I was surprised to find -- years and years later, after I'd started reading JAFF and hosting yearly Austen events; after I'd discovered that there were so many more Austen-obsessives like me out there -- that Austen considered Emma a character that few besides herself would love. I was even more surprised to find out there was some truth to it. Though I could understand readers not falling in love with Fanny, the reserved heroine of Mansfield Park, that people would dislike bright, confident, playful Emma was a shock to me, and also a bit sad. I probably took it personally -- I had always considered myself to have a healthy dose of Emma in my personality.
Now, I know it may be a bit...well, Emma-like, really, to call a character "bright, confident, and playful" and then immediately compare yourself to them. You have my permission to roll your eyes at me. But it wasn't just in the traits that were likable that I found myself reflected in Emma; she's a know-it-all, occasionally biting or dismissive, and as prone to being over-ambitious as she is to being unmotivated to follow through. I was all of these things, too. They seemed very human failings to me, as understandable for Emma's character as her positive traits, based on her situation and upbringing, and on simple human nature. That she had these flaws to overcome -- flaws that, with her youthful over-confidence, went mostly unacknowledged by herself -- seemed very realistic to me, and thus made her character more real, more immediate, and more relatable and enjoyable.
Of course, Austen wasn't only speaking of her flaws as reasons why people may not like her: she's also young, pretty and wealthy, and in the circumstances, those are strikes against her -- you cannot have it all, and have the luxury of being flawed. And while I certainly didn't have those crosses to bear (no Woodhouse money and status 'round her), it still always did (and always does, and probably always will) bother me when people take a dislike to Emma. Emma, whom I've always seen as mostly good-natured and well-meaning, if a little clueless (ba dum tss). Emma, who tries so hard to give those she loves the best life she can envision for them (even if she doesn't realize that it may not be what they envision for themselves). Emma, who just wants to feel important and needed.
Emma, who reminds me so much of myself at her age.
It's funny how we can cleave to characters, and feel so protective of them, how much we can hold them up as a mirror. And I think that's where Austen's real power lies. We all love the romance, of course, and the idea that things can turn out right. But plenty of such stories don't create legions of rabid fans centuries down the line. No, it's in the honesty, I think, of the humanity of Austen's characters that allows us, 200 years on, to connect so thoroughly and to feel so strongly about a set of characters who are nothing more than lines on a page -- and yet completely a part of us.
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