by Jane Austen

Jane Austen said of Emma Woodhouse (in a letter) that she had written a novel with a heroine “whom no one would like but myself”. Indeed the first sentence (another sterling first sentence by Austen. How does she do it?) paints a picture that is easily understood as a spoilt little rich girl:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable house 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.”

At the same time we have to disagree with Miss Austen. Readers have fallen in love with Emma (both novel and heroine) since the novel was published, and with good reason

Ronald Blythe states in his introduction to the 1966 Penguin Classics edition of “Emma” that it is “the climax of Jane Austen’s genius and the Parthenon of fiction.” I do not dispute it for a second. This novel is my favourite work from my favourite author.

The book has a plot so timeless that even translating it to modern day Hollywood and casting Alicia Silverstone in the lead still gets you a hit movie, Clueless. OK, it’s obvious from the first chapter who is destined to marry Emma but our dashing hero, Mr Knightley, is still the only person who ever criticises Emma, indeed he spends a large part of his time in the novel telling either Emma or her friends about her flaws.

Austen wrote to her niece Anna (writing a novel at the time) that “Three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on” and stayed close to this for most of her own works. Yet at the same time, in a letter to her brother Edward (another incipient novelist) she played down her concerns as “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as to produce little effect, after much labour.” ‘Emma’ is certainly the novel on the smallest piece of ivory with the finest brush, yet it pokes as much fun and wields as savage a knife on the social conventions of Austen’s England as any other novelist of the time.

Austen was capable of writing novels with genuine popular appeal at the same time as she flouted the conventions of fiction. ‘Emma’ is a marvellous example, an easily read, enjoyable novel with a heroine who is in charge of her own destiny and who marries for no other reason than she loves a good, strong man.

Everyone deserves to read a novel this good. Just because teenage girls will adore this novel and swoon over Mr Knightley doesn’t mean the rest of us should be stopped from this marvellous read. I enjoy Austen immensely and this is my favourite. I probably read it once or twice a year.

When you come to choosing the edition I once again find myself recommending the Penguin Classics edition for its Introduction. This time it is Fiona Stafford who does such a good job (though I think the ‘66 edition Introduction by Ronald Blythe was a fraction better.)

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