If there was one book I wish I could go back and read as if for the first time, without any prior knowledge or expectations, without ever having seen or heard of the movies, it would be Jane Austen’s Emma.
Unfortunately, when I first read the book, I had seen the movies many times and knew exactly what to expect and I think it clouded my initial appreciation of what a well constructed novel it is.
I once read it described, and I wish I could remember where I read it, as a mystery. The book is almost exclusively told from Emma’s perspective, though not in a first-person narrative and it is fascinating to read her perception of what is going on, along with the clues that Austen gives about how things really are.
The book was published in 1916 and the mystery novel was not a genre at that time, so Jane Austen is once again at the forefront of literature. It’s not a mystery novel about crime and murder, but it is the way that Austen misleads her readers through her heroine, but at the same time invites them to perceive the truth, that makes it like a mystery…though without the readers necessarily knowing that there are mysteries to be discovered.
The heroine, Emma Woodhouse, knows that she is a very clever young woman and believes that she has a gift for perceiving the feelings of others and sets out to assist people in reaching their goals, usually romantic, as she perceives those goals to be. It’s not just that she believes that she has a gift of perception, it is also that she believes that she knows what is best for people and these beliefs conflict, most notably and most frustratingly, in her treatment of her friend Harriet Smith.
I must admit that for me the first half of Emma is a little slow. I like it, but I tend to meander through it pleasurably, like an afternoon walk in the sun, but the second half is really where the action is. That is when Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton all arrive in Highbury to shake up Emma’s placid and self-satisfied existence and where Emma begins to see that maybe her life is lacking a little something, somewhere.
That is also when much of the mystery begins (there is some during the first half, when Emma takes it for granted that Mr. Elton loves Harriet, while Austen hints that it is really Emma that Elton is interested in by his outlandish flattery of her). Emma believes Frank Churchill is distinguishing her with his attentions, she believes that Frank Churchill does not like Jane Fairfax, she believes that Harriet is in love with Frank Churchill and she believes that Jane Fairfax might possibly be in love with a man named Mr. Dixon. In the meantime, there is an undercurrent regarding Mr. Knightley, who does not like Frank Churchill, which is very unlike him since he usually likes most people.
All of this is taken for granted by Emma and Austen seems to assume that we the readers are taking Emma’s view of things, however, she is also inviting us to see where Emma has it wrong. Frank repeatedly finds excuses to go over and talk to Jane and her aunt, Miss Bates, and Frank only arrives in Highbury after Jane has come. Harriet is never seen talking to Frank, in fact, she seems to be talking to Mr. Knightley quite a bit (the man she currently loves). Frank seems to have knowledge about Dr. Perry that he only could have gotten from Jane Fairfax or Miss Bates.
And during the whole book, we are invited to wonder why Mr. Knightley is so jealous of Frank Churchill and everyone’s obvious desire that Frank marry Emma.
In most mystery novels, there is a scene at the end where everything becomes clear and every little mystery and inconsistency is explained. There’s no detective, obviously, in Emma, but there is one scene that serves to resolve nearly every mystery. It is when Emma has just heard that Frank Churchill is engaged to be married to Jane Fairfax, that they were engaged all along. It explains so much of Frank’s behavior and Emma is filled with shame and grief at how she has also behaved and how badly she has misjudged everyone.
Emma is also afraid that she has encouraged Harriet to indulge her love for Frank and that she has once again caused Harriet to be disappointed in love. She dreads telling her friend, but Harriet arrives perfectly unconcerned and it is revealed that Emma has once again been mistaken. Harriet never cared for Frank Churchill at all; the man she really loves is Mr. Knightley. In this revelation comes the final, unexpected and most important revelation of the whole book, that the book has been building to and that Emma has been completely unaware of: Emma discovers that she loves Mr. Knightley and she cannot bare the thought that he might marry Harriet.
It is a wonderful and touching scene. Emma spends the whole book thinking she understands everyone, but it turns out that the only person she really needs to understand is herself, which understanding she only comes to after her peaceful existence is threatened by the thought that Mr. Knightley might be taken away from her.
And it turns out that Mr. Knightley went through a similar episode of self-discovery. It was only when Frank Churchill came to Highbury and, as Mr. Knightley thought, threatened to take Emma away from him that he realized how much he loved Emma.
I’ve always wondered what it would have been like if I had read the book before seeing the movies. I wonder how much I would have seen and how much I would have just gone along with Emma’s view of things. It hasn’t dinted my appreciation of the book now, but I always wished I could have had the pleasure of reading it with a truly receptive attitude, without preconceptions of my own, and watched how the romance developed without any comfortable knowledge of how it would be. Would I have picked out Mr. Knightley as the one she would marry from the moment I first met him? I’d like to think so, but I don’t know.