It was my turn to choose the next book for my book club, and I chose Jane Austen. Duh. I mean: anyone who knows me in real life or who has followed my blog long enough knows about my completely sane, married-woman-who-somehow-manages-to-be-attracted-to-a-flesh-and-blood-man-even-after-lusting-after-Darcy obsession with Austen. But instead of picking a book where I am afraid we can get kind of fangirlish (Pride and Prejudice? I still love you. Call me), I wanted to read something less comfortable. Something that would maybe challenge us a bit. So I went with Emma.
I used to really hate Emma. No, really. And Austen herself mentioned that she had created a heroine she didn’t think many people besides herself would like. As a teenager, I found Emma’s know-it-allness sort of irritating. Why does she mess with people’s love lives? WHY DOES MISS BATES KEEP TALKING?
And then, in a graduate Austen and Film class I took four summers ago (yes, it was an actual class. It was AMAZING), I got in a huge…debate, shall we say…with one of my classmates over Mansfield Park‘s Fanny Price. And in my absolute stubbornness to defend Fanny and stand by my opinion regarding her very subtle agency, I realized that I am more like Emma than I gave myself credit for. That Emma herself is more complex than I gave her credit for.
This time around, I really enjoyed the novel. Emma Woodhouse is a rich, beautiful and very clever young woman trapped in a small village sixteen miles outside London, tied to her doting but very hypochondriac and obsessive compulsive father. After her beloved governess and best friend Miss Taylor gets married to the kind and super-friendly Mr. Weston, Emma decides to befriend the young ingénue Harriet Smith, the natural daughter of no one knows whom (in other words: a bastard–SCANDAL!) and match her up with the young and fancy clergyman, Mr. Elton. Emma’s oldest friend Mr. Knightley, of course, disapproves this scheme, and we see Emma’s machinations as they interpret and counteract reality throughout the entire novel.
The plot is quite basic, so reading it really involves the rich interior lives of the people in the novel. Emma is quite complex, especially as she finds herself reflecting dissatisfaction with her own behaviors without knowing how to become a better person. And let’s be honest, I haven’t even said a word about the best part of the novel:
The deliciousness of Jeremy Northan aside, Mr. Knightley has got to be one of the best and most realistically sexy Austen men, up there with Captain Wentworth and Henry Tilney. He’s smart, innovate, business-savvy, and *practical.* Knightley (to quote from the deliciously vulgar Mrs. Elton) knows what is what, and he is not afraid to tell it like it is. He does not sugarcoat what Emma or others want to hear, yet he is polite and well-mannered, while knowing how society operates and how to function by the codes of conduct that dictate our own behaviors.
Emma seems like a simple plot, but it’s peopled by complex characters with hidden motivations and lots of juicy backstory. If you liked Pride and Prejudice, be prepared for lots of delicious barbs, though some may hit uncomfortably close to the mark. And never envision Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley.
Poor guy. There is nothing sexy about Knightley in a terrible wig.