Is Austen’s ‘Emma’ still relevant today?

Fans of Austen’s endearing novel have been treated to their fair share of TV and film adaptions of Emma over the years. The BBC developed a popular TV miniseries starring Romola Garai in 2009, Gwyneth Paltrow starred as the not-so-likeable heroine in a major feature film in 1996 and Amy Heckerling’s hilarious modern take, Clueless, is still a teenage sleepover favourite. Yet, right now, in 2020, Emma has once again returned with a stellar cast and inflated comic edge. Why does this book continue to appear on our TV screens?

Emma is certainly a text that all English Literature students here in Durham will be familiar with; having been subjected to reading Austen’s work for the ‘Introduction to Novel’ module in first year. The tale follows Emma Woodhouse- a wealthy, charming and beautiful yet also narcissistic and sometimes cruel young woman. She sets her sights on the delights of matchmaking and is gradually forced to come to terms with her own self-delusion, falling in and out of love. However, this storyline does not appear to engross and inspire everyone- with some first years describing the text as “dull”, “boring” and “superficial”. Subsequently, this draws attention to how the book is undoubtedly short on action and often critiqued for being too repetitive. So, as a story first written in 1815, why does Emma remain so easily marketable to cinema audiences today?

Emma’s character is decisive: some readers almost religiously adore her and yet, at times, the character is most passionately loathed. In fact, Austen herself described how “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Take, for example, the scene on Box Hill. Miss Bates is a sweet yet plain middle-aged spinster who only has good intentions. She is renowned for her talkative nature, often going off-topic and providing the other characters with an excessive amount of unnecessary information. Thus, she infuriates Emma whose limited patience triggers this climax of their underlying tensions:

“Oh! very well,” exclaimed Miss Bates, “then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I? (looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do not you all think I shall?”

Emma could not resist.

“Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”

Such an insult is the perfect example of Emma’s innate brutality, ensuring that the reader is explicitly aware of her character flaws. Yet, Austen’s use of free indirect discourse in this novel was unprecedented, popularising the trope in such a way that she is fundamentally seen to have transformed the way that writers approach their use of narrational voice in their fiction. Through this clever literary technique, she was able to simultaneously expose the private internal thoughts of a character as well as their exteriority and the manner in which they are viewed by others. Hence, in Chapter 43, the reader later learns how:

‘She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness!’

Therefore, it is obvious that Emma’s character has been critically examined in such paramount detail since the novel’s publication due to her transparent emotional complexity, as displayed here. She makes mistakes and is totally foolish and is consequently so much more human than perhaps any other of Austen’s characters. The novel is ultimately about a young woman coming to terms with the consequences of her actions and learning about her own self-worth and the impact of her privilege. It is a crucial piece of classic literature because it focuses on a specific time in which every young person is forced to self-examine and reflect. The novel is not just a trivial, simple love story and I think that is perhaps why no one can seem to put it down. Austen’s interrogation of character will never not be relevant because it can’t be denied that we all have a little bit of Emma Woodhouse within us and probably always will. 

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