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 match maker, 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 a 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 lives 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 match 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 likeable 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 match maker 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 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