The Complete Jane Austen "Emma" by Jessica Emerson
Emma's Admirable Journey from Cluelessness to Self-Awareness
Jane Austen famously called Emma a heroine "whom no one would like but myself." While some readers may have found that true, many of us have not. Why do we not dislike Emma?
While her wealth and beauty may excuse her behavior in the eyes of her friends and family, the reader/viewer certainly needs more in order to accept, and possibly even like, a women who seems so self-absorbed and careless. How do the book and film manage this difficult task?
Self-knowledge is highly regarded by Austen, so a character who is ignorant of his or her own faults is clearly in need of correction before he or she can marry a worthy partner. On this path, Emma (Kate Beckinsale) walks a very fine line. If she were fully aware of her faults at the outset of the novel (therefore acting with willful disregard towards others) she would be a horrible person, and a hateful character. It is her naivete, her self-ignorance, her "clueless"-ness, if you will, that saves her from our scorn. We certainly do not admire her, and may even pity her.
It is clear that she has been spoiled and sheltered, and that the combination has made her conceited. She treats other people -- especially Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton) -- as playthings but her intentions, though misguided, are essentially good. She is trying to help, she just doesn't know what she's doing. Even worse, she is very confident that she is in the right. As Mr. Knightly (Mark Strong) so aptly sums her up in the film, "she thinks she has nothing to learn." She is not a bad person, one who does wrong knowingly. She is just a very young, inexperienced woman.
It is crucial that the film convey this if we are to accept Miss Woodhouse. I feel that the combination of Andrew Davies' script, Diarmuid Lawrence's direction, and Kate Beckinsale's acting managed to successfully walk this fine line and create an Emma that the audience (and Mr. Knightley) can understand, accept, and love. First, she must be likeable in spite of her faults, then she must become aware of them and outgrow them. Like Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, Emma Woodhouse must overcome some personal shortcomings before she is even able to see her future husband as a potential suitor.
Emma is inexperienced in the world, but very imaginative. (Catherine Morland could have told her this is a dangerous combination!) Her self-indulgent flights of fancy, during which she imagines various scenarios as Harriet marrying Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill introducing himself to her, Mr. Dixon rescuing Jane Fairfax, are very well done. They are fanciful, but not over the top. This device illustrates Emma active imagination in a more realistic way than if, say, we were given a voice-over of Emma's thoughts (as the novel essentially does). Also, these scenes actually make the imagined scenario more reasonable to the audience. Once we have pictured these possibilities along with her, we become somewhat complicit in her schemes.
In contrast to Emma's lighthearted nature, Knightley's sternness and anger seem harsher in the film than I'd expected after re-reading the novel. Their argument over Harriet and Robert Martin is really rather intense. However, it is with good reason on his part. Knightley sees clearly that Emma has all but ruined the happiness of two good people, and is infuriated that she can treat the situation so lightly. Her pouting, "You are wrong, Mr. Knightley" after he leaves typifies her youth and stubbornness. She is more concerned at this point about being right -- i.e. winning the argument -- than about doing right.
When later she does realize that she has in fact "mistaken [Mr. Elton's] intentions" towards Harriet, she really seems to feel badly for Harriet, and for her own misjudgment. "I'm determined to mend my ways," she says. But how long can this determination last when even those she has wronged won't hold it against her? Without consequences, what will change her behavior? Her father is unaware of her faults, idolizing her as a perfect child and discouraging change of any kind. He has sheltered her from the world and from herself. Miss Taylor, whom according to the novel was more fond and indulgent than a governess should be, is Mrs. Weston now, and still too kind to show Emma any "tough love."
Emma is basically a young woman growing up by herself, fumbling her way into adulthood and learning most lessons the hard way, as opposed to by good example or instruction. Knightley sees her faults clearly, and loves her enough to point them out to her, albeit in a somewhat stern manner. (I must say, his too-oft repeated line, "Badly done, Emma!" sounds like a cross between an angry patriarch and frustrated dog trainer!) At any rate, Knightley feels responsible to try to help shape Emma, not into a different person, but into her better self.
This better, more adult self is, incidentally, also a woman who is ready for marriage. When we meet 20-year old Miss Woodhouse, she is uninterested in marriage, and sees Knightley as more an older brother (her sister is married to his brother, after all!) than as a possible mate. The 17-year age difference also helps blind her to seeing him as a love interest at first (although luckily she does not, Like Marianne Dashwood, think him completely ineligible and infirm at the advanced age of 37.) It is to Knightley's credit (and a sign of his maturity) that despite his jealousy of Frank Churchill, he still tries to help Emma for her own sake. He also rants most hot-temperedly about the infamous London haircut, which makes us think that this incarnation of 'perfect gentleman' Knightley may have a bit of room for growth as well.
When gracious, talented, demure Jane Fairfax (Olivia Williams) is held up to her as an ideal, Emma feigns disdain because really she is jealous and mortified by the truth. Jane is many things that Emma is not, and some that she wants to be. Knightley sees through this, and calls her on it, which makes her uncomfortable, so she deflects him with a witty remark (often her means of escape from too honest discussions with Knightley in this film). Likewise, in her snobbery towards Mr. Martin (Alistair Petrie), she proves herself to be the type of person who once she's in a hole, digs it deeper because she doesn't want to admit that she is wrong. She can't at this point admit that to herself, much less admit it to others.
Emma must first learn humility before she can transform into her better self. She finally learns it at Box Hill, after publicly humiliating Miss Bates and then being soundly chastised for it by Mr. Knightley. Finally, the consequences of her actions are no longer ignorable. It is not just Mr. Knightley's good opinion that she has lost, although she certainly feels that keenly. She has also lost her own high opinion of herself. Mr. Knightley's reprimand finally forced her to take a clear look at herself for the first time in her life, and she was appalled at what she saw.
Herein lies to key to our liking Emma Woodhouse: once she finally sees the full truth about herself, it changes her. We see that self-knowledge truly is a gift, for with it comes in short order all the clarity which was previously lacking. Emma sees how wrong she was about Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, and most importantly, how much she truly loves Knightley. In trying to make amends by visiting Miss Bates, Emma proves that she is now aware of her shortcomings and is making an honest attempt to change her ways. By this, she finally wins the love of a man who had all but given up on her as a lost cause -- lost to her own folly and to another man.
At the Harvest Ball (a scene added to the film in lieu of an actual wedding, for some reason), the filmmakers do something which is very important to Emma's character. She pays proper notice to the farmer Mr. Martin, by warmly greeting him and inviting him, Harriet, and his sisters to Hartfield. This simple act illustrates that she is now truly Mr. Knightley's equal in graciousness, humility and generosity. It shows that the lessons she haslearned and the changes she made have really 'stuck.' She has shaken off some of her too-strict classism and gotten off her artificial high horse regarding over her own self-importance. Her journey from cluelessness to self awareness has made her a better person and brought her true happiness.
How then could Austen think we would not love her Emma? In some ways, she may be the most realistic and courageous heroine Austen wrote. She was deeply flawed, but with the help of a man who loved her, she was finally able to recognize her flaws and when she did, she reformed herself and reshaped her life. How many of us are courageous enough to look into our hearts and see ourselves clearly? How many of us are blessed enough to be loved in spite of our faults? If we do not like Emma in the end, it must be because we envy her greatly.