Form and Content

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In Emma, Jane Austen tells the story of a young woman described by the narrator of the novel as “having rather too much her own way” and possessing “a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” Although Austen claimed that her heroine was someone “whom no one would like but myself,” Emma Woodhouse has captivated readers and critics, many of whom have acclaimed the novel as Austen’s finest.

The second daughter of one of the ranking families in the village of Highbury, Emma is accustomed to directing the social lives of her reclusive father and other townspeople. Only her father’s good friend Mr. Knightley, a bachelor nearly twice her age, speaks directly and forcefully to Emma about her meddlesome nature and about her misperceptions of others. The marriage of her governess Miss Taylor to local squire Mr. Weston, described in the opening paragraphs of the novel, convinces Emma that she has been a successful matchmaker. She immediately turns her attention to transforming Harriet Smith, a resident at a local boarding school, into a lady worthy of marrying the village’s highly eligible cleric, Mr. Elton. After persuading Harriet that she is too good to marry a tradesman who genuinely loves her, Emma becomes distressed when she learns that Mr. Elton has no affection for Harriet; instead, he has fallen for Emma herself. With deftness and a touch of cruelty, she rebukes the minister, who departs Highbury for an extended vacation, during which he marries another woman.

Almost immediately thereafter, Emma becomes immersed in the social intrigue surrounding the impending arrival in Highbury of Frank Churchill; the son of Mr. Weston, Frank has been reared by an aunt from whom he has taken the family name. Emma seems almost too willing to flirt with Frank when he finally arrives. Concurrently, Highbury receives another visitor: Jane Fairfax, a polished but reclusive young woman who takes up residence with one of the families in Emma’s social circle. Although Emma seems to have more in common with Jane than with Harriet, she is cool to her—perhaps from unacknowledged jealousy of Jane’s talents.

In a series of social gatherings, Austen shows Emma scheming to make Frank fall in love with her, to marry off Harriet, and to demonstrate her superiority over the new Mrs. Elton. Her imagination and her schemings take her on various flights of fancy, until she is brought back to reality by the announcement that Frank has been secretly engaged to Jane before arriving in Highbury.

Throughout these escapades, Mr. Knightley remains a constant force of reserve and propriety. Considered by virtually everyone in Highbury as the epitome of a gentleman, he continually but gently rebukes Emma for her meddling and poor judgments. Only when she realizes that Harriet has fallen for Mr. Knightley and that he may be returning her attentions, however, does Emma become aware of her own love for him. The brief, matter-of-fact courtship between Emma and Mr. Knightley, her machinations to convince her father that her marriage is a good idea, and Harriet’s reunion with her first love, Robert Martin, provide a comic and satisfying ending to the tale.

Places Discussed

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Highbury. English village sixteen miles southwest of London. Although Jane Austen says it is a populous place, readers find it quite small indeed. A short walk away from the village center are Ford’s, a clothing and fabric store; a bakery; the Bates apartment, over a place of business; a church and a vicarage; the Crown Inn; and Mrs. Goddard’s school. Less than a mile from Emma’s home is Randalls, a...

(This entire section contains 647 words.)

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little estate belonging to the Westons. Adjoining Highbury is Donwell and its most important estate, Donwell Abbey, the old-fashioned home of Mr. George Knightley and the center of his large farming enterprise. Located on his land is Abbey Mill Farm.

The novel tells of Emma’s growth into adulthood. The isolated and restricted village in which she lives reflects her own initial isolation. For the first twelve chapters, she never strays far from home, which she shares with her unmarried father. Besides Mr. Knightley, her most frequent visitor is a silly school girl named Harriet Smith. Soon Emma’s horizons begin to expand, until, by the end of the novel, she has learned a great deal about many other people—and herself. This movement is expressed geographically. Sometimes Emma makes journeys from home. She socializes more with the people of Highbury, even attending a party given by her social inferiors. She goes to Randalls on Christmas Eve; she visits Donwell Abbey. More often, however, Emma’s expanding horizons are suggested by people coming to Highbury from other parts of England.


*London. Capital and largest city in Great Britain. Emma’s sister Isabella and her family live in Brunswick Square and travel often to Hartfield. Frank Churchill rides to London, ostensibly to get his hair cut.


*Bath. City in the southwest of England, about one hundred miles from Highbury. After he is spurned by Emma, Mr. Elton travels to Bath, where he meets and marries Augusta Hawkins, who lives with her sister Selina at Maple Grove near Bristol. These places suggest the less-than-admirable nature of Mr. Elton’s marriage: Bath was a fashionable and racy pleasure resort, not the place to contract a serious engagement. Maple Grove was situated in a part of England which did not have the social standing of Hartfield.


*Weymouth. English seaside resort slightly more than one hundred miles southwest of Highbury, a place suggesting youthful frivolity. Frank Churchill saved Jane Fairfax’s life in a boating accident there. Both these characters complicate Emma’s life.


Enscombe. Yorkshire estate located perhaps two hundred miles north of Highbury, belonging to the Churchill family. Like Bristol, any place in Yorkshire is a long way from this novel’s favored locations. The Churchills, including Frank, show their restive nature by traveling. Near the end of the novel they live in Richmond, a town nine miles from Highbury.


Balycraig. Estate of Mr. Dixon somewhere in Ireland, far away from Highbury and the woman Emma suspects is the object of his passion.

*Box Hill

*Box Hill. Famous high hill near Dorking in Surrey, about seven miles from Highbury. Near the end of the novel, Emma’s widening perspective is shown when she makes two journeys. At Donwell Abbey she learns more about two of her friends and admires the expanse of the English countryside. The next day she and others take a picnic to Box Hill, where one of the climaxes of the novel occurs: Emma insults Miss Bates and is reprimanded by Mr. Knightley.


Hartfield. Emma Woodhouse’s own residence, in which many indoor scenes are set. Hartfield combines civilization and nature: a comfortable large mansion is set amid pleasant walks and shrubbery—a good place for a proposal of marriage.


*Southend-on-Sea. English seaside resort thirty-six miles east of London on the bank of the Thames estuary. Mr. Woodhouse objects to the Knightley family’s bathing there.

Form and Content

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Emma, a romantic comedy of manners, paints a sparkling and amusing picture of genteel village life in Great Britain during the brief Regency period preceding the Victorian period. Marriage and social position are the primary focus of this work as the women characters, faithful to the social dynamics of the time, seek financial and social security through advantageous marriages. Of the many genteel women in the novel, only Emma can choose to stay single without serious financial and social sacrifice. The other unmarried women of the story are either prospective brides or the “unfortunate” ones, such as Jane Fairfax’s aunt Miss Bates, obliged to earn a living looking after others and receiving pity or indifference from most of their neighbors. Though the picture of village life drawn by Jane Austen is filled with humorous scenes and characters, the underlying grim reality of unmarried women’s lives is a sobering one.

Emma clearly understands that marriage is the only answer to her new friend Harriet Smith’s uncertain social position and undecided future. Emma quickly dismisses Harriet’s eager suitor Robert Martin as unacceptable because he lacks sufficient social position to be worthy of her friend; he is merely a hardworking, modest farmer. When Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law, points out that Emma has grand plans for a young woman lacking virtually any social position, and in fact one who could be a member of a disreputable family, Emma strongly objects to his negative comment, countering that her protegée can as likely be a romantic heroine, a lost heiress of a noble family. She later learns from Mr. Knightley that Harriet is the illegitimate daughter of a prosperous businessman, not a lost heiress.

Each suitor whom the matchmaking Emma considers for Harriet proves to be unsatisfactory and to have matchmaking plans of his own. The handsome village minister, Mr. Elton, coldly refuses to consider the match, for Harriet is unworthy of his social position; to Emma’s amazement, he declares himself interested in and worthy of her own hand. Frank Churchill, a very charming and eligible bachelor who soon appears in Highbury to visit his father, is far too independent and much too preoccupied with his own affairs to fall for Emma’s romantic scheme of marrying him to the docile Harriet; in fact, at times he seems to intimate to Emma that he would propose to her instead, but he never does so. Later he reveals his long-standing secret engagement to beautiful but poor Jane Fairfax. Finally, Mr. Knightley seems to be a possible husband for her compliant friend, for he does admire Harriet. At this point in Emma’s matchmaking efforts, she realizes that Mr. Knightley is not for anyone but herself and that, unexpectedly, she is ready for marriage.

In each case, Emma herself has been an obstacle to her plans for her protegée’s happiness. She is humbled by her inept handling of Harriet’s marriage prospects and withdraws from her friend. With Mr. Knightley’s help, the abandoned Harriet finally does become engaged to her long-suffering admirer Robert Martin.

This theme of marriage and social position is treated not only in the main plot of Emma’s elaborate designs to marry off Harriet but in three romantic subplots as well. The already-married couple of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston gradually settle into happy domestic life and announce that they expect a child of their own. Next, the unexpected marriage of Mr. Elton to his unknown bride, Arabella Hawkins, brings social conflict to Highbury as the new Mrs. Elton jealously and arrogantly challenges Emma’s role as social leader of the village. Third, the melodramatic secret engagement of Frank Churchill and the destitute Jane Fairfax shows the desperate means that lovers used to stay together despite financial problems and parental disapproval. Finally, the novel ends with a flurry of weddings, those of the three couples created in the story but not yet married: Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, and Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Through marriages, these young women find their social identities and positions.


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Emma, considered one of Jane Austen’s finest works, was received with considerable praise and public interest. Even the great novelist of that time, Sir Walter Scott, admired her work for its artistry and elegance. Austen’s novels followed and improved on a tradition begun by the popular writer Fanny Burney (1752-1840), the author of Evelina (1778). This genre of social comedy novel presented women’s stories more naturally than other English novels had. Unlike the popular fantasies of exotic places and melodramatic events, such as the gothic thriller The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), by Ann Radcliffe, Emma is a comic story of rather ordinary events in a typical English village. The characters could be found around many card tables in country houses of those days.

Though the domestic events in novels such as Emma may seem ordinary or even trivial to modern readers, Austen and others were attempting to present a clear and fair picture of the very restricted domestic world women lived in at that time. Women in these novels seem preoccupied with making advantageous marriages simply because marriage was the sole respectable occupation available to well-bred women. Some readers may also criticize Emma for its excessive emphasis on marriage as a calculated means to acquire money and materialistic possessions—houses, land, servants. In truth, these possessions often ruled the marital choices that women made as they considered their life’s prospects. For women to make marital choices without considering such material advantages meant risking hardship, poverty, and even death to themselves and their children. Alternatives to marriage were to remain unmarried, like Miss Bates, dependent on relatives’ generosity, or to enter domestic service as an upper servant, a housekeeper, lady’s maid, or governess, as Jane Fairfax was destined to become. Those who entered domestic service became independent of their families’ incomes but lost their social positions in exchange for security and the tiny income earned.

Because a prosperous marriage was an eligible woman’s best economic choice, entertaining novels treating this choice and its alternatives in entertaining and thoughtful ways became popular reading for women. Austen’s novels presented these issues in humorous and lively ways, using dialogue brilliantly to draw out the comic aspects of well-known character types and devising clever plots to point out absurdities in courtship and marriage situations. Her gentle humor and insight into human motivations are subtle, sometimes leaving readers to wonder what she thought of the events and people portrayed in her novels.

Historical Background

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In 1801, the first official census was taken in Great Britain. By 1851, the population had doubled due to the decline in infectious diseases, an improved diet made possible by new techniques in farming—especially in cultivating the potato, earlier marriages and larger families.

Though inventions such as James Watts’s steam engine in 1780 fueled the Industrial Revolution and made Britain “the workshop of the world,” the English countryside remained rustic, its inhabitants close-knit and suspicious of anyone outside their village. Cityfolk were watched with a wary eye for their customs were practically foreign to country dwellers.

By 1811, King George III of England, having lost the American colonies, became mentally incapable of discharging his duties. His eldest son was named Prince Regent and succeeded him to the throne in 1820 as George IV. Although a patron of the arts and architecture, the Prince Regent became unpopular as a result of his gluttony and drunkenness. He attempted to divorce his popular wife and became the target of scandal.

The period, known as Regency (1800-1830), is distinctive for its art and architecture, which followed neo-classical (Greek) lines. Painters chose to break with traditional perspective and emulated the flat, silhouetted figures of Greek vase painting, such as John Flaxman’s simple line engravings for editions of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

As with all Jane Austen’s novels, Emma is rooted far more in the customs and cultures of the nineteenth century than in its history. Scarcely a mention is made of the Abolitionist movement in England, though at the time the novel takes place, there was much agitation against the African slave trade-so much so that in 1833, Parliament abolished slavery as a result of pressure from the Abolitionists who began their movement in the 1780’s.

The social context of Emma and the other Jane Austen novels features a rigid class structure with personages of royal blood eminently on top, followed closely by others of noble title. Officers of the militia and landed gentry—landowners—who employed servants, rented part of their property to farmers, owned horses and carriages, generally made up the second rung on this social ladder. They were joined by persons of esteemed professions, such as clergymen and doctors. Tradespeople came next. These included merchants (soon to make up the burgeoning middle class of the twentieth century), farmers who cultivated their own land (known as yeomen), governesses and teachers. At the bottom of the ladder, there were tenant farmers, servants, and the poor and unfortunate. Emma Woodhouse is landed gentry.

Literary Techniques

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Mary Lascelles points out that in Emma Jane Austen has perfected a narrative technique of "self-effacement" that allows her to control and direct the reader's attention entirely unobtrusively. We never suspect that "our attention is being manipulated" (Jane Austen and Her Art), and she uses the buildup of the strain in the relationship between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax as an example, noting how Frank misses the hint contained in her statement about people of strong character being able to rid themselves of deleterious acquaintances. As in her other novels, the artistry and precision in the creation of character and use of language are a delight. Another critic cites Emma as the novel which has the most prismatic treatment of character, calling it "the novel of character," with Emma of course being the chief character, and the object of the plot "the gradual humiliation of self-conceit" in Emma. People who bother to dislike Emma, he argues, are missing the point: She is "simply a figure of fun,... whom we both love and laugh at." Aided by Austen's masterful use of irony, we at once see Emma's follies and deficiencies and admire her outgoing spirit, warmth, and open nature, a quality which Knightley finds present in Emma and wanting in Jane Fairfax. Austen's brilliant use of foil characters and lesser characters to leak information about major ones add to our sense of the complex treatment of the main character. Walton Litz notes "three stages of development in Emma's movement toward self-recognition," noting that initially she is blind both to her own emotions and to the outside world, but that with the assistance of Knightley in successive roles of "father, brother and finally lover" she becomes disillusioned about Elton, but remains confident about her powers of insight, then after she is again deceived by Frank Churchill's word game into believing he has genuine feeling for her, she is secondly made to feel the limitations "of her judgment and her egoistic imagination."

Knightley's role in Emma's moral education is so obviously authorial as to at least deflect the arrows of feminist criticism that see him, like Henry Tilney as a condescending, slightly domineering male. Like Jane Fairfax, his distance and reserve, required by this role, tend to efface him when set against the Byronic Frank Churchill and the vibrant Emma. His two most decisive acts, and they are largely private, are to avoid Emma after the Box Hill episode and to reclaim her after the news of Jane's and Frank's engagement is out. He is the chief contributor to the masterful control of point of view mentioned by Lascelles and that A. Walton Litz sees as primary achievement of Emma: "By allowing us to share Emma's inner life without being limited by it, Jane Austen has avoided that dichotomy between the sympathetic imagination and critical judgment which runs through the earlier novels." ("The Limits of Freedom: Emma." From Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development. New York: Oxford, 1965, 142-148; rept. in Emma, Norton Critical Edition, 369-377; 375)

Social Concerns

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The dominant social danger explored in Emma is the propensity exhibited by the heroine to control others by manipulating their social lives. While we have seen the same tendency in some of Jane Austen's calculating villains, Emma's manipulations are naive, although sometimes just as hurtful. For example, she influences the illegitimate daughter of a man whom we find out to be a tradesman at the novel's end, Harriet Smith, to reject an earnest and appropriate suitor, Robert Martin, for the socially unattainable and inappropriate Mr. Elton, risking the destruction of two and possibly three characters' chances for happiness. In addition to this incident Emma also manipulates the naive and gullible Harriet in other ways. Harriet is only seventeen and looks up to Emma for guidance and lessons in manners. As the single, attractive unmarried daughter of a well-to-do hypochondriac widower who has just lost his daughter's caregiver and governess to marriage, Emma has almost free rein to practice her wiles, and her efforts and their effects are measured against the built-in social injustices that we see in all of Austen's novels: unequal distribution of wealth, the compromised financial and social position of women, the guilt by association suffered by so-called natural children, parental neglect, and the snobbery and superficiality of the socially well-placed that compound the sufferings of all marginalized citizens.

Countering Emma's machinations and working vigilantly to make the best out of the imperfect social world of the novel is Mr. Knightley. His name reflects his actions in the book, so much so that critics have complained he is unrealistically drawn. It is when Harriet sets her sights on him (instead of Mr. Elton, Emma's second candidate for Harriet) that Emma realizes that she herself desires to marry Mr. Knightley, and she is taught a severe lesson—a lesson of which Mr. Knightley has been aware all along—about the danger of using people like chess pieces.

As in Austen's other novels, the social world depicted in Emma is narrow—the chief characters are upper class, and even the disenfranchised do no work or regard work with horror (Jane Fairfax is decidedly unhappy about the prospect of becoming a governess), yet there are reminders of what lies beyond the well-furnished rooms, well tended grounds of the country estates, and well-married and well-off people. One especially pointed example appears at the end when we learn that Mrs. Weston's turkeys have all been stolen from her poultry house, and other estates have been likewise robbed. The episode ironically undercuts the "perfect happiness" of the ending and shows once more how aware Jane Austen was of the contradictions and inconsistencies of the world she wrote about.

Literary Precedents

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Austen's erudition as the daughter of an educator and an avid reader of novels, and her blending of the two traditions, rooted in Richardson and Fielding, of the sentimental novel and the comedy of manners has been noted in the discussion of Pride and Prejudice (see separate entry). Certainly the manipulative heroine, or villain, was nothing new in her day, but certainly Emma's unique combination of big heart and machinating mind were. Ian Watt cites Fanny Burney as a predecessor, but notes that Emma's originality lies in her ability to allot comic aggression, exhibited only by villains or rogues in older literary traditions, especially stage comedy, to good or potentially good characters. I have noted above how Emma's machinations help move the plot; she of course is a developing character who becomes less self-centered as the novel progresses. Watt goes on to note that evils in Austen are characteristically the result not of intentional but inadvertent behavior ("Jane Austen and the Tradition of Comic Aggression" from an address delivered to the Jane Austen Society in San Francisco, October 10, 1981, printed in Persuasions, No. 3, Dec. 16, 1981; rept. in Emma, Norton Critical Edition, Macmillan, 1993, 414—416).

Other critics identify the uniqueness of Emma in her assumption of authority usually given to males. Her presumption is not chastised as completely as it might be in a more didactic novel, as Claudia Johnson suggests (400—401), even though she admits that in the end, Emma is brought low. Both Johnson and Watt implicitly or explicitly acknowledge the prismatic quality of Austen's characters, distinguishing them from those of her predecessors. Yet, while her treatment of characters appears highly original, it is based on her Christian orientation that people are complex mixtures of good and bad and must be treated as if they are redeemable. Her generally tolerant view also inspires her to give a fuller picture of her supposedly narrow social world than someone who was merely out to write satire or identify obvious virtues and vices. Her originality is grounded in very old values.

Claudia Johnson also points out another feature of Emma that makes it stand out from its more didactic predecessors. Knightley gives advice to Emma but does not pressure her to heed it, and she practically never does. He differs from Edgar Mandelbert in Camilla because he does not use advice to assert power, and he is diametrically opposite to the type of advice giving predecessor found in More's Coelebs in Search of a Wife, who is looking for a dull submissive wife. "Choosey men," like Knightley, Johnson argues, prefer "saucy women, not women who place themselves at the margins" (From "Woman, lovely woman reigns alone," in Jane Austen, Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988, 121-143; rept. in Jane Austen's Emma, Norton Critical Edition, 396—408; 407). She also notes Knightley's willingness to relinquish his own home in favor of Emma's and her father's at the end of the novel as the giving up of considerable male prerogative, and comments that "Knightley gives his blessing to her rule." But it is also possible to see that the couple as a whole is adapting an age-old institution to their own mutual needs—neither is really the ruler.


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There have been six motion picture adaptations of Emma and one sequel. The best of the recent film versions of the novel are the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam (directed and written by Douglas McGrath), and the 1995 Clueless, starring Alicia Silverstone. The 1996 A & E version starring Kate Beckinsale is truer to the original novel than the first two. I find the BBC version overly long, less well-cast, acted, and designed than the above three. There are also 1972, 1960, and 1948 versions which I have not examined. In addition to the numerous film adaptations, there is one sequel to Emma, Jane Fairfax, by Naomi Royde Smith (London 1940). Marilyn Sachs argues that "it is not so much a sequel as another view of Emma," because Jane Fairfax is the central character.

Douglas McGrath, writer and director of the 1996 version, supported by a brilliant cast, has done a masterful job. Emma is played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Mr. Knightley by Jeremy Northam, Jane Fairfax by Polly Walker, Frank Churchill by Ewan McGregor, Mr. Woodhouse by Denys Hawthorne, Harriet Smith by Toni Collette, Mr. Martin by Edward Woodall, Mr. Elton by Alan Cumming, Mrs. Elton by Juliet Stevenson, Miss Bates by Sophie Thompson, her mother by Phyllida Law, Mrs. Goddard by Kathleen Byron", Mr. John Knightley by Brian Capron, and his wife Isabella by Karen Westwood.

The film follows the book faithfully for the most part, opening with the wedding between "poor Miss Taylor" and Mr. Weston. The pacing is one of the delights of this version—the major moments and exchanges between characters are covered dramatically, incisively, and quickly.

A brilliant scene added to the film is the archery spectacle at Donwell Abbey—it recollects Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy at Rosings in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice—as Emma falls increasingly under Knightley's censure for her nixing the Robert Martin proposal to Harriet, her arrows start to miss the mark, and at the end of the scene one of them almost grazes one of Knightley's dogs. With unusual candor, Knightley remarks, "Try not to kill my dogs," and the actions and the statement reminds the viewer of the danger of Emma's maneuvers.

Other effective scenes occur when Emma cons Harriet into seeing Mr. Elton's riddle about courtship as directed to her, and her ensuing ruse to get Elton and Harriet in the same room together, where, as in the novel, he does not propose. There is a touching scene with the John Knightleys and their new baby in which Emma holds the baby, indicating her potential for domestic life.

Emma's dislike of Jane is dramatized by two scenes at the Bates's and a solitary moment where Emma voices her inner thoughts about Jane. She is particularly irked because she has been able to get little information about Frank Churchill from Jane, and he is her next possible candidate for Harriet. Churchill is introduced in an added scene where Emma's curricle gets stuck in a stream and he rescues her, setting the stage for their flirtation. In a later scene at the Coles' the intrigue about the piano forte sent to Jane is started by Miss Bates and perpetuated by Frank himself who concocts a suspicion that Mr. Dixon might be in love with Jane (this suspicion is concocted by Emma in the novel). This dissembling is paralleled by Mrs. Weston's hunch that Mr. Knightley is in love with Jane and has sent the piano. There follows a very effective scene where Jane Fairfax's piano playing and singing far outperform Emma's. Then Frank Churchill starts to confess to Emma— right before his abrupt departure— that he is in love, suggesting to her that she is the object of his affections.

The rendition of the Box Hill scene is also masterful: Mrs. Elton once again pushes the governess job on Jane, and in dialogue straight from the book, Emma insults Miss Bates and is censured by Knightley, but even after calling on the Bates's the next day, continues to cook up plans to pair Harriet with Frank Churchill, not realizing that Harriet is falling for Knightley instead. In a touching added scene, Emma goes to pray in a church that Mr. Knightley will at least remain single (she does not yet know why he has left for his brother's house) so that she can continue to enjoy his company. Although the turkey stealing is not alluded to as in the novel, the scene where Harriet is attacked by Gypsies has been, the imperfection of the world in which the "perfect union" of Emma and Knightley takes place is underscored in the final, wedding scene by the vulgar Mrs. Elton complaining about the lack of satin.

Filmed on location in Dorset and London, with beautiful settings, the film's success is owing not just to Douglas McGrath, but the costume design skills of Ruth Myers, the music by Rachel Portman, editing by Lesley Walker, production design by Michael Howells, and photographic direction by Ian Wilson.

The A & E version of 1996, written by Andrew Davies and directed by Diarmid Lawrence, has a creditable cast and makes good use of the film medium for comic effect, especially in the showing of scenes of matched couples and their weddings that Emma is only imagining. The opening scenes swiftly establish the characters and their major qualities and problems. Knightley, upon visiting the Woodhouses, is careful to address the butler by name and ask after his family, Emma brags about having joined up Miss Taylor with Mr. Weston, and in church, Mrs. Goddard gossips about Harriet as a "natural" daughter, followed swiftly by Emma's interrogation of Harriet as to her true parentage. Right after the Weston wedding, Emma has her first pictorial fantasy of Harriet and Mr. Elton getting married, and when the handsome Robert Martin strolls by and Harriet is enthralled with him, Emma (a bit too harshly) calls him plain. The portrait scene follows with a nice added bit where Mr. Woodhouse admonishes Emma to paint a shawl on Harriet's figure so she will not catch cold (this is the kind of addition that is just right here but is overdone in the BBC version). Only five scenes into the film, Emma has succeeded in getting Harriet to refuse Robert Martin. As all the versions do, this one makes good use of the John Knightley's visit with their new baby to signal Knightley's paternal yearnings and Emma's natural ease with babies.

The piano forte sequence is given dramatic presence by the hoisting of the piano into the second story window of the Bates' modest house, whereupon Jane begins to play while Frank flirts with both Emma and Jane. This is followed by another visual fantasy by Emma of Knightley marrying Jane Fairfax because Emma believes George Knightley is the donor of the piano. Shortly after, the news that Mr. Elton has found a wife occasions the entrance of Mrs. Elton, who brags about her barouche landau in an American accent, and ironically, Emma balks at her manipulative nature.

Other well conceived scenes are the bragging of Frank Churchill about his rescue of Harriet from the Gypsies, and the Box Hill scene, where servants are featured carrying heavy furniture for the "picnic"! The Box Hill scene, among its other felicities, shows Jane squarely confronting Frank with her statement about how women of character get out of bad liaisons. In a nice added touch, Robert Martin is seen to glimpse Jane Fairfax sobbing over Frank's treatment of her. As in the original, the news of Frank and Jane's engagement, Emma's disabusing Harriet about Frank Churchill only to discover that Harriet is taken with Knightley prepare for the denouement. Again this version shows masterful use of the medium: Emma has flashback scenes of all her intimate moments with Knightley, and these are seen to be occasioned by her fear that Knightley now loves Harriet. It only remains for Knightley to patch it up with Emma, and the Harriet Smith-Robert Martin engagement to be reinstated for this film's imaginative finale to take place: There is a harvest feast where people of divergent social classes celebrate together and all the engaged couples congregate. Notably gauche is Frank Churchill ogling Jane and praising her physical attributes to Emma who could care less about how his dead aunt's jewels are going to look hanging around Jane's neck! (The turkey stealing scene goes on while the couples are all dancing.)

The 1995 Clueless takes many liberties with the original, but is ultimately true to its spirit, and it is a joy to figure out the analogous characters and see how the ideals of Austen's vision are given expression in the unlikely location of a California high school. Written and directed by Amy Heckerling, the film features Alicia Silverstone as Cher, the Emma analogue; Paul Rudd as Josh, the Knightley analogue; and Brittany Murphy as Tai, the Harriet Smith analogue. A character called Elton, played by Jeremy Sisto, is targeted like his original as the first prospect for Tai (Harriet Smith). Cher, like Emma, is motherless, but her mother, in keeping with the Beverly Hills setting, has died from botched liposuction. Unlike the timid, hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse, Cher's father is a litigator whose health problem is that he has no concern for it whatsoever—at the outset Cher is vainly trying to get him to drink his orange juice.

This fast-paced film omits many characters from the novel and adds several new ones, all the while keeping the viewer current with the most hip Beverly Hills, slang words. Cher's first match-making project is her debating teacher, Mr. Wendell Hall, whom she pairs with the social studies teacher, Ms. Geist, by offering him a thermos of coffee that they can share. She leaves a note plagiarized from a Shakespeare sonnet (whose source she quotes as Cliff Notes) in Ms. Geist's mailbox, and soon the plot works, and the happy teachers start grading more easily as she has hoped (Mr. Hall has been the only teacher who has refused to raise her grade). The two teachers can be seen as loose analogues to Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, since theirs is the first pairing brought about by Cher/Emma. The classroom scenes are wonderfully done—a view of the room shows at least one girl recovering from a nose job. The Cher/Emma character narrates the movie, sometimes directly addressing the viewer, allowing her thoughts and observations to mingle with the action unobtrusively.

In the first stages, Josh teases her mildly, but as the plot thickens, his criticisms and interferences in her life become more serious. He finds fault with her choice of TV programming and her lack of charitable enterprises—it is touching how she changes these toward the end when she discovers that she loves him. Josh is older, in college, and wants to study law. He works with her father, Mel, in order to get experience, work that places him on the scene at crucial moments, as when Cher goes out to a drug party with Christian (the Frank Churchill analogue, who only feigns interest in her, complimenting her on her "nice stems" to hide the fact that he is gay).

As in the novel, Tai/Harriet's revelation of her feelings for Josh/Knightley eventually awaken Cher/Emma up to her own feelings, she confides in her father that she is in love, but does not say with whom, and she engages in a flurry of activities that she knows Josh will approve of. However, it is not these that finally break the ice, but another legal assistant's abuse of Cher for messing up some files. Josh defends her soundly, and then finally tells her she is "gorgeous," and they kiss on the staircase. The film ends with Mr. Hall's and Ms. Geist's wedding, and Cher catching the bouquet—well, grabbing it out of another bridesmaid's hands.

The pace of the BBC version of Emma (1972) is slow and measured, and the experience of watching the film is more like viewing a filmed play than a movie. It runs 257 minutes and several scenes contain dialogue that was not in the original novel, most notably in the scene where Harriet Smith immolates her memorabilia from Mr. Elton. Emma is played by Doran Godwin, and Mr. Knightley by John Carson. This version follows the plot fairly faithfully when it is not adding to it, yet when it does depart from the original, it does so with no real effect. One significant change occurs at the ending where the still engaged couples, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and Emma and Mr. Knightley, are toasted by Mr. Woodhouse, who has originally said no to the match between Knightley and Emma, but has relented upon hearing about the stolen turkeys—all these added details appear to tamper pointlessly with the masterful original.


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Austen, Jane. Emma: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Reviews, and Criticism. Edited by Stephen M. Parrish. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. An excellent beginning for the student first reading Emma, this collection brings together the definitive text, the background materials that Austen may have used, and important critical articles. A selected bibliography is included.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Jane Austen’s “Emma.” New York: Chelsea, 1987. In this representative selection of criticism, Austen scholars focus on aspects such as Emma’s imagination and Austen’s power of understatement. Also includes consideration of Emma in terms of feminist literary criticism. Index and bibliography.

Burrows, J. F. Jane Austen’s “Emma. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1968. A detailed study of the novel considering important critical interpretations and the use of language and comic style. A selected bibliography is included.

DiPaolo, Marc. Emma Adapted: Jane Austen’s Heroine from Book to Film. New York: P. Lang, 2007. This work offers an enlightening look at several film adaptations of Emma and the ways in which they differ from and are similar to the novel. To do this, DiPaolo categorizes the adaptations by their genre and purpose, and discusses the statements that the films make about the novel. The result is an excellent resource for anyone who hopes to gain a better understanding of the novel.

Dwyer, June. Jane Austen. New York: Continuum, 1989. A good basic reference for the general reader. The chapter on Emma gives a reading of the novel and discusses the novel’s focus on the problems that life poses for someone like the title character. Includes a bibliography.

Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1986. Kirkham asserts that Austen’s viewpoint on such topics as the status of women, female education, marriage and authority, and women in literature is strikingly similar to that of eighteenth century English feminists. Includes a twenty-page chapter on Emma.

Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. A classic study of Austen’s life and fiction, with emphasis on how she developed her literary taste and style. Refers to specific novels to show her evolving art and her mastery of the novel form.

Lauber, John. Jane Austen. New York: Twayne, 1993. The chapter on Emma gives a reading of the novel with special attention to the title character. It also discusses the novel’s place in Austen’s canon. The novel is also considered in the chapter “Austen and Her Critics.” Includes a chronology, annotated bibliography, and index.

Lodge, David, ed. Jane Austen: “Emma.” 1968. Rev. ed. London: Macmillan, 1991. Part of a highly regarded series of critical studies on well-known authors and their works. Includes reviews and critical readings by Austen contemporaries and more recent writers that were collected from books and journals. For the seriously interested reader.

Monaghan, David. Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. This critical work examines the moral ideas presented in Austen’s novels and considers their sources in the traditional social values and the new individualistic ethics of her time.

Sherry, Norman. Jane Austen. New York: ARCO, 1969. A general introduction to Austen’s works, this critical review offers a balanced approach to her work, covering background, themes, characterization, style, and tone.

Watt, Ian, ed. Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963. A collection of critical, interpretive essays on Austen and her works, focusing on her style and themes with reference to broader human values and conditions.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Austen, Jane. Emma. The Penguin English Library, 1982.

Rogers, Pat. An Outline of English Literature. Oxford University Press, 1992.




Critical Essays