“Emma 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.”
The opening line of Emma by Jane Austen may not be as iconic as that of her Pride and Prejudice (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”), but it does get the job done as far as opening sentences go. By introducing the main character immediately, Austen is making it clear this is her story. By saying she’d had “very little to distress or vex her,” she is telling us what is about to change to make a story happen: something is going to either distress or vex Emma. Most of the time, that “something” was Emma herself.
As a character, I loved Emma. She was sweet and well-meaning, with no self-awareness and a way of misreading people to match her own assumptions. On the other hand, I had a difficult time getting into the book at first. Austen coded her books with scores of rich social commentary that I don’t have the context to appreciate and, on a plot level, not much happened in that section.
But then Churchill returned, Elton got married, and Knightley…was Knightley, but Emma gained enough self-awareness to stop taking him for granted so he became more essential to the plot. As she navigated her feelings and the consequences that came from her meddling in her friends’ love lives, Emma grew as a person and her relationships got stronger. It’s hard to blame her for not hearing how others felt because she couldn’t even understand her own. The best part of the book is to see how much she grows. Well, second best. The first best is Knightley’s line: “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
If you can push through the first half of the book, the payoff is absolutely worth it.
If you can’t get through the first half, try watching Emma Approved instead.Like The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, it’s a modernized version of the story told in vlog form. It’s a pretty accurate adaptation…even if it’s not quite as good as Clueless, but I’ll get to that on Sunday.