Book Review: Emma by Jane Austen

EmmaEmma by Jane Austen My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"I cannot make speeches, Emma . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more."

Can any literary lover make us swoon more than one of Austen's creations? Oh, Mr. Knightley, I was lost the moment you stepped into the parlour with your spotless shoes and disrupted the backgammon game.

I purchased this beautiful Penguin Classics edition of Emma two years ago (it fits so perfectly in the hand, the font precisely the right shape and size. Such pleasure to hold a lovely book). It remained until now the only Austen novel I had not read. I began the practice of reading an Austen every year some time ago, but I've put this off because it meant accepting that "discovering" Jane would be no more.

What sweet sorrow to end my journey with Jane in the Surrey countryside, at the Hartfield estate, wandering its groomed gardens and golden fields, curled in a chair beside a roaring fire or on a blanket in the shade of a willow tree, scheming with the well-intentioned but wretchedly mis-guided Emma. And what sweet joy to know that the Woodhouses, the Knightleys, the Churchills, the Eltons and the Martins will sit quietly on my bookshelf, patiently awaiting my return to their pastoral idyll.

In Emma, Austen offers the reader a perfectly-crafted piece of social satire. Each character is flawed - our heroine most of all - (oh, but perhaps the regal Mr. Knightley may be allowed near-perfection status!) but she doesn't so obviously strip everyone of their dignity. Even the society-grasping Mrs. Elton shows warmth of heart. Emma embodies Austen's brilliance: through popular prose, she exposes the self-indulgent lifestyle of the landed gentry, their classism and snobbery, their boredom and limited world view; she takes on the objectification of women in a society that offers them little choice and limited futures, regardless of class; she pokes fun at the vagaries of romance. Yet, Austen is the consummate storyteller. She excels at brewing tempests in teapots, at creating solid plots from the floss of country gentility. And, although her internal cynic is strong, she has the tenderest of hearts. Redemption and tidiness rule in the end; Austen leaves the slapstick and supernatural to her contemporaries.

The pleasures of Emma were not immediate for me. It it slow to start and I wondered if I could endure endless episodes of Emma's supercilious meddling. But Austen knows exactly the point at which she must turn away from showing Emma's single-minded superiority to revealing her deeper character and vulnerabilities. At the same time, she widens the ripples of her plot, creating shadows behind her characters that lend mystery and possibility to destiny.

Few joys in life are as pure or as timeless as reading a novel by Jane Austen. Brava, Jane.

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