For those who have lived in a cave for the past 200 years (and never saw any of the movie adaptations), Emma is about a wealthy young woman in nineteenth-century England who lives in an estate near a country town. She cares for her sickly father and otherwise spends her time gossiping with her neighbors at social functions. Since her mother died when she was young, Emma and her sister were brought up by a young governess who grew into a good friend and has recently left the family to get married and start her own family. Emma is a bit of a busybody, often getting involved in ill-advised matchmaking and then later regretting it and swearing to never do it again. Emma herself says she has never been in love and has no plans to marry, despite her penchant for trying to marry off all her friends.
Austen provides plenty of detail on the lives of Emma and her friends and neighbors, and if you like this sort of period drama (fans of Downtown Abbey?), then this is a great book for you. The characters come alive with Austen’s clever and descriptive writing, and you soon feel as if you know them. Some people told me Emma is Austen’s funniest book – I even recall people telling me it was laugh-out-loud funny. I didn’t find it all that humorous for my taste, though many aspects of the novel are mildly amusing. It is clear that Austen is writing about this high country society with tongue in cheek and gently poking fun at Emma’s sensibilities.
Overall, Emma wasn’t really my cup of tea, although both the novel and its namesake character grew on me. I found the second half of the novel far more interesting and had more trouble setting it down. Emma herself starts out as incredibly arrogant and condescending, often making assumptions about people based on their level of wealth and their “place in society.” I know this takes place a long time ago, in a different era, but I still have no patience for that sort of attitude! By the end of the novel, though, Emma does learn and grow, becoming a more likeable character.
So, by the end of the novel, I liked it but still didn’t love it. I think that is just a matter of taste; period dramas aren’t my favorite kind of movies, either. I did develop an appreciation for Austen’s writing, and she surprised me with some plot twists I didn’t see coming (though others were obvious). Overall, I am glad to have finally read a Jane Austen novel and to have one less author on my Authors I Can’t Believe I’ve Never Read list.
NOTE: One classic novel set in the English countryside in the 1800's that I really did enjoy, more than I expected to, was Middlemarch by George Eliot. I was pleasantly surprised by her clever writing and how relevant her observations of life in 1829 were to the modern world.