" E M M A " by Jane Austen

A conversation about Jane Austen between myself and a second party would usually go like this:
Second party: Have you read any Jane Austen books?  
Me: I read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility way back. 
Second party: Aren't they awesome? Which P&P movie did you like? 
Me: The one with Keira Knightley. I like her and the actor who played Mr. Darcy. 
Second party: I agree! So what other Austen novels do you plan on reading? 
Me: None, really. I, uh, don't really like her books. 
Second party: Why not? 
Me: *shrugs shoulders* Just not my cup of tea, I guess.

I would like to disclose in this review once and for all that I could never consider myself a Jane Austen fan. I know that she's an amazing, influential classical female writer whose works have been adapted on screen and translated worldwide. I also always nod in amicable agreement whenever someone mentions her as their favorite author because I can acknowledge her contributions to literature as well as respect the fact that you enjoy her works. That being said, Austen is simply not the kind of writer whom I can connect with. I tried finding a semblance of kinship in her works several times in the past with Pride and Sense, two novels which I hadn't finished for the first two times I read them, but I only did so by the third and fourth time respectively. 

Simply put, I don't like Jane Austen's books even if she is an immensely celebrated writer. I find her prose often tedious even if she can compose passages with wit and humor. I think her characters are intolerable and the only redeeming quality I admire about her characterizations is that she obviously isn't afraid to make her protagonists unlikable and absurd which is where the source of her rich social comedy of manners sprout from. For the longest time I told myself I will never read another Austen novel again but because I was so irrevocably smitten with the Pemberly Digital webseries Emma Approved which is the modernized adaptation of this novel, I decided to venture on, reassuring myself that perhaps third's time the charm. In a few inspired ways, it was.

But in many other instances that's almost painful, it wasn't.

EMMA is supposed to be a story about 'youthful hubris and misconstrued romance' and with Austen's signature dry humor and amusing observations and parody regarding the exhausting social graces during the era she is writing in, Emma more than fulfills that promising premise. The titular heroine Emma Woodhouse is beautiful, clever and rich but she's also conceited and proud; often overestimating her so-called "matchmaking" skills. She's only twenty-one and a privileged one at that who has a very high opinion of herself and how others should view her. In spite of these flaws, Emma can be impressive particularly because of her streak of independence and ideas about a woman's agency which were considered queer and upsetting during her time. Because she has no financial hardships unlike other Austen heroines, Emma does not feel obligated to get married. 

In fact, as an heiress, she would rather just live by herself in her estate and possibly throw cool parties and hang out with other legible ladies whom she can charm and bewitch. One of them who has fallen prey to Emma's irresistible companionship is the modest Harriet Smith who eagerly tries to please Emma by following every single advice the other woman gives even if ultimately it proves to be to her detriment. Their friendship is not exactly of equals which make their interactions quite infectiously funny and warm at times. I have no doubt Emma adores Harriet but she tends to confuse that with her incessant need to control Harriet's choices for her which had proved to be bothersome. Emma's heart is in the right place but she's also far too headstrong to realize that her actions often cause harm or misunderstanding to the people around her. But Austen has written the approach to this relationship as a little bit of a comedy so at least that breaks the tension a bit.

The main conflict that happened in the first volume (this novel is divided into four, or whatever, I'm too lazy to check the book again) is Emma's adamant belief that a certain Mr. Elton fancies her friend Harriet. Emma was so convinced that she is doing something remarkable and worthwhile by matchmaking these two that she was totally blind-sighted by the fact that Mr. Elton actually wants Emma and not Harriet. It was only when Mr. Elton himself confessed that Emma realized that she was wrong to make assumptions from evidence that she willfully and purposefully interpreted for her own convenience and in support of her own twisted logic. Not only did she embarrass and humiliate Harriet and Mr. Elton by placing them in a very awkward position concerning misread signals and feelings, she has also deliberately cast aside Harriet's suitor Robert who seemed to like Harriet enough and sincerely wanted to be a good husband to her, if she will have him. To Emma, however, Harriet should aspire for more. Not a bad sentiment; in fact it's the kind of liberal thinking ahead of her time--but it's not something accepted by society back then so poor Harriet will only suffer humiliation to her character, all because Emma wants to put her in equal footing as herself which is ridiculous! Harriet is nice and sweet but she can't have the same set of choices and freedom as Emma because Emma has the privilege to be fickle, vain and independent--Harriet simply does not. Emma's ignorance over such an obvious difference between their social standing is irritating--yet also very endearing.

Emma does not care that people in her social circle would see Harriet as beneath them; she adores Harriet nevertheless because she finds her interesting and special and whether or not she realizes it can be a tad condescending is unimportant because Emma only has good intentions even if those intentions get her into troubles of her own silly making. I think Emma is very well-written, filled with enough flaws and entitlement that give her much depth as the protagonist. Another aspect of her character that I had fun exploring was when it comes to her opinions and insights regarding the lovely Jane Fairfax. Emma is insecure around Jane, mostly because Jane is reserved and hard to engage in small talk, as well as the very definition of an accomplished woman that Emma aspires to be. While Emma is merely content indulging on her whims for so-called self-improvement and autonomy outside marriage, Jane Fairfax dedicates herself to fulfilling work outside the confines of her social class which makes her more learned, resourceful and educated about the world. The only thing that Emma comforts herself with when it comes to Jane Fairfax is that Jane is actually pretty dull in personality, often the subject of light mockery between Emma and the slightly douche-y Frank Churchill. In one conversation, they talk about how boring Jane is and that people like Emma and Frank are not to blame if they can't find the energy or time to try and coax Jane out of her shell. Both so arrogant, self-assured and individualistic, Emma and Frank for me are the perfect match.

However, Emma has claimed since the beginning of this book that she has never fallen in love and could never be capable of it hence her aversion towards marriage. I could easily surmise that she could have been an asexual which would be okay but I don't think Austen ever intended her to be that which would have been more of a rewarding character twist, to be honest. It's worth nothing that even though Emma does not want to involve herself in personal romantic entanglements, she is more than happy to insert herself in other people's love lives. Austen plays this absurd character flaw of hers to a tee and I can admit that they are the instances in this novel that I find very enjoyable to peruse. It's the source of this book's conflicts. That being said, almost a good sixty percent of this four-hundred-seventy-seven-paged book is SO FUCKING SLOW AND REPETITIVE. I even said during one of my status updates for my reading progress that the social interactions among characters that populate this book are the Victorian-equivalent of Facebook-ing. The content of these scenes and dialogue does not at all justify the length and I hated every goddamn minute I have to read through all the non-events that happened by the 180-paged mark. Nothing monumental truly transpires after the amusing Mr. Elton-Harriet-Emma drama save for the scarce intriguing narrations concerning Jane Fairfax being a bore to Emma (and Emma feeling guilty about feeling that way), and Emma's contemplation about her real feelings for Frank; and whether or not she's attracted to him or not.

Emma does not end up with Frank Churchill, though. She ends up with Mr. Knightly, an old family friend who is ten or twelve years her senior. And it only took for Harriet to realize that she might fancy Mr. Knightly for herself just so Emma can realize too that she had always loved Mr. Knightly after all. WOW. Who knew that's all it takes? It would have been awesome if we cut out the tons of bullshit parties/get-togethers/whatever where random characters would gossip or charm each other so we could have arrived to this stellar revelation earlier but hey, Austen felt like the other stupid parts of this book that I hated were important so--who I am to argue with a classical writer? I just never remember being this annoyed about minutiae descriptions of ordinary events in classical works unlike when I read an Austen book. Dickens, Hugo, Dumas, and Doyle all have moments where they dwell on piles of descriptive narrative pertaining to scenes that are often not as relevant as others, but at least they kept it down to a minimum and go back to the purpose of their plot in the first place. With Austen's Emma, it was an indulgent feat that littered a great number of chapters for the second and third volume. By the three hundredth or so page, I almost did not want to finish.

But I made a promise to myself that I will push through a Jane Austen novel this time. If I was ever going to do it, I want it to be for Emma because I do find the main character so engaging and relatable, and I care about what happens to her a lot. It's really the other inconsequential interactions among other characters that I would rather without which negatively affected by overall enjoyment and appreciation of this novel once I finished. If only this book was at least two volumes shorter, it would have gotten another full star in its rating instead of three and a half.



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