For this weeks’ review, I decided to go back. Way, way, way back, to 19th century England. And also my HSC, which feels like the same timespan. We’re talking about one of my favourite classics, and also just one of my favourite books, Emma by Jane Austen.
Now Austen gets a lot of flack for her writing style; that Romantic-era flowery prose that just goes on for pages and pages and you feel like you haven’t read anything. I understand this critique because I had the same thoughts. I remember reading it for my preliminary English course while I was on a road trip from Sydney to Melbourne, and I could never really latch onto it properly. So, like almost everyone else, I put my faith in Google and Sparknotes and tried to pull myself through on general knowledge and widely used quotes. However, this isn’t a review of my approach to HSC English; we’re going to talk about the book.
At the centre of the book lies Emma Woodhouse, a classic Jane Austen protagonist who hates the idea of marriage and is all-around critical of women. Once you start to grasp the overloaded language of the book, you quickly come to realise that Miss Woodhouse is very cutting, and when she speaks, it feels like a breath of fresh air. Emma’s quick-witted and funny, and hyper-critical of everyone around her, which makes her feel a lot more modern than she is. Austen is renowned for writing character; all of her protagonists are strong leads and how she wrote them made them timeless – everyone can relate to their struggles (which is, as I think of it, a little concerning). From Emma beating back unwanted advances from Mr Elton to Harriet just falling in love too many times (three in a year, to be precise. I know this because I read it, Snapchatted it and am currently living by it), these characters approach modern issues in an old-time way.
That isn’t to say that Emma isn’t without fault. Apart from the issue mentioned above with Romantic prose in this contemporary era, the main problem with Emma and a lot of Austen’s other writing is its morality. Like I said before, Emma Woodhouse hates the idea of marriage. She’d rather stay single and care for her ageing father because she doesn’t know what he’d do without her. Emma’s critical of Mr Elton marrying a total tramp, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill having an unexposed affair and suddenly running off and getting married, and poor Harriet’s horrible run with trying to get hitched. She still ends up falling in love and getting happily married to, of course, a man with slightly more social status than her – so everything works out perfectly in the end. Of course, with writing romance, this should be normal, but it’s a tad overstated considering how resistant Emma is to all of it.
I wrote about that for my preliminary exams; I’m pretty sure. However, when I re-read the book this year, I felt it. And I remember putting off finishing it because I’d just gone through a tough breakup, so reading the perfect ending was probably going to twist me in ways that weren’t healthy. But I waited, acting piteously towards myself with endless references back to Harriet because I too am an utterly hopeless romantic. I fall in love much too quickly and get hurt as a result. And, if I’m honest, that’s what I’ve taken from Emma. That it’s okay to be single and to be a smart, sassy person because I’m still young and everything will fall into place eventually.
So if you’re looking for a funny, subversive read with a strong female lead, then I would highly recommend Emma. It only takes like a third of the book to get into that flowery prose style, and you don’t miss much. Or, if you don’t want to read it, watch Clueless**, it has the same plot but in the 90s and she falls in love with her step-brother.