“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, 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 begins Jane Austen’s 1816 novel, Emma, a work some consider to be her masterpiece, because of its brilliancy of language, its vivid characterizations, and its complex narration.
Emma: An Atypical Work of Austen
Emma is unusual novel among Austen’s works for many reasons. One is that it takes the name of its heroine for its title. Perhaps that is as it should be. Emma herself is an unusual heroine.
She’s a snob who declares that people and things are vulgar and beneath her. She makes snap judgments, only a few of which turn out to be correct. Even if one admires Emma’s self-confidence, one can’t always believe her to be in the right. It’s supposed to be difficult for readers to stomach her elitist values and self-centeredness. It’s not just that the novel revolves around Emma. It’s that within the relatively small world of the novel, this heroine often behaves as if the world should revolve around her.
Emma’s Social and Economic Powers
To some degree, Emma is absolutely right to be confident that she’s the center of this small universe. That’s not improbable for a character who’s situated as she is. Despite being only 20 years old, going on 21, she’s already on the top rung of the socio-economic ladder in the fictional village of Highbury, said to be located 16 miles from London.
Emma’s social and economic powers derive from whose daughter she is. Her father, Mr. Woodhouse, is one of two prominent landowners in the village. But Emma’s power also derives from the fact that she has no brothers. Her widower father has two adult daughters, and he shows no interest in remarrying to produce a son and heir. As a result, Emma will have an enormous fortune: 30,000 pounds. That means she’s an heiress to the tune of today’s multi-millions. And wealth is not her only enviable advantage.
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The Opening Line of Emma
In the novel’s opening line, Emma is described with three adjectives, each one loaded with associative meaning: handsome, clever, and rich.
Handsome might seem an unusually masculine word to describe a young woman. Today it might be an insult to call a woman handsome. But the word handsome in the early 19th century was used as a compliment for females, too. It could mean attractive, elegant, and stylish. It had also signaled a woman who was striking and stately, not conventionally ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’. Emma, in other words, is strongly attractive as a woman, not weakly, gently, or innocuously attractive.
The word clever to describe her is an equally loaded one. Clever suggests that Emma has intellectual ability but that it arises from craftiness, not from deep learning. The word clever doesn’t necessarily imply brilliance or serious study. It’s a narrower word.
But the most telling and damning word of the three-part description of Emma may be rich. This word calls up that famous translated biblical line, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Critics have noticed this word choice. Austen could have chosen a more genteel word. The narrator could have called Emma wealthy or, even more euphemistically, fortunate. Rich is a brash, negative word, without pleasant sugar-coating, and with a hint of ostentatiousness.
Emma’s Strengths and Weaknesses
In these three seemingly positive words—handsome, clever, and rich—Austen’s narrator telegraphs Emma’s supposed strengths and the supposed ‘blessings’ of her existence. But these words, at the same time, signal her distinctive weaknesses. And in fact, Emma’s journey in the novel involves recognizing that when strengths are over-played, they may become weaknesses. Emma must learn to wield her power more effectively and generously, especially over more vulnerable women.
As one reads the novel, the reader journey follows the same path as Emma’s. They are reminded that they also could stand to investigate themselves. One might approach fictional stories more clearly and with greater generosity toward characters that they may not much like. What makes this novel remarkable is that most readers, by the end, leave the book wiser as to how power corrupts and leave it rooting for its spoiled heroine.
Emma derives power in part through her family. Her father, Mr. Woodhouse, is a widower. If Emma’s mother were alive—and if Emma’s older sister hadn’t married and moved away—then they, and not Emma, might be at the head of Highbury’s polite society. Her mother’s death and her sister’s departure create the conditions for Emma’s dominion.
She, we’re told, “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her”. Yet we’re told next that her mother died when she was a little girl. Notice how unlikely a juxtaposition these two things are. It seems strange to be asked to imagine that a young girl who endured the death of a mother had “little to distress or vex her”.
Common Questions about Jane Austen’s Emma
Jane Austen’s novel, Emma, was published in 1816. Some consider it to be her masterpiece because of its brilliancy of language, its vivid characterizations, and its complex narration.
In the opening line of the novel, Emma is described with three adjectives: handsome, clever, and rich. In these three seemingly positive words, Austen’s narrator telegraphs Emma’s supposed strengths and the supposed ‘blessings’ of her existence. But these words, at the same time, signal her distinctive weaknesses.
The word handsome in the early 19th century was used as a compliment for females. It could mean attractive, elegant, and stylish. It also signaled a woman who was striking and stately, not conventionally ‘beautiful’ or ‘pretty’.