Apr 2 2011 3:00pm

Emma: “A Heroine Whom No One But Myself Will Much Like”

Doran Godwin as Emma WoodhouseEmma 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.

Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma WoodhouseOur 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.

Kate Beckinsale as EmmaAs the story progresses, we see that Emma entertains herself within the confines of her small village by managing the lives of those around her. She prides herself on having married her governess off to a local landowner and is in search of more matchmaking fodder.  She latches onto Harriet Smith, a student at a nearby girls' school, convinces her that the man she wants to marry is beneath her and then tries marry her off to a totally inappropriate gentlemen—naturally to disastrous results for everyone.

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.  

If only Emma were the heroine we love to hate, we would be happy to see her reformation and redemption before she's whisked away. She's not that heroine, however. She's the rich girl we knew in high school. Mixed in with all her annoying qualities are moments when she is genuinely likeable. She is wonderfully patient with her demanding father; she is sincerely regretful when she sees that she has insulted Miss Bates; and she is absolutely gutted when she realizes that her high-handed management of Harriet Smith has resulted in someone who aspires to the man Emma suddenly realizes is the only one for her.
Romola Garai as Emma WoodhouseLike the girl we went to high school with, Emma grows on us (or not). When I first read Emma, I probably was in high school and I absolutely did not like her. Fortunately for me, I did like Jane Austen so I continued to reread the novel.  And, by golly, I began to like Emma, faults and all.  No. She's not the ideal romantic heroine.  She's too flawed to deserve the hero out of the gate. But her flaws are, ultimately, what make her story compelling and, in the end, what make us interested in how she turns out. She does get her happily ever after and I'll bet we'd enjoy catching up with her at the reunion.


Myretta Robens 
The Republic of Pemberley
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Susan in AZ
1. Susan in AZ
Oh, come on! Not all of us were so self-absorbed in High School that we could not appreciate a well-written, if questionably likeable, heroine. Personally, I adored the Emma character although I was glad I lived in a different century, with a Mother who was still alive to nag me.
Susan in AZ
2. Bridget M
Emma has always been my favorite Austen novel. I guess I saw her busybody matchmaking as just a product of her terribly limited life. I mean she's never left Highbury and lives alone with her father...what else is there for her to do? Also, Emma undertakes matchmaking out of a true desire to make her friends happy and comfortable. It's never malicious like that mean girl in high school.

Also, I couldn't agree more with your caption for Gwyneth's photo! :)
Alie V
3. ophelial
Emma is my least favourite Jane Austen book and always has been. I think it's a combination of all the things you mentioned. Great piece!
Myretta Robens
4. Myretta
All the things I mentioned notwithstanding, Emma is my favorite Jane Austen novel. I think it's an almost perfectly written book.
romance reader
5. bookstorecat
I find that I like Emma more now that I am older--the first time I read the book, I was probably too close to the age of the character herself. Now, having gained some perspective, I think the thing to remember about Emma is that she was very young. Young and, well...Clueless. I think you know what I mean. Over the course of the novel, she learns to be less selfish and does quite a bit of growing up. I've actually grown kind of fond of her.
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