The Book that is "Clueless"
The first time I read Emma, I was 22 and I very much did not enjoy it. I thought Emma was insufferable* and the story was too melodramatic. Fast forward: reread at the age of 30 and I freaking love this book!
Recently, you may have noticed an uptick in the number of Austen books on this blog. That's because I am a part of a Jane Austen book club. So, there’s that. But if I did not mention this before, I think it’s an important piece of advice: if you have not ever read Austen before, it is meant to be funny. It’s satire bordering on parody. In the ongoing trend of readapting Austen for the big screen, most series are simply taking themselves too seriously. In their hands, the female protagonists of Austen often seem pompous, the people around them obnoxious, and the “lessons” preachy. Which is why the very best contemporary adaptation of an Austen novel is, hands down, Clueless. Emma is clueless and Clueless is Emma. When you embrace Jane Austen in this light, as a woman who is looking at the absurd contradictions in her own society and then inflating them to something close to caricature, these books become much more enjoyable.
Did it take me 8 years to understand this? No, I already knew this about her novels. So why did I not appreciate Emma the first time through? I think, perhaps, I was too much like the main character. Too confident in my own importance in the world. Too willing to assume I had wisdom to offer and too hesitant to listen to those who knew better. And when you remember that Emma is only 16 in this book, I think she becomes more endearing and her faults are more understandable.
Emma is the only of Austen’s leading ladies who is truly of the upper class. She’s a young woman who lives at home, taking care of her neurotic father. She has pledged to never marry, which makes her equal parts fiercely feminist and greatly entitled. She has the luxury to do with her life whatever she like, and she chooses to better the lives of a few who are less fortunate than herself. Emma fancies herself a matchmaker and endeavors to pair off some of her closest friends. Spoiler alert: she’s not great at it.
What is so likable about Emma? She is resilient. She is willing to break the status quo (most times). She is fiercely loyal to her family and friends (though admittedly her graciousness does not always extend past her own circle). She is educated and is not afraid to voice her opinions. She is flawed.
I feel (I hope) there is a common thread in this blog that a great female protagonist is not perfect because no one is. Point of fact, many of the most famous male literary protagonists are deeply flawed and sometimes truly unlikable, and yet we are invested in their stories. Complex characters are the better characters; and, I think Emma - especially considering she is meant to be an exaggerated character - is really multi-faceted. What’s more, she learns from her mistakes. She continues to grow and develop, often through self-reflection**. If the Emma at the beginning of the book is a tad insufferable, the Emma at the end of the book is gracious, grateful and genuinely wiser.
by Jane Austen
*it should be noted: I clearly didn’t think Emma too insufferable since I did name my adorable cat after her.
**when she isn’t learning through self-reflection, she is taking her lessons from Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley is, and always has been, a bit problematic for me. He’s many years Emma’s senior, and while he does have a better understanding than her of how the world works, he often imparts this wisdom in a way that is grossly patronizing. He is certainly not always correct, and does maintain some level of humbleness, but there are many moments where I sort of just want Emma to throw things at him.