Emma Movies & TV, Jane Austen Adaptations, Period Drama

Deconstructing Miss Emma Woodhouse

Image from Emma (2009): Emma Woodhouse © BBC 2009 for MASTERPIECE

The second episode of the new adaptation Emma (2009) aired last night on Masterpiece Classic. You can read my review of Emma and watch previous episodes until March 9th, 2010 at the Masterpiece website. As we move further into the story of Highbury’s misapplying matchmaker, I thought it would be interesting to delve into her character in the novel a bit deeper and explore the different Emma’s portrayed in the film and television adaptations.

Since it’s publication in 1815, Jane Austen’s Emma has had its share of advocates and adversaries. What impressed early readers was not that it lacked energy and style, but that its story was dull and uneventful. Even Austen’s famous publisher John Murray thought it lacked ‘incident and romance’ and Maria Edgeworth, a contemporary author so greatly admired by Austen that she sent her one of the twelve presentation copies allotted by her publisher, could not read past the first volume and thought “there was no story in it.” Ironically, what these two prominent and well-read individuals attributed as a weakness, is actually Emma’s greatest strength.

If one looks beyond the surface, Emma is an intricate story focused on the astute characterization and social reproof which Austen is famous for. Its heroine, the privileged, self-conceited and spoiled Emma Woodhouse may not be as appealing as Austen’s sparkling and clever heroine Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice, but her character offers the reader a harder wrought and more rewarding dénouement. Like Miss Woodhouse who believes that she knows better than anyone else what is best for them, we must trust Jane Austen’s instincts for what she believes is the best subject and narrative style. Since many scholars, critics, and readers attribute Emma as a masterpiece of world literature, I think Jane Austen has the final laugh on her early critics. Emma may be about nothing and lack romance, but what a pleasure it is to be so resplendently deficient.

Emma Woodhouse is a complex character that on first acquaintance is rather a pill. In the famous opening line she appears rather appealing, ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her,’ but Austen quickly dispels the readers good opinion with an equally opposite retort, ‘The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.’ In those two sentences, we learn so much: she has every advantage in life that a young lady could wish for but is untempered and totally clueless.

Austen gave herself a great challenge in creating “a heroine whom no one but myself will like.” In contrast with her other heroines, Miss Woodhouse does not have any social or financial concerns and thus no compelling need to marry. Therein lies the rub. We have no sympathy for her whatsoever. She’s rich, she’s spoiled and she’s stuck up. Who indeed could possibly like such a “troublesome creature”? During the course of the novel, we witness her exerting her superior notions of who is suitable for whom as she matches makes for her friends with disastrous results. It is no wonder that Maria Edgeworth gave up reading Emma after the first volume. At that point, we have met most of the characters in Emma’s world and are coming to fully understand her ignorance and misguided perceptions in relation to them. She is truly exasperating. Austen tests our endurance fully as the novel progresses and her heroine continues to make mistakes. It is a testament to her skill as a writer and deft comedian that she holds our fascination with the “busy nothings” of every-day country life in Highbury, a small village filled with endearingly flawed characters. The transformation of the heroine from spoiled and insufferable into a contrite, mature and likable young lady that you want to root for, is nothing less than remarkable. It is truly a shame that Edgeworth could not recognize the genius of Austen’s sly sashay of characterization into a world that could be your own neighborhood. We can only account that, “One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.”

Miss Emma Woodhouse on screen

Image from Emma (1972): Doran Godwin as Emma Woodhouse © 1972 BBC

Doran Godwin (1972), with her regal repose and swan-like neck, gave us an elegant Miss Woodhouse that was more a toffee-nosed London snob than the country girl from the first family of consequence in a small Surrey village. Though I enjoyed her performance, I could never warm to her Emma and rejoice in Mr. Knightley choosing her as his Mistress of Donwell Abbey. After Mr. Woodhouse’s demise, I envisioned them packing it up and moving to Town. This Emma was meant for superior refinement.

Alicia Silverstone (1995) as Cher Horowitz in Clueless, she gave us a contemporary version of Emma set in Beverly Hills infused with Valley-speak and designer fashion that was so totally fresh and outrageous hilarious that even after fifteen years it may be what she is best remembered for. Her Cher may have been a superficial cell phone wielding Emma who soul searches while shopping, but we were not only charmed by her innocence, but by her high-tech closet. Totally, fur sure!

Kate Beckinsale (1996) at 23 was the youngest actress to portray 21-year-old Emma Woodhouse, bringing a youthful vitality and naughty school-girl persona to the part. Her immature busybody was at times both annoying and redeemable. I was highly suspect that she would mature enough to be a good match to Mark Strong’ assertive and angry Mr. Knightley. Their future life together was bound to be wrought with boisterous rows and passionate reconciliations.

Gwyneth Paltrow (1996) was another elegant and long-necked Emma Woodhouse but played the part more as a mischievous altruist, than the spoiled, conceited and misguided matchmaker that Austen intended. The fact that her comedic skills and suave polish suited the screenplay was a benefit too. Oh, and she actually got to say some of Austen’s great lines. Screenwriter Douglas McGrath actually trusted Austen enough to leave more than a few of those in.

Image from Emma (2009): Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse © 2009 BBC for MASTERPIECE

Romola Garai (2009) is the newest and most energetic Miss Woodhouse to grace the screen yet. Physically she fits the part perfectly and has the experience and maturity to play a complicated heroine closest to Austen’s intentions. Early in the production she had an odd habit of exaggerated facial expression and popping eyes, but as Emma matures through the story we saw less of this and more refinement. Unfortunately, she did not get to say much of Emma Woodhouse’s great dialogue, but the spirit remained, and I grew to appreciate her performance. How she will be ranked among the Emma’s on the screen, we will have to wait a few years for a better perspective.

Who is your favorite Emma Woodhouse? Have your share of the conversation and vote today.

Images from Emma (2009) courtesy © 2009 BBC for MASTERPIECE

22 thoughts on “Deconstructing Miss Emma Woodhouse”

  1. I don’t know which of the Emmas is my favorite. I think Beckinsale was my least favorite, as was the Knightley in that one. I like the Paltrow version, but I agree that her snobbery and loneliness didn’t come into play enough in that version. I am enjoying this current version with Garai. I find her facial expressions a bit jarring, but I think she is true to form and I think Miller as Knightley across her is great, too. They have a definite chemistr, and I think Miller is more accurate in portraying Knightley as a very upright (somewhat rigid) man.

    But I loved Jeremy Northam :-)


  2. Lovely post on the most intriguing of Austen’s heroines–the older I get, the more I enjoy the company of Emma, though I’m afraid she might lump me in the same category as Miss Bates!

    I’m currently diving into George Eliot and reading about her dedication to realism, and it strikes me that Austen, and especially Emma, paved the way for Eliot and realism. The character studies and portrayal of everyday life in Highbury is simply wonderful.

    >It is truly a shame that Edgeworth could not recognize the genius of Austen’s sly sashay of characterization into a world that could be your own neighborhood.

    I think it’s easy to forget that Austen forged a new style of literature, we take her and her legacy for granted.

    Can’t wait to watch pt 2 tonight, assuming I can commandeer the TV/DVR :)


  3. I’ve watched Doran’s version and Kate’s version more times than I remember and I lurve them both for different reasons. But if I had to choose, it would be Kate’s… she just seemed to suit the character I always had in my mind.


  4. Thank you for this wonderful assessment of Jane Austen’s Emma.

    I love both Kate and Gwyneth, however I voted for Kate because in my mind Emma needed to be a little more spoiled, a little more snobby and a little more full of herself. She played the sweet and innocent a little further than I imagined Emma to be.

    Thank again for a beautiful analysis of all the past Emma’s.


  5. What a thought provoking essay, Laurel Ann! It did give me pause…

    As I have yet to watch the 1972 version, I’m just considering that last 4. I do love Kate Beckinsale and Gwyneth Paltrow in a lot of their films, but my vote will have to go for Romola Garai. Not just because of her acting, but because of her nuanced interpretation of Sandy Welch’s script. I think Garai played the introspective scenes of Emma especially well (which I never really saw or noticed in other adaptations), and it has added another layer to my re-reads of Emma.

    As to Clueless, I have never really ‘associated’ it to Austen in my mind’s eye. I’ll probably get a lot of “WHAT-EVER!” by admitting that, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that I enjoyed this film tremendously!


  6. Of course, I love Jane Austen’s Emma the best of all. Since I just finished re-reading it again last week in preparation for the PBS version, I agree that Romola Garai has the spirit of the real Emma. I had more trouble seeing the other actresses inhabit the role than I am currently having with Garai, so she gets my vote! I’m thoroughly enjoying the new Emma on PBS and am looking forward to next week’s conclusion.


  7. ** I love reading all your posts, but I picked up a spelling mistake and I thought I would tell you, hope that’s ok?!?

    ** In the 3rd paragraph you write, “shelf-conceited’ :)


  8. This is an excellent post! I like the newest Emma best–despite the lack of original Emma lines and the rearranging of the plot, I felt like that actress was most like the person I imagined in my head while reading the book. (I even imagined Emma being a sort of “actress” in her own world, thus the funny facial expressions.)
    My second favorite is Cher, though, definitely.


  9. My BFF called right at the beginning of the 3rd episode and didn’t take the hint that I was watching Emma. But people are more important than television shows, right? I’m so thankful for iTunes. They have Emma featured as a dramatic TV show and season pass was only around $7. Cheaper than going to the movies.


  10. Thanks for a very well-written, in-depth and insightful analysis of the character of Emma. I’d like to think that JA likes her because of her honesty and readiness to admit faults, to own up to her errant way. I’ve enjoyed this new BBC production. I think Romola Garai is the best Emma I’ve seen, so far. Her animated facial expressions, which some find overly-exerted, are just right for a comedy like this. But I know, sometimes she just opens her eyes a bit too much like they’re almost popping out, making it one comedic effect which could well be unintended.


    1. Hi Arti, nice to see you. Thanks for your complements. *blush* Emma does redeam herself in the end by admitting her blunders. I also like that honesty that Austen gave her. I like Romola too. Just wished she had contained herself a bit more. My strongest objection to this new adaptation was the script. Very little of Austen’s great language. A great loss IMHO.


  11. I have loved the story of Emma for a long time and appreciate all of the versions I have seen (haven’t seen the 1970’s yet) for the different takes on the story they bring. Up until this point, I think I preferred the Kate B. version because it seemed the most “accurate” in feel although Mr. Knightley seemed a bit too angry at times and Emma a bit bratty. Gwyneth was just too perfect, like a character, not flesh and blood. I find it amusing that the very thing that Romola Garai is being most criticized for – exaggerated facial expressions and ungainly movements – is the very thing that I love about her performance. I think that perhaps since the very language of Jane Austen is more formal than we use today, many people think that all people acted in formal ways all of the time in her day and were not “real people”. The very point of Emma is the growing up of the main character. At the beginning of the book, she is a young girl with a too high opinion of herself fed by (almost) all around her and Romola played her as a young girl. She is the big and favorite fish in a very small pond. It is the reappearance of Jane and the arrival of Mrs. Elton and Frank that bring new ideas into Highbury and make Emma check her own behavior and reassess her own opinions of herself. She grows up as the book goes on and Romola showed that in the way she “calmed” the actions of her portrayal down. I loved that. Of course, who can’t help fall in love with Mr. Knightley and he is just played to perfection by Jonny Lee Miller with the right blend of criticism and kindness. My only complaint – the scenes deleted by Masterpiece Theatre. Can’t wait until my dvd arrrives!!


  12. Actually, I can’t really see Gwenyth Paltrow’s Emma as a “mischievous altruist”. For me, her Emma comes very close to how she is described in Austen’s novel. She seemed too much of the busybody – especially in regard to Harriet Smith’s life.


    1. I agree. I much prefer Paltrow’s Emma over the 2009 version. The newer version is out of style in my opinion, much more like a soap opera than a regency style piece. In that last version Emma is sensual, emotional, cries often, which is the opposite of Emma Woodhouse. I think the 1996’s Emma is much more faithful to the book. Paltrow’s Emma is fundamentally elegant -something that is missing in most other versions-, restrained and with a sense of morality that coincides with how Austen described her. Emma Woodhouse is not intentionally mean or vain, but conscious of her position in a highly stratified society, which is not the same. I would like to see a version that is still more faithful to the book, with status differences as marked as Austen describe them, which is what I find interesting when reading Austen.

      Liked by 1 person

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