Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
So we meet the heroine of Jane Austen's Emma. In the first paragraph of the novel she seems a quite unexceptional young lady. Indeed, the perfect heroine of a novel. We need only wait for her hero to appear and whisk her off to a happily every after. But between the introduction and the whisking, we get to know Emma Woodhouse a bit better and, by the end, might tend to agree with Jane Austen's assessment that no one else will much like her.
Our Emma seems to have all the traits you find annoying in romance heroines. She's just a little bit feisty, very opinionated, bossy as all get out and too, too convinced of her own abilities. She's a busybody and a bit of a snob.
Perhaps Emma is not sneaking out of the house dressed in her groom's clothes to spy on—say—Mr. Knightley or sweeping into a ballroom in all her finery to challenge her host's political leanings or setting up a laboratory in her stillroom to practice arcane science, but she certainly is presiding over her own little group with all the feistiness, stubbornness and self-assurance of any of these heroines. To give Emma her due, however, she's got a bit of a rough row. Granted, she's handsome, clever and rich, but she's also the only person in her family left to care for her valetudinarian father. This can't be what she thought she'd be doing when she hit 20. And Mr. Woodhouse isn't easy. He's as worried about Emma's health as his own and keeps her on a short leash.
Although you would never be able to convince Emma of it, she lacks the noblesse oblige she should be displaying as the daughter of a prominent citizen and the de facto “first lady” of the village. Of course, she visits the poor and has taken poor, hapless Harriet under her wing. She is polite to the tradesmen and happily condescending to the nouveau riche. But she is less than kind to the reserved Jane Fairfax, who is the niece of Miss Bates, the impecunious daughter, of the late vicar and who is sadly destined for life as a governess.