“I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like” wrote Jane Austen, the author of Emma. Admittedly, not the best of beginnings.
Have you ever even heard of Emma? Many Jane Austen wannabe enthusiasts rave about Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion (indeed, all very pleasantly sounding titles, the kind that make you feel well-read), but few people have heard of, let alone read, Emma. This book is another one I’ve stumbled across because it was on each and every list of must read classics, and who I am to argue with generations of readers and literary critics who undoubtedly know better than me?
“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 whole plot is in that incipit: having no worries and no true problems to keep her busy, Emma finds pleasure in matchmaking and in the company of her friends and family. Civil conversation, subtleties of society, blunders, offenses, all make for the development of the characters and the evolution of their circumstances.
Although the author herself defined Emma as an unlikeable character, we learn to love and appreciate her good heart as she learns to understand her limits and errors, along with the consequences her actions have on those surrounding her. Of course, you can find the complete plot elsewhere, but the point here is that for a modern, young reader, the story is dull. The not-so-adventurous tales of walks and dinners and teas and the fineries of 19th century etiquette do nothing to spark the enthusiasm of an audience who is used to strong emotions, explosive, fantastic storylines and predictably unpredictable plot twists.
Emma is a school of society as Mozart’s Così fan tutte is a school of lovers. The main question that arises from attempting to read it would be “is it still relevant”? Are the goals, aspirations, thoughts, manners and occupations of these aristocratic families from the English countryside still in any way relatable to today’s readers across the globe? The sheer amount of amazing television transpositions of the work would point towards an enthusiastic yes, although, as Professor Robert Eggleston so egregiously points out in his article on the matter, “neither the television production nor the other adaptations of Emma killed off […] students’ indifference”.
The issue here arises from an erroneous interpretation of literature as an activity with the exclusive intent to entertain and amaze. A literary scenario saturated with this kind of content leads unseasoned readers to judge the great books of the past with the same criteria, expecting them to be the equivalent of some sort of Wunderkammer at their disposal. The power of Emma stands in the human aspects of the people involved: in order to get the best out of it, one must purge all the hystorical, social and economical elements of discrepancy with the present, which make the characters feel foreign and distant. Emma and her entourage are all human beings with the same basic motivations and goals in life as anyone today. The means and circumstances change, but the core remains the same across the centuries. It’s a masterclass in relationships and etiquette that doesn’t bore you to death by listing the rules, but rather shows you what happens when those rules are broken. A “teach-by-example” distillate that well disposed readers will find useful even in today’s day to day interactions, on the one crucial condition that they don’t start rolling their eyes halfway wishing for the agony to be over.
Emma IS relevant today, one must only be humble enough to see it. However, the didactic function of literature seems lost on (way too) many readers, especially the younger, inexperienced ones. I could not put it more clearly than Professor Eggleston himself: “When I suggested that [the students] might want to reconsider their presuppositions and judge the work according to different standards, such as its effectiveness as a didactic work, they were horrified. This standard of judgment presupposed that literature was designed to instruct, and that was insufferable.”
There is a lot to be learnt, and a lot to be understood about human nature. Are you skeptical about this book actually being something of interest for you? Possibly true. Do you think it’s an outdated, dusty novel that nobody should care about anymore? Hopefully I’ve managed to change your mind with reasonable arguments. Are you in doubt about reading it? Understandable, but just take a leap of faith and give it a chance. You will most probably find that it is closer to your experience than you might suspect.