Besides Pride and Prejudice, Emma is perhaps Jane Austen’s most beloved novel and definitely her most humorous. Emma herself, despite being labeled a “heroine that no one would like but myself (Austen),” is actually rather endearing as she bumbles through acting as matchmaker for the small, country town of Highbury.
Austen usually takes quite the heat for her seemingly old-fashioned “girls only” novels about quiet, domestic life of the nineteenth century and romantic tales of “good girls win.” Emma especially, as the daughter of a wealthy gentleman with little to do but parade around Highbury trying to marry off her less-well-to-do neighbors couldn’t seem much further from a modern woman. Yet, out of all of Austen’s heroines, Emma is the most modern, the most forward-thinking, and the most independent–a fact that perhaps caused Austen to say that Emma would be a “heroine that no one would like but myself” for Emma, like Austen herself, was indeed well ahead of her time.
So how is Emma so modern? Think about it, she’s the only one of Austen’s heroine’s who isn’t obsessed about getting married. Of course, she wants everyone else to marry, and she at times (falsely) believes she is in love for rather ridiculous reasons, but, for the majority of the novel, Emma has no interest in tying the knot herself.
The most incomprehensible thing in the world to a man, is a woman who rejects his offer of marriage
Emma already has status, wealth, and security–all primary inducements for women of the nineteenth century to scramble to be wed at the first opportunity, and she has no interest in changing her circumstances. Emma could essentially be her own, independent woman and she is very happy being just that. When she finally does marry, it is not for any of those reasons, instead, she marries purely for love when she discovers that her friendship with Mr. Knightley, who isn’t her superior but is in fact her equal in wealth and circumstance, is actually much more than just a friendship. Even after they are married though, Emma doesn’t give up any of her independence. It is Mr. Knightley who moves into her estate so that she can continue to care for her ailing father. Modern? Powerful? Independent? I think so. In the novel, Emma did in fact achieve what modern women seek in their relationships: equality and independence.
A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter
Yet, though equal in wealth, and retaining her voice within their marriage, Emma’s relationship to her husband couldn’t be further from how how many modern women view equality for Emma and Mr. Knightley’s “equality” wasn’t a competition, it wasn’t a “I can make that much money too” race, and it wasn’t a “who is busier and more important” challenge. It was simply respectful equality: A partnership instead of a battle of the sexes where each understood one another’s different roles without falling into the modern train of thought that different roles = different worths.
Emma entered her marriage with Mr. Knightley not because she found his wealth and status attractive, but because she admired and respected him. he had wisdom, was rational, and had a strong sense of morality. He treated everyone fairly and kindly, whether they were poor, elderly women, or wealthy, independent men. Ten years her senior, Mr. Knightley brought a wisdom and moral compass to their marriage and though he often reprimanded Emma for her naive, romantic ideas, he did not think less of her and she did not lose her sense of worth. While he brought wisdom, Emma brought cheerful optimism and a fervor for life, and together, they created a perfect balance. Emma didn’t lose anything when she married. She was still essentially herself: respected, loved and was loved, had a voice, and, with Mr. Knightley, created a surprisingly modern marriage.
Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives
quotes via emma, austen, penguin books / images via
– <3 A.
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