Updated: Nov 27, 2019
A tale of self-deception
It's been years since I read a Jane Austen novel. As an English major in college, Jane Austen consumed a good part of my undergraduate career. When I entered graduate school, I was thrust back into 18th century high society. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely adore Jane Austen's work. She had a clever way of pointing out social nuances without being overtly offensive, but after graduation I felt the need to take a break after such an intense immersion. After posting my London article; however, I suddenly felt a yearning for peppermint tea out of my Harrod's cup, scones, and some witty Jane Austen.
If you're new to Jane Austen, or you're trying to build back up to her long, complex sentences, I think her novel, Emma, is a great place to start. Oddly enough, this is one of her later books, but when I was assistant teaching undergrad students, I found that this work tended to be more palatable.
One of the reasons that Emma is so digestible is because the protagonist, Emma Woodhouse, is hilariously obtuse. In the beginning of the novel, she is described as a “handsome, clever, and rich” (5) 21-year-old woman, but despite her obvious intellect, Emma naively fancies herself a matchmaker. Although she is convinced that she will never marry, Emma comes to believe that she is the one to credit for her governess’ marriage to Mr. Weston. Thus begins her “career” in matchmaking, and along with it, a long pattern of self deceptions that leaves readers laughing, pulling their hair out, and laughing some more.
Apart from Emma’s belief that she is the reason her governess got married, Emma deceives herself in many other ways. Her belief in her matchmaking skills leads her to try and match her friend Harriet with Mr. Elton and Mr. Churchill, but while she is busy training Harriet and scheming to make her fall in love, she is annoyingly, yet delightfully unaware of her own feelings for Mr. Knightley. Readers realize that although Emma is intelligent, she has a difficult time seeing beyond what she wants to see. We begin to learn that intelligence is much more powerful when it is coupled with humility.
After Emma’s beloved governess, Miss Taylor, gets married to Mr. Weston, Emma decides that she was the one who brought them together. The reader is first given this knowledge when she is having a conversation with Mr. Knightley about the wedding and Miss Taylor. Knightley explains how everyone should be most happy for Miss Taylor marrying Weston, and Emma replies,
“And you have forgotten one matter of joy to me…
and a very considerable one-that I made the match myself” (10).
Emma goes on to explain how she made the match four years ago, but her father urges her to refrain from matchmaking again. Emma promises never to match herself, but she believes that matchmaking others is “the greatest amusement in the world” (10). Now that her governess is married, Emma decides to go on and match her close friend Harriet. Although Harriet is a pretty girl, she does not know who her parents are. Keep in mind that the novel is set in 1815 England. Harriet not knowing who her parents are automatically demotes her from the higher echelons of 18th century British society, but somehow, Emma naively believes that Harriet is an upper class girl who deserves nothing short of a gentleman.
Harriet has her eyes on farmer Robert Martin, but Emma disapproves and turns her attention to the village vicar, Mr. Elton. Mr. Knightley doesn’t agree with Emma’s attempts and believes Martin to be a good man. Naturally, Emma brushes his input off, and eventually we learn that Elton has feelings for Emma rather than for Harriet. Again, we witness another one of Emma's self-deceptions, but the frustration over her naiveté makes it impossible to put the book down.
Will she ever see beyond herself?!
Can Mr. Knightley just kiss her already?!
To make matters worse, Elton becomes offended when he learns that Emma thought that Harriet should be the one for him. Elton believes he is too much of an upper class gentleman, and Emma’s belief that all wealthy men are noble and worthy of her friend proves to be wrong. Knightley's predictions turn out to be correct, but Emma continues to deceive herself and believe that she is truly an expert matchmaker. This leads to her attempts to match Harriet with Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill. While she is attempting to match them together, Emma begins to believe that Churchill has feelings for her; another illusion created out of her own self-deception. As it turns out, Churchill is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax for the entirety of the novel.
Jane Fairfax is a woman that Emma dislikes. Though Emma gives reason as to why she dislikes her so much, her deception prevents her from realizing that the true reason for her disposition towards Jane Fairfax is that she assumes that Jane is after Mr. Knightley. After all, he is the only eligible bachelor left in the town, and in Emma’s mind, that is enough evidence to conclude that Jane is after Knightley. All of Emma’s illusions, ideas, and self-deceptions prevent her from knowing herself.
Emma sees Jane Fairfax as a threat, but it is obvious to readers that Emma has feelings for Knightley. The way she reacts towards the idea of Jane and Knightley being together makes her feelings obvious to everyone but her. When she hears of the possibility of a Jane and Knightley courtship, she exclaims, “Mr. Knightley must not marry” (176)!
Emma is appalled that Mrs. Weston could even think such feelings exist between Jane and Knightley, but even before her blatantly jealous reaction, Emma speaks of Knightley in a way that only a woman in love can speak:
“There is nobody whom I would fix on more than on Mr. Knightley” (175);
and Mrs. Weston replies by saying,
“you give him credit for more simple,
disinterested benevolence in this instance than I do” (176).
Here, the reader gets a suspicion that Emma is unknowingly in love with Mr. Knightley. She’s unknowingly in love because she has deceived herself into believing that she will never marry, and that Knightley is simply a treasured friend to her and nothing more.
Emma finally learns the truth when Harriet tells her that she wants to marry Mr. Knightley...
Emma finally learns the truth, and
“a few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart” (320).
For the first time in the novel, Emma is honest with herself and it is
“darted through her, with the speed of an arrow,
that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself” (320).
As the novel ends, Emma and Mr. Knightley get married, a thing that Emma convinced herself that she would never do, and Harriet ends up marrying the man she loved from the very beginning, Mr. Martin. Knightley proved to be correct once again, and Emma had ultimately been falsely led by none other than herself. It’s hard to understand how one marriage (Miss Taylor’s) causes Emma to believe that she is an expert matchmaker, but the truth is that Emma was raised to believe that she was never wrong.
“The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation
were the power of having rather too much her own way,
and a disposition to think a little too well of herself".
This apparent evil comes from the fact that her beloved Miss Taylor always allowed Emma to do what she wanted, and “these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her” (5).
From early on, readers can understand that Emma will never see any wrong in her actions, and these ideas are what lead to her various self-deceptions. The one man she ends up loving is the one character who constantly told Emma when she was wrong and when she was being naïve. Emma is constantly deceiving herself through the entire novel. She labels herself as an expert matchmaker, awkwardly attempts to match her friend Harriet with men that she believed to be upstanding and worthy, and naively believes that she and Mr. Knightley are simply close friends, but by the end of the novel, Emma is truthful and finally sees “with a clearness which had never blessed her before” (320).
Emma is the last Jane Austen novel that was published during her lifetime, which is why the plot is so well-sorted and her comedy of manners is so engaging. She purposely makes a protagonist who we love to dislike, but somehow manages to endear her throughout the novel. If you enjoy fun love stories, you'll love Knightley's brutal honesty as it becomes evident that the only mate for Emma is someone who doesn't allow her to walk all over them.
Although I never grew up with the level of leniency that Emma did, I was able to relate to the novel in a completely different way this time around. I, too, believed myself to simply be great friends with a young, handsome, witty man, and much like Emma, I too came to the realization that I was in love with him. We learn a lot from the characters we read about, and sometimes we turn out to be more like them than we think. Emma marries Knightley, and in the end, I married that young, handsome, witty friend of mine. Jane Austen's social commentary still rings true today as she defines what it means to be a timeless writer, so go grab a copy of this book and bask in her brilliance.
***PS: There is a really great, modern film-adaptation of Emma. It's a little 90s flick called Clueless. Look forward to an article coming soon to a screen near you.