Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fiction Review: Emma

Emma by Jane Austen was my second Big Book of the Summer, and had the distinction of being one of the books that has sat on my TBR shelf the longest. I bought it perhaps 7 or 8 years ago (maybe even 10?) and never seemed to find the time to read it. While I was reading it last month, I heard from people saying it was their favorite Austen and from others proclaiming it their least favorite. As my first-ever Austen (I know, can you believe it?), I have nothing else to compare it to. Overall, I found it difficult to get through, especially the first half. I didn’t care much for the story or its main character at first, though both grew on me after a while.

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.

487 pages (plus notes, interpretative notes, an introduction, and other extra material), Pocket Books

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.



  1. I'm in the "this-is-my-least-favorite-Austen" camp. Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are way better....in my book. :)

  2. I'm glad you had a positive experience with your first JA. Emma is not my favourite, although I'm probably due for a reread...it's the rereads that make all the difference.

    JA is made for multiple readings because it is only then that you really appreciate how clever, funny & complex her stories are. Every word, every conversation, every set piece is there for a reason.

    JA was such a close observer of human nature - remove the Regency trappings and you will still see her characters in real life.

    I know an Emma, I've met a Harriet, I've had the misfortune to work with a Mr Elton, we all know a hypochondriacal Mr Woodhouse and luckily I married my very own Mr Knightley :-)

    Good luck with your next Austen!

  3. Having just finished reading Emma a couple of days ago, I was amused to see your review. I agree with much of it, but non-the-less I enjoyed the book even if parts were cringe-worthy!

    I had read the book as a teenager, and reading it again, it seemed much longer this time round. I now seriously wonder if I'd read an abridged version before that cut out some of the longer rambles...

    I'll look out Middlemarch. Thanks for the recommendation.