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.
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