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'Emma'; or How Jane Austen Revealed My Inner Know-it-All

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Emma - Jane Austen

Emma - Jane Austen

Penguin
Yes; I'll admit it. There have been times when I've acted a bit like Emma, the eponymous heroine of Jane Austen's novel. There have been times when I have, shall I say, ventured into the unsolicited advice department. Times when I've been so convinced of what I knew about others that no one could convince me my assumptions were absolutely wrong.

I haven't always seen myself in Emma. In fact, there was a time when I would have been offended at the very suggestion. After all, Emma is the heroine that Jane Austen said "no one but myself will much like." But the older I get and the more I re-read Austen's works, the more I begin to see myself not only as Elizabeth Bennet (and who doesn't want to see herself as "dearest, loveliest Elizabeth"?), but also as some of Austen's more flawed characters.

These "a-ha" experiences are high on the list of reasons why I love Austen. I have this theory that if you read her works enough times and really contemplate the life lessons therein, you can pretty much give up your psychotherapist. You can even reduce your library of self-help books to Austen's six novels. They are so much fun to read, so satisfying, so full of dramatic tension and hilarious commentary, that you hardly know you're getting a life lesson at all. Which is exactly how I like my life lessons delivered.

When we first meet Austen's heroine Emma Woodhouse, she is enjoying the "triumph" of what her truth-telling friend (and only critic) Mr. Knightley dismisses as Emma's "lucky guess." Said "lucky guess" is the marriage of Emma's dearest friend (and former governess) Miss Taylor. Emma, however, gives herself more credit for the match than Mr. Knightley chooses to do.

Emboldened by the success of her first foray into matchmaking, and lonely for the newly married Miss Taylor, Emma takes on a new project, Miss Harriet Smith. Determined to make over the trusting and subservient Harriet into Emma's own idea of perfection, Emma decides that Harriet's current romantic interest is too low on the social scale for her new friend. Emma, in all her social consequence and omniscience, will elevate Harriet on the social scale. Emma, in all her generous solicitude for the well-being of others, will bestow upon the vicar, Mr. Elton, the perfect wife. For he would be just the right man for Harriet.

Never mind that Mr. Elton has plans of his own and that the worshiping Harriet would follow wherever Emma leads. For Emma, those around her are pawns, and she their queen. Emma, of course, fancies herself a benevolent ruler. And thus she embarks on a series of misguided adventures into high-stakes meddling in the lives of others while having not the slightest doubt of her own sagacity. Challenged by no one but Mr. Knightley, she willfully misreads and misinterprets everyone's actions. She is, in short, a character we might heartily dislike, were it not for the genius of her creator.

Austen's brilliance is about making us see the universal humanity of all of her characters. Even if we cannot see ourselves in a particular character, we most certainly have known someone like that character. From the very beginning, we cannot truly dislike the high-handed, I-know-better-than-you Emma, for she has sacrificed her own domestic comfort to her best friend Miss Taylor's interests. Mr. Knightley may call the marriage of Miss Taylor to Mr. Weston a "lucky guess," but it was Emma who encouraged Mr. Weston to visit her friend, in hopes that he would eventually propose—and take that best friend away. Thus we see that under her meddling is a warm, affectionate heart. And we cannot truly dislike Emma because she patiently and without complaint—even to herself—ministers to the comfort of her hypochondriacal, self-centered, childlike father.

Most of all, we cannot truly dislike Emma because she becomes ensnared in her own machinations. And thus Mr. Knightley's wish that he "should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return" comes to pass.

(Be careful about what you wish on others, Mr. Knightley. It may just come back to kick you in the hindquarters.)

And that is all I shall say. If you have not read the book, I urge you to do so. You might just recognize that you, like Emma, find the idea of arranging someone else's life to be so much more appealing than looking at your own.

By the way, all of you who are jonesing for Austen since Masterpiece Theatre cruelly took a hiatus from its Complete Jane Austen extravaganza are in for a treat: the 1995 adaptation of Emma starring Kate Beckinsale. It airs on PBS in two parts, beginning Sunday, March 23. The Kate Beckinsale Emma is also available on DVD, as is its worthy companions, the splendid adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Amy Heckerling's contemporary take on Emma, the delightful Clueless.

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