Tai: Why should I listen to you, anyway? You’re a virgin who can’t drive.
Cher: That was way harsh, Tai.
I wonder how many people begin Emma with the movie Clueless as their point of reference. This revelation pegs me as an irredeemable child of the 90’s, it’s true, but the contemporary reimagining of Jane Austen’s novel by director Amy Heckerling provided a level of accessibility that would’ve never existed had I entered the text cold. The lives of gentlefolk in a small English countryside is hardly something I can relate to, but conjuring up images of a young Alicia Silverstone traipsing around Beverly Hills prepared my expectations for a ridiculous, over-the-top romantic plot peppered with insight and comedy. While I loved the movie as a young kid, the novel itself is a surprise as an adult, the humor so fresh and razor-sharp two centuries after its first publication.
Emma Woodhouse is the darling of Highbury, heiress of her father’s estate, and–in her own mind–an unparalleled matchmaker. She’s young, rich and precocious, certain that she will never marry and therefore committed to pairing off the people she loves in a tidy fashion. Everybody in town defers to her except for the gentleman George Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law. He is constantly unimpressed with Emma’s insights about romance because underneath her seemingly altruistic intentions lies the heart of a spoiled young girl.
Meeting the equally frivolous girl named Harriet spells disaster for them both, once Emma decides to give her a makeover and marry her off to someone “respectable.” The problem: Harriet’s social stature is too low to be able to catch a gentleman. Emma’s coaching inflates her ego so much, however, that she refuses the proposal of a thoroughly sincere man whom Harriet actually likes, thinking she can do better. A series of mishaps rock their little cul-de-sac when a young man Emma wanted to pair up with Harriet ends up angling for her instead and the dashingly mysterious yet flake-y Mr. Frank Churchill catches Emma’s interest.
You sometimes forget that Austen can be absolutely scathing in her depiction of her own characters. Emma is the least self-reflexive character among Austen’s heroes but most of the story is told through her point of view, a triumph in the realm of the unreliable narrator. She’s not stupid by any means, but she’s so naive and already assured of people’s love and high regard that until the very end, she never questions her own judgment. The way her constructed illusions crumble around her near the end of the novel is also handled superbly, the emotional fallout so vivid despite the lack of showy displays.
The minor personalities throughout the story are small gems of characterization. Mr. Woodhouse the hypochondriac lends great levity with his non-sequiturs and so does the talkative Miss Bates. The subplot featuring the beautiful Jane Fairfax, a smart, together young woman (at whom Emma is jealous) makes a wonderful counterpoint to the trivialities of Emma’s preoccupations. The way their conflict is resolved at the end is testament to how Emma grows up throughout the novel, earning the reader’s respect in the process.
I’ve been having Austen in the brain recently, owing to writing this post and an article by the Los Angeles Review of Books about her place in English Literature. Because of her subject matter, it’s easy for people to dismiss her work as merely focusing on trivialities but books like Emma showcase her unerring capacity to size people up free of any justifications, uncovering manipulations, anxieties and true emotions underneath the sheen of gentility.