So I finished reading Jane Austen's Emma, which means I'm more than halfway through my project of reading all the Austen novels – just Persuasion and Northanger Abbey left unread now!
In Finland at least, Pride and Prejudice is the only Austen novel to have reached the sort of iconic fame where practically everyone knows something about Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy and their resentment to romance story. I started off with Emma knowing next to nothing beforehand, except for Austen's famous description of Emma Woodhouse as "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."
It's true that Emma Woodhouse isn't a most likeable protagonist at first. She is a very privileged young lady of the "landed gentry" class, whose family is among the richest and finest in the village of Highbury. Consequently, she considers most of the other residents of the village beneath her and spends most of her time in the luxury of her home, the Hartfield estate. However, she is in danger of becoming lonely in the big house: Emma's elder sister has been living a married life with Mr John Knightley in London for several years, and her governess-turned-companion Miss Taylor has just become Mrs Weston of the Randalls house. All that remains is Emma's nervous, hypochondriac father. Then sweet, simple Harriet Smith enters the story, and Emma decides to take the socially inferior girl under her wing and do her the great favour of finding her a husband, as she enjoys matchmaking. That is where the chain of hasty judgements and misunderstandings begins.
The starting point of Emma isn't quite as attention-gripping as in other Austen novels I've read so far. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs Dashwood and her daughters are forced to leave their home because it legally passes to John Dashwood; in Mansfield Park, Fanny Price leaves her family behind to be adopted by her socially much superior relatives; in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs Bennet goes into such a frenzy about new marriage prospects for her daughters that it's impossible not to follow what comes out of her and her husband's comical discussion. Whereas in Emma, the big starting event is Miss Taylor's marriage (which has actually happened before the novel starts) and it is followed by a rather lengthy and somewhat predictable episode of trying to pair Harriet Smith with Mr Elton the clergyman, which immediately shows all the negative, annoying qualities of Emma's personality. She patronizes Harriet and clearly enjoys her company mainly because Harriet is simple enough to admire every word that falls out of her mouth. She is so obsessively set on her matchmaking plan that she doesn't spot the obvious hints that it's going to fail massively.
However, after plodding through the couple of first tiresome chapters, it became clear that Mr Elton was potentially becoming one of the most hilarious Austen characters to ever exist. When it comes to the pivotal "tipsy Mr Elton in the carriage alone with Emma" scene, if you have the slightest ability of visualizing the scene in your mind you're guaranteed to let out a good laugh. By this time, it has also been established that the conversations between Emma and Mr Knightley (not the John Knightley in London who was mentioned earlier, but his elder brother who owns another rich estate in the area) are going to be the cream of the book. Then Mr Frank Churchill and Miss Jane Fairfax enter the scene, bringing mysteries with them. Why did it take Frank so long to visit his father after his marriage to Miss Taylor? Why isn't Jane in Ireland with her foster family even though she is supposedly very attached to them? At this point, I became completely hooked in the good, familiar Jane Austen way.
Although Emma is principally a comedy of relationships and misunderstandings, it covers some serious themes as well. For one, it explores a certain type of "friendship" (can it be called that even with quotation marks?) which in my opinion is found mostly among women and which absolutely happens nowadays as it did in Regency England. It is heavily implied that Emma could have sought a friendship with Jane Fairfax, them being the same age and intellectually even. Emma, however, feels threatened by Jane's talents which in some areas overshadow hers. She chooses Harriet Smith instead, because she is bound to stay inferior to Emma as a result of her simplicity, gullibility and social background.
I find Emma's deep loyalty to her father very touching, especially as Mr Woodhouse later on irritated me ten times more than Emma did in the beginning! Being beautiful, intelligent and rich, it would be the easiest thing for Emma to land herself in a profitable marriage, but she has decided never to leave her father, who takes any kind of change with great difficulty. It's very easy to compare their situation to the current debate in Finland of the moral treatment of old people.
As you might have guessed, Emma herself goes through some deep character development in the course of the novel. And I'm not using the big word "character development" just for fun here – it is delightful to observe how every significant event in the story gradually leads to her maturing. Her soul-searching moment near the very end really reaches your heart.
I would definitely recommend Emma to anyone who wants to be a bit more Austen-savvy than the average (female) person who only knows how to fangirl about (Colin Firth's) Darcy. It's witty, funny, features some very entertaining characters as well as genuine development for the main protagonists, and it's as irresistibly mysterious as any average detective story out there!