A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections. 1870. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.

Click the pic to be taken to the Austen in August Main Page! Thanks to faestock & inadesign for the images used to create this button.


  1. I love Emma; of course, that's probably helped by the qualities we have in common. Though I'm not wealthy and don't have a doting father and handsome family friend ready to fall in love with me, I am prone to direct my friends' lives. Like you said, it comes from a desire to see them happy. Is it arrogant to think I know the best way for them to achieve that? Perhaps... but it isn't arrogance that drives me, it's love.

  2. I've always liked Emma. Her motives are nearly always good, even though she does have a smug belief in her superior judgement and she shows herself willing to learn from her mistakes. I have a relative who is a worse busybody than Emma but I still love her because it comes from a good place. I've read Emma quite a few times but I find it hard to read as there are parts where her behaviour makes me cringe, you want her to stop showing herself up!

  3. I haven't actually had the pleasure of reading Emma yet, but it's the next Austen book on my list. I'll have to keep this article in mind as I read. It'll make me extra observant. Great post!

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  5. Emma took a while to grow on me, but I do love her nuances and strong personality. She's definitely flawed, in much the same way that Darcy is. What makes her compelling is that she does genuinely want to do right, and she tries to fix her mistakes. I'm really excited to see Emma Approved and how Pemberley Digital alters the story for the modern age. Thanks for this post. It's excellent!

  6. Emma is not one of my favorite Austen heroines, but that is not to say that I dislike her. I can appreciate all her finer points, relate to her weaknesses and be happy that she was able to grow when she sees her mistakes. I think it might have lots to do with the story line of her matchmaking efforts and her father did get on my nerves along with her brother in law.

    Enjoyed the post, thanks!

  7. I like Emma, but I've always found her very child-like, for that lust for life that you describe, and her strong parental connections, and her seeming guilelessness. She's the most childlike, to me, of Austen's heroines....which makes her delightful to read, but perhaps a less complex character to root for.

  8. I love Emma because of her flaws. And you all know they were thinking what Emma actually said to Miss Bates! ;)

  9. Emma is growing on me. I didn't much like her at first but now I can see her good qualities. She's a bit annoying at times (Mr. Elton and Harriet?!) but she means well.


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