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. Continue reading