Jane Austen’s Emma: A Girl For Today

‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings in existence…’

If Emma herself, the snobbish, infuriating but still likeable heroine of Jane Austen’s novel, had read this summary of her situation, she would probably have agreed with it. But by modern standards…just how lucky was Emma Woodhouse?

Pros and Cons

On the one hand she was featherbedded with an insanely large fortune; she was adored by her father and admired by the inhabitants of an entire village. Not to mention receiving daily visits from the wonderful Mr. Knightley, an unmarried gentleman whose features are never fully described but who must (of course) be god-like.

Fair enough…but on the other hand, she had never travelled further than a few miles from her own home. Her circle of friends was limited in the extreme and she could count the parties she’d been to on the fingers of one hand!

Goodness, what a suffocating life she must have led! Insufferable, as Jane Austen would have put it.

Much loved and adored: Emma (2009)TV Mini-Series starring Romola Garai

But Was It Really That Bad?

Let’s sit back and take a closer look at the daily goings on in the claustrophobic, curtain-twitching confines of Highbury. Was there an up side to the fact that everyone knew how many times you’d walked round the shrubbery that particular afternoon?

I think there was – and what’s more, I think in many ways Emma didn’t know how lucky she was. Here’s why…

Reason No. 1: Letters Were Common Property

Just how many of other people’s letters did Emma get to read? Every single one of them, is probably the answer. By Chapter 10, she has already read someone else’s offer of marriage and helped them in declining it.

You’d think that the wicked pleasure of reading other people’s letters would get stale after a while.  Not a bit of it!

“Yes, indeed, a very good letter,” replied Emma rather slowly–”so good a letter, Harriet, that every thing considered, I think one of his sisters must have helped him.”

(Hmm, nosy and a little bitchy!)

…and, soon enough, Emma had a nice little routine in place:

When his [Frank Churchill’s] letter to Mrs. Weston arrived, Emma had the perusal of it.’

No wonder Emma considered herself to be an expert at analysing handwriting!

Her enthusiasm wasn’t always shared by her acquaintances. Here she is offering someone else’s letter to Mr. Knightley:

“I shall be very glad to look it over,” said he; “but it seems long. I will take it home with me at night.”

Now, that’s clever! Don’t be caught out reading someone else’s letter – take it away and do it somewhere else!

Emma even learns how to find out what’s in other people’s letters without actually reading them:

She regained the street–happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax’s letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself.’

I rest my case!

Reason No. 2:  Unlimited Strawberries! And An Amazing Historical Site On Her Doorstep

How’s this for an invitation?

“You had better explore to Donwell,” replied Mr. Knightley. “That may be done without horses. Come, and eat my strawberries. They are ripening fast.”

Not only did Donwell Abbey offer unlimited strawberries, but it was also a beautiful old Abbey set in glorious English countryside…and of course, had gardens to die for! It was within walking distance of Emma’s house. Lucky gal

Reason No. 3: A Very Biddable Parent

Emma’s father was admittedly a bit difficult – but she could wrap him around her little finger.  Here she is persuading him not to wait up for her when she goes out to a party.

“I am only afraid of your sitting up for me. I am not afraid of your not being exceedingly comfortable with Mrs. Goddard. She loves piquet, you know; but when she is gone home, I am afraid you will be sitting up by yourself, instead of going to bed at your usual time–and the idea of that would entirely destroy my comfort. You must promise me not to sit up.”

Now, that girl has my respect.

Reason No. 4: Travel Was Much Easier And Quicker BEFORE They Built The M25

Perchance Emma needed something doing in London, she only had to say the word to Mr. Elton:

…he could ride to London at any time. It was impossible to say how much he should be gratified by being employed on such an errand.

How very obliging!

And Frank Churchill was also a fan of the uncongested road system:

“He had reached Randalls the evening before. She was pleased with the eagerness to arrive which had made him alter his plan, and travel earlier, later, and quicker, that he might gain half a day.”

From the centre of London to Dorking it would probably have taken two or three hours on horseback. Quite a while, admittedly – but the trip would have taken you through nice countryside, with pleasant wayside taverns where you could stop for a bite to eat. Today, by car? At five o’clock on a Friday evening? Rather you than me.

Reason No. 5:  Why, Mr. Knightley, Of Course!

Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them.

Wouldn’t you just love to have a Mr. Knightley living next door? But that’s the whole point – Emma did, and she still didn’t realise that he was ‘the one’. How did he convince her otherwise? If you don’t know already, I hope you’ll read this amazing story and find out for yourself! 

Let’s finish with  a little appreciation for the smoldering (and our  personal favourite) Mr Knightley (Jeremy Northam, Emma 1996)…

All images © BBC, Emma (2009) TV mini-series 


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