Happy Birthday to Emma

Jane Austen’s novel Emma was first published on 23 December 1815, just in time for Yuletide gift-giving.

Emma sold well, and was giving good reviews, including one by Sir Walter Scott. Although Austen famously claimed that the title character, Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich,” was a protagonist that no one but the author “will much like,” the reading public did indeed like Miss Woodhouse. They liked her very, very much. Maybe not as much as Austen fandom has loved Lizzy Bennett, but Emma is nonetheless held close to the heart of Janeites everywhere.

Personally, and perhaps singularly, my favorite movie adaption of Emma was the 1996 version staring a young Gwyneth Paltrow. Not only was the supporting cast suburb (Alan Cumming is the gold-standard Mr. Elton and Jeremy Northam was the perfect Mr. Knightley), I though Paltrow nailed Emma’s good-natured unawareness of her own privilege. (One could argue that it wasn’t exactly acting.) It would be easy to dislike a character so smugly unaware of the evils of snobbery and high-handedness, but Emma’s heart is so sweet that the reader, and watcher, forgive her for her trespasses and hope she has the happily ever after she doesn’t really deserve.

Emma poster

It is easy to underestimate the genius of this Austen novel, a ‘mere’ romance on the surface. In reality, Austen had invented and simultaneously perfected the unreliable narrator. Sure, the unreliable narrator had pre-existed in literate as a braggart or idiot, but in Emma we have a smart narrator who fools both HERSELF and therefore the reader. (The best modern example of the unreliable narrator was in 1999’s movie Fight Club.)

Austen was a master of narration anyway; in Emma she just took it to the next level. Emma Woodhouse deludes the reader because she deludes herself. It isn’t a trick. Emma is hiding nothing, either purposefully or inadvertently. All the information is there, but neither the reader or Emma puts 2 and 2 together into 4 until the end. No one had ever put that kind of “twist ending” into novel form before, and Austen made it look effortless.

Jane Austen by Cassandra a Watercolour

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