Though her novels are known for their relatively small scale and controlled emotion, few authors inspire such extremes of feeling as Jane Austen. Self-professed "Janeites" form societies in her honor, while detractors call her fiction insular and trivial. Because Austen's name and a general idea of the world of her fiction are common cultural currency, it is difficult for readers to approach her novels without preconceptions, but essential that they do so to appreciate her art. Emma opens as if it will be a simple narrative about a young woman who is "handsome, clever, and rich" (p. 7), but it is instead a penetrating study of the human capacity for self-deception, self-knowledge, and love.
As the title suggests, the novel is dominated by Emma Woodhouse, a young woman who possesses great social and personal advantages but no awareness of her limitations. We learn in the opening chapter that Emma has "lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her" (p. 7)—an indication that something soon will. The story's action begins when Isabella Taylor, Emma's former governess and current companion, leaves the household to marry. Long motherless, Emma is now left with only a well-meaning father who imposes no restraint on her.
One of the most important lessons Emma must learn is the folly of plotting the fates of others. She begins the novel determined to "improve" and make a brilliant marriage for Harriet Smith, the young woman of questionable birth who is new to Highbury. Emma believes she is acting solely for Harriet's benefit, but the narrator makes us aware of Emma's unacknowledged motives. Emma declares matchmaking "the greatest amusement in the world!" (p. 12), and her failure to take seriously the marriage market's strictures leads to Harriet's humiliation and possible permanent unhappiness. Emma blinds herself about the intentions of Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill, believing both are smitten with Harriet when clues to their true feelings abound. Why is Harriet's future so important to Emma that she is blind to many of the realities of her world, even disregarding the warnings of her old friend Mr. Knightley?
If Emma represents a restless personality often impatient with social expectations, Mr. George Knightley embodies the rational embrace of those expectations. Sixteen years older than Emma, Mr. Knightley is the only character in the novel able to see Emma's faults and rebuke her for them. He warns Emma that her friendship with Harriet will harm both of them, and predicts that Mr. Elton will never marry a woman who is not his social equal. When, despite Emma's efforts, Mr. Elton proposes to her rather than to Harriet and, rebuffed, goes on to marry the socially superior if personally odious Miss Hawkins, Emma is shocked, but not enlightened. Mr. Knightley's coolness toward newcomer Frank Churchill, whose impetuousness and flirtatious manner attract Emma, distances them further. Because the reader understands early on that it is Mr. Knightley who loves Emma and whom she loves, we wonder when she will realize this.
Austen never allows us to forget how high the stakes are for marriageable young women, whose only power in this society is consenting to or refusing the men they attract. A woman's social, economic, and emotional future is almost wholly determined by her marriage, as illustrated by the marriages of Mr. Elton and Miss Hawkins, Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, and Robert Martin and Harriet Smith. Emma's own development is revealed primarily through her reactions to her romantic prospects. In the course of the novel she receives a proposal from Mr. Elton, which she refuses; realizes that she does not want to marry Frank Churchill if he asks her; and, at long last, realizes that it is Mr. Knightley she loves.
Emma's final realization is delayed until the last chapter, when a group outing to Box Hill leads her to reassess Frank, Knightley, and herself. Led on by Frank's flirtatiousness, Emma makes a joke at the expense of her old friend Miss Bates, an aging spinster whose prolix rambling irritates Emma. Despite Miss Bates's blushing embarrassment, Emma does not realize she has pained her friend until Mr. Knightley asks, "How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?" (p. 309). Mr. Knightley's rebuke awakens Emma to the reality of social status, and to her unthinking abuse of her advantages over Miss Bates. Emma can no longer ignore Mr. Knightley's advice; he has shown her where her attitudes lead.
Whether Austen's novels endorse or critique the class system they depict has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley weds high social status to worth of character. Yet the novel also makes us aware of how often social class and true worth are not united. Mr. and Mrs. Elton, for example, are in every way but social status far inferior to Robert Martin and Harriet Smith. Does Austen's depiction of the range of worth within each social class imply criticism of the class system itself?
Jane Austen was born in the Hampshire village of Steventon, England, on December 16, 1775, the youngest daughter of the village rector. She had six brothers and one sister, Cassandra; neither sister married and they remained close throughout their lives. The entire Austen family was fond of reading, writing, and staging theatrical performances. Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding were among the family's favorite authors. The two sisters were educated at home after a period of early tutoring at Oxford, and they learned about the larger world chiefly through letters and visits with their extensive circle of family and friends.
Little is known about Austen's romantic relationships. She apparently once agreed to marry the brother of family friends, only to end the engagement the next morning. Inconclusive evidence suggests that she may have been in love with a man who died early in their relationship. Whatever her experience of love and romance may have been, Austen was resolute in her belief that, as she wrote in one letter, "anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without Affection."
Surviving notebooks indicate that Austen began writing by the age of twelve, and her early writing includes plays, short novels, and poetry. In 1795, Austen began writing the novel that would become Sense and Sensibility. Pride and Prejudice followed in 1797 and Northanger Abbey in 1798 or 1799. In late 1797, Austen's father wrote to a London publisher about the possibility of publishing her work, but he received no answer.
Austen's life changed dramatically in 1801 when her father retired and moved the family to Bath. Austen never much liked Bath, and her writing life there was relatively unproductive. Her father died in 1805, and in 1809, her brother Edward invited his mother and sisters to live in a cottage on his property in Hampshire, close to Austen's birthplace. Rejuvenated, Austen began working on her earlier manuscripts with an eye toward publication. Sense and Sensibility appeared in 1811—anonymously, as was common at the time. The next five years saw the publication of Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, and Emma. Austen died on July 18, 1817, of a kidney ailment now believed to be Addison's disease. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in 1818, with the author identified. Her work was well received during her lifetime, and she was buried in Winchester Cathedral.
Jane Eyre (1847) In part a reaction against Austen's cool decorum, Bronte's novel celebrates an orphaned, wrongfully impoverished heroine whose passionate nature and refusal to compromise lead her to triumph.,
The Virgin in the Garden (1978) In this novel, the first of a quartet, Byatt traces the intellectual and romantic progress of her ambitious, outspoken heroine from high school to Oxford University in 1950s England.
The Bookshop (1978) In this brief tragicomic novel, Fitzgerald analyzes life in an East Anglian village during the late 1950s through the reactions to a middle-aged widow's attempts to open and run a bookshop.
Excellent Women (1952) With a wit and eye for detail reminiscent of Austen, Pym depicts a spinster in her thirties whose immersion in postwar English village life brings both complications and satisfactions.
Vanity Fair (1847–1848) Thackeray's sweeping satirical novel follows the fortunes of sweet, unworldly Amelia Sedley and cleverly manipulative Becky Sharp in the marriage market, exposing the hypocrisies and pretensions of their society.