The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana

by Jess Nevins

Emma (1815)  

copyright © Jess Nevins 2022

Emma was written by Jane Austen and was published in December 1815 (although it is usually dated to 1816). Austen (1775-1817) is generally regarded as one of the greatest of English novelists. Her best novels, like Emma, are a part of the Canon of great literature, and she remains one of the most popular authors in the world.

Emma is a Bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) about Emma Woodhouse, a young middle- class woman in the small village of Highbury. Emma is intelligent and spirited, but has little to do with herself and is vain and too self-assured about her own wisdom and perception, and she ventures to matchmake for her friend Harriet Smith—a venture that goes wrong when Emma discourages Smith (a bastard, or “natural child”) from marrying a man, Robert Martin, who would be good for her. Emma instead encourages Smith to be with Mr. Elton, the local vicar—a further error, as Mr. Elton is attracted to and proposes to Emma, who turns him down. Mr. Elton later marries a gauche woman, and together the pair treat Harriet badly and attempt to replace Emma as the social leader of Highbury.

Into this situation arrives Frank Churchill, the son of the husband of Emma’s former governess. Churchill is handsome, superficially charming and good- spirited, and he flirts with Emma enough that she considers him a possible mate and the village assumes that there is a budding relationship between them. The reality is that Churchill is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, the niece of Emma’s neighbor—an engagement whose hiding requires a great deal of effort on both Churchill and Fairfax’s part and which leads to a great deal of strain and misery for Jane Fairfax. Eventually the engagement comes to light and Emma sees Churchill for what he is: a cheerful young man of deeply flawed character. But the revelation of the secret engagement does allow for a friendship to grow between Fairfax and Emma, where earlier Emma’s envy of Fairfax and the maintenance of the secret on Fairfax’s part had led to cool relations between the two.

No longer considering Churchill as anything but a friend, Emma is at last clear to see who the man she should belong with is: Mr. Knightley, a close friend of Emma. Throughout the novel Knightley is critical of Emma, but the criticism comes from a place of affection, and after realizations on both sides—Knightley, that his disapproval of Churchill stems from jealousy of his possible relationship with Emma, and Emma, that she feels Mr. Knightley should only marry herself—a realization driven home after Harriet Smith declares her affection for Mr. Knightley—the two admit their affections for each other and marry. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax marry and Harriet Smith marries Robert Martin.

In the context of Austen’s career Emma is an important novel. Emma was the last novel published in Austen’s lifetime, and is generally seen in the critical community as Austen’s best novel. It is not Austen’s most popular novel—that title goes to Pride and Prejudice—and was not Austen’s bestselling novel— indeed, Emma was not reprinted in her lifetime—but, most critics now agree, Emma is Austen’s most accomplished novel. The moralizing of Mansfield Park, the romantic illusion of Sense and Sensibility, and the lightness and fairy tale setting of Pride and Prejudice are done away with, and in their place are Austen’s greatest deployment of both realism and satire. Emma is hardly Austen’s only comedy of manners, nor her only social critique, but it is the novel in which she best blends comedy, relationships, close description, dialogue, and romance.

Austen stands as perhaps the significant transitional writer between the writers of the Regency (1811-1820), and more broadly writers of the Georgian era (1714-1830), and Victorian writers. She is also an important author in the transition from the neo- classicism of the Georgian era to the Romanticism and realism of the 19th century. Neoclassicism was a phase in European literature in which the classical texts of the Greeks and Romans were held to be the highest forms of writing, so that the rules and principles of classical literature were dominant, and dialogic wit, narrative reason, and authorial control of fiction were privileged, as were rationality, order, and logic—the influence of the Enlightenment, that period during the 17th and 18th century when rationality, order, and logic were dominant virtues.

All of these principles were changed during the Romantic era (1780s-1830s), which put an emphasis on imagination and emotion, and during the Victorian era, which put an emphasis on realism. Emma still has classic elements, such as the traditional comic ending of multiple marriages, but Emma also prefigures the Victorian attention to realism in her minute creation of Highbury while also, in proper Enlightenment style, privileging the orderly logic of Mr. Knightley over the unreliable imagination of Emma. Moreover, Emma is arguably the first major novel which in the words of critic Mary Waldron “could not only enthral without seeking to astonish, but also enlighten without the need to preach.” Before Emma and Austen, didacticism and instruction were portrayed as major purposes—perhaps the major purposes—of a novel. Austen and Emma began to change that. 

As one of the great novels in English literary history, Emma, predictably, is a deep work which rewards critical thinking. A much more serious work than Pride and Prejudice, Emma is a serious work with comic highlights, where Pride and Prejudice is a comic work with serious undertones. Austen layers in numerous topics and themes of the sort that critics love to dissect—and which students will be expected to write about.

Austen portrays society in Emma as a merciless, all-controlling monster which forces people into disingenuity and forced politeness, a monster which Austen’s heroine, like everyone else, is powerless to slay or change in any way. The deeply conservative ethics of the novel—much of Emma reinforces the class and socio-economic prejudices of its contemporary readers—are at war with the novel’s nascent feminism and the way in which the reader is led to sympathize with Emma, a young woman for whom there is little to do but care for her self-involved, hypochondriacal father and socialize—a woman who does not have the advantages of modern readers’ education or social mobility. Austen’s fictional portrayal of life in a small village was without peer in her time and has few rivals even now; Highbury becomes remarkably real for readers.

In fact, Highbury and its inhabitants become so real that Emma achieves a kind of universality. Emma is a most English of novels, dealing as it does with a small English village, the English middle class, and the very English concerns of manners and class. But Austen’s skill is such that contemporary readers don’t need to be English to appreciate Emma, nor do they need a knowledge of England of the Regency era to understand the novel. The search for romance, the complications of family relations, the burdensome ties of society—these things are understood universally. The character foibles of Emma, Mr. Woodhouse, and all the rest of the cast of Emma are similarly common to all cultures, not just the English middle class of the Regency era.

Not as universal are the strictures of society which Austen satirizes in Emma. The rigid class boundaries, the severe limits in behavior and destiny which society placed upon young women, the near-brutal enforcement of social mores and the dominance of gossip and innuendo—which critic Peter Conrad describes as “genially malicious” in Emma—all these things were more present in Austen’s England than in the modern era, so that the force of Austen’s satire may be lost for modern readers, although it was not for Victorian readers and critics. While modern readers will need little effort to understand Emma’s prose, it may take significantly more effort on their part to understand the cultural associations and assumptions of Emma’s time and place.

Emma’s greatness lies not just in the depth of the text but also its historical importance. During the early 19th century the novel was thought of as the province of men, but this began to change in the mid- and late 18th century, thanks in large part to the rise of the Gothic novel, so that by the time of Emma novels were seen essentially female, although “male novels” were still seen to exist (and seen as superior to the “female novel”). (The dominance of the “female novel” would change in the 1820s with the rise of the historical romance.) Emma is perhaps the high point of the “female novel,” employing as it does the Bildungsroman structure of the female novel, a female author and a female protagonist, female concerns (such as a woman’s place in society), and a male authority figure—in the case of Emma, Mr. Elton, the vicar of Highbury—as the story’s villain.

Emma can be seen not just as a highpoint of the female novel of era, but also a significant reaction against the Cult of Sensibility and against the Gothic novel. The best example of the Sensibility and the sentimental genre is Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1779), a novel of lachrymose excess whose titular character, Harley, is controlled by his emotions to the point that he is overwhelmed by the sufferings of other human beings and appears to die from joy alone. Harley’s Sensibility is benevolence, compassion, and crying at the slightest opportunity taken to extremes. The heroes of Sensibility live in a society of injustice and evil and embody the feelings which others lack, but the heroes of Sensibility do not allow their emotions to be governed by self- interest. While The Man of Feeling contains an implicit critique of Sensibility—Harley’s uncontrollable emotions lead him to defeats, unnecessary self- denial, and an early death—the English who adopted Sensibility overlooked or ignored this criticism and stressed the superiority of emotions and emotional responses to logic and rational thought. Those who easily blushed, cried, and fainted in response to sad or happy art or situations were therefore thought to be particularly virtuous. Sensibility was common in the Gothics, both in the heroine’s personality and in the inability or unwillingness of the Gothic’s primary villain, the Hero-Villain, to resist his passions.

Sensibility is absent in Emma. The closest a character comes to it is Harriet Smith, with her abundance of emotions and occasional fainting away, and her emotional abundance is seen as part of her immaturity and artlessness. In fact, Emma is not about the dominance of emotion, but the restraint of same. Maturity, in Emma, involves restraining emotions, hiding them behind manners and social courtesies, and deploying them in a restrained and proper fashion, as Mr. Knightley does when he finally declares his love for Emma. Mr. Knightley’s restraint rather than some Sensibility-like excess is portrayed as the proper model. Likewise, emotions are in Emma shown to be best when limited, so that the intense friendship between Emma and Harriet, in the end, gives way to “a calmer sort of good-will.”

Emma, like the rest of Austen’s work, can be seen as a reaction against the Gothic novel and an attempt to emplace an alternative mode of female novels. (Indeed, Austen went so far as to overtly satirize the Gothic mode in Northanger Abbey [1818]). The Gothic novel was the dominant popular form of novels in the 1790s, 1800s, and 1810s. Stories of terror and horror, about young women pursued through castles or young men in search of their heritage, the Gothic was thought of during Austen’s lifetime in gendered terms, as “male” or “female.” Many of the Gothics’ writers were women, and the genre had a large female readership, and Gothics by women for women were often classified as female Gothics. The female Gothic is a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story for the female protagonist, with Sensibility as a dominant concern and with a male authority figure as the story’s villain. Emma, like the female Gothic novels, is a Bildungsroman, but Sensibility of the Gothics is absent and the central male authority figure, Mr. Knightley, is an honorable hero rather than a flawed Gothic Hero-Villain.

Emma is also, put simply, a good read. Austen’s style is notable; it is both elegant and precise, deploying its many words exactly with irony and wit. Emma has excellent characterization of its cast and a particularly strong narrative voice—the “free indirect” style which is third- person narrator while continuously giving us insight into Emma’s motivations and thoughts. Austen’s style is clean, in the Georgian manner, and requires relatively little adjustment on the modern reader’s part—something which is not the case with many Victorian novels, especially those from the 1830s and 1840s. Emma’s realism is remarkable; her creation of Highbury stands as one of the best-imagined and best-described fictional locales. The characters, especially Emma, are three-dimensional and real enough that we can easily imagine their lives outside the confines of the novel. (This realism, and the depth of small, homey detail about Highbury and the lives of its inhabitants, was in fact disorienting to Victorian readers, accustomed as they were to dramatic spectacle rather than an examination of the mundane).

This is not to say that Emma is without faults. Austen famously declined to write about subjects outside her knowledge, claiming, “I must keep to my own style & go in my own Way; and though I may never succeed again in that, I am convinced I should totally fail in any other,” and this is reflected in Emma, which is a deep slice of English rural life, but not a broad one. The world of Highbury, though exquisitely limned by Austen, is after all a small one, and in some ways a quite artificial one. Many of the realities of the era, whether the threat of Napoleon invading England, the loss of male relatives and friends in the Napoleonic wars, bank failures, food shortages, or the Irish question, are not allowed to intrude on the pastoral idyll that is Highbury. There is one intrusion, the scene in which the “gipsies” threaten Harriet, but it is dealt with quickly and the status quo rapidly reasserted. (This is an interesting contrast to Pride and Prejudice, which is a fundamentally comic rather than serious novel but which deals with the contemporary reality of the military intrusion into real life, which Emma never does.)

Austen’s style is dialogue-heavy, which in some respects is good, as it makes the novel less dated. (Austen’s dialogue itself shows only slight signs of aging and seems remarkably modern and contemporary in most respects.) But much of this dialogue is chit- chat—Miss Bates in particular is garrulous and can babble on for a page or a page and a half unchecked. Austen used her dialogue precisely—her dialogue is the equivalent of and does the job of action sequences in an action-adventure movie—and her dialogue often artfully conceals emotion and intention, but at the same time there is a great deal of inconsequential politeness and social niceties, and the modern reader’s patience may at times be tested by just how much of the dialogue is truly meaningless.

Austen’s pace is leisurely. Unlike many of the Victorians, who packed as much characterization and plot into the pages of their novels as they could, Austen prefers to take a more measured approach. With a stylist as exquisite as Austen, this is hardly a burden to the reader, but at the same time leisureliness can become repetitive and annoying. Too, Emma cannot be described as having a surfeit of plot. Austen does not cram plot twists into her novel; what plot there is is carefully examined and considered by her characters and discussed at length. Even during Austen’s lifetime the relative lack of plot in Emma was criticized; this is even more true now, considering the length of Emma, and by comparison to the often over-stuffed quality of Victorian novels’ plots.

Emma is after all a comedy of manners, and while we are invited to laugh with Emma we are likewise invited to laugh at the vulgar Mrs. Elton and at Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father, the self- involved hypochondriac. And indeed there is much to laugh at there; he is one of Austen’s most successful comic characters. But the question must be asked if Emma overdoes Mr. Woodhouse. He certainly functions well as a device to show how one of Emma’s good sides, her devotion to her father and kindness in taking care of him, but his “comic” side—for this reader, at least—became annoying quickly. Emma in truth functions better as satire, at least in this regard, than as comedy; the number of people who smile in appreciation for its satirical qualities surely outweighs the number of people who laugh at its comic stylings.

Lastly, there is the case of Emma herself. Austen famously said of Emma that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” As with her father, Emma is a character that may not appeal to readers. She is certainly flawed: self-assured, vain, unappreciative of her good fortune in life, jealous of anyone who might be a rival to her position as the queen of Highbury, and seemingly uninterested in anything but meddling in her friends’ lives. These flaws are part of what endear Emma to many readers, but it can be fairly asked whether Austen asked too much of her readers to spend so much time so close to the thoughts and words of one flawed in such unpleasant ways, although admittedly the course of the novel teaches Emma the error of her ways, so that by the end of the novel many of Emma’s flaws have been driven from her.

Nonetheless, even with these flaws—flaws admittedly, flaws that not all readers will perceive as flaws—Emma remains a splendid work, the best novel by one of English literature’s greatest writers and one which many modern readers thoroughly enjoy.

Recommended Edition

Print: Jane Austen. Emma. New York: W.W Norton, 2001.


For Further Research

Peter Conrad. “Introduction.” Emma. Everyman’s Library Edition, 1980.

Susanne Juhasz. “Reading Austen Writing Emma.” line/ vol21no1/juhasz.html.

Catherine Kordich, “Emma.” Bloom’s How to Write About Jane Austen. Chelsea House, 2008.

Robert McCrum. “The 100 Best Novels: No. 7—Emma.”

Mary Waldron. Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.