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[254] Emma – Jane Austen

“Oh! had she never brought Harriet forward! . . . Had she not, with a folly which no tongue could express, prevented her marrying the unexceptionable young man who would have made her happy and respectable in the line of life to which she ought to belong—all would have been safe; none of this dreadful sequel would have been.” [387]

Devoting to guard the comfort of her father, beautiful, rich, and clever Emma Woodhouse is resolved not to marry. After self-acclaimed success at matchmaking between her governess (Miss Taylor) and Mr. Weston, a village widower, Emma, who thinks too highly of herself, as her friend Mr. George Knightley repeatedly admonishes, with insufferable vanity and arrogance, believes she beholds the secret of everyone’s feelings and superintends happiness. She takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new friend, Harriet Smit, who, in Knightley’s opinion, is “not a sensible girl, nor a girl of information, and has no experience and little wit.” [60] Knightley disfavors their association, believing that vanity working on a weak head produces every sort of mischief. Indeed.

She desired nothing better herself. Till you choose to turn her into a friend, her mind had no distaste for her own set, nor any ambition beyond it. She was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer. She had no sense of superiority then. If she has it now, you have given it. [61]

As Emma advises her friend to reject a farmer (Robert Martin) who appears to be of a different social disposition, a comedy of errors ensues, causing zigzags of embarrassment and exposing a secret engagement on behalf of others. When her plans go awry, suspicion, misunderstanding, and intrigue arouse—all as a result of her stubbornness and vanity. While she is well-meant, she doesn’t possess the humility and common sense that are conducive to fully understand the nuances of relationships. After Harriet’s matchmaking flop, which is yet her worst mistake, she perpetrates more error of imagination, flirting and allowing herself to be tempted by someone she doesn’t care for. Most of all, rather than being committed to remaining single,

I have never been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. [82]

she is in love with the one whom she willfully opposes and whose advice she slights, often intentionally. She never concedes because he would not acknowledge her false and insolent estimate of her own—and her pride needs to be tamed.

Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken… [404]

As much the novel is about marriage and status, and the power given to woman on marriage, it offers critical illustrations of the ways in which personal biases, prejudice, or desires (such as a preference over social disposition) impede objective judgment. Even the most impartial, infallible person could not pass an unbiased judgment when romantic feeling is involved. Inventions of emotional engagement contribute to the comedy of errors that are revealed to readers by way of the ironic detachment of the narrator. Social propriety, which often discourages open expression and keeps public show of emotion at bay, also plays a role in furthering the misunderstandings. The dialogues, which often afford multiple subtexts, fuel the misunderstanding, but also play a role in the possibility of revealing too much at the wrong timing. Half the fun is trying to find out exactly what is going on behind the embarrassment, and the truth of everyone’s feelings.

453 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]