Until about 2/3 of the way through, I found this book to be seriously dull. I’ve seen commentary and articles about the book that discuss this being a portrait of domestic life during the time–the female confinement to household concerns and little adventure. Perhaps that is the whole problem?
While it is true that the characters are operating under this weight of confinement, Emma is at once a brat and meddler. She does things because she can or because it relieves the monotony. Even toward the end of the book she admits to Mr. Knightley that she had called him George just once to see if he would chastise her for it, but when he didn’t rise to the bait she stopped. She had no use for doing anything that wouldn’t cause a ruckus where she could be the center of attention. In fact, she doesn’t start looking at her own behavior until Mr. Knightley takes her to task for being unforgivably rude to Miss Bates. It seems that shame is the key to her transformation because nothing else Mr. Knightley said to make her aware of her small tyrannical behaviors before this had worked.
This kind of confinement seems to breed an underlying hostility into everyone and everything. The men are allowed escape because they can galivant around as much as they please, but the women are stuck. We can see the progression of unopposed domestic power: Emma exercises her own will and vanity on those closest to her; Mrs. Elton, a newcomer, makes the attempt to dominate the lives everyone in the social circle; Mrs. Churchill forces everyone around her to obey her whims without fail and makes all miserable. Without someone to check the run-away power trips, it is likely that Emma would also evolve into a Mrs. Churchill.
No one–but, eventually, Mr. Knightley–holds Emma to account for anything. Her father will not. Her sister does not. And, Mrs. Weston (Miss Taylor) is described: “…the mildness of her temper hardly allowed her to pose any restraint; and the shadow of authority now being long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached, and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.”
And, Emma under her own guidance is dreadful.
But after Knightley’s whipcrack, Emma starts to examine the whole of her behaviors. It seems (to me) a bit unrealistic that, after years of disciplinary neglect, that one serious comeuppance would actually work. Emma in no way feels as sensitive as either Jane Bennet from Pride and Prejudice or Anne Elliot from Persuasion. She really feels kind of blank–a bundle of willful ideas rather than anyone with actual feelings. Austen tells us she has them–particularly after Knightley’s lecture on her conduct–but it doesn’t really ring true for me.
Will I read this book again? Maybe–in a couple of years. I listened to this by audiobook, but I am not sure having a physical book in front of me will improve the story much. Maybe I am just in a snerty mood. It just feels like a whole lot of writing with little “happening” except a few visits with friends and a lot of gossip and rumor. Mr. Knightley’s frustration at Emma for meddling in the affairs between Harriet and Mr. Martin and his anger at her behavior toward Miss Bates feel like the only true moments of feeling through the book. I guess I want more from a book than a few instances of amusement…
OK. These are my haphazard thoughts for now…