Classics Book Review

Title : Emma

Author: Jane Austen

Publisher: John Murray

Genre : Regency Romance/ Classic Literature

Year of Publication: December 1815

Number of Pages: 594

My Rating : 4 out of 5

I read Emma after reading Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. By the time I read it, I had already watched the 2009 BBC adaptation starring Romola Garai as Emma and Jonny Lee Miller as George Knightley. I was therefore not a stranger to the story, although there are parts of the story that I understood better after reading the book, as usually happens.

Emma is the twenty-one-year old second born daughter of Mr. Woodhouse. She is handsome, clever and rich and has a happy disposition. Following her mother’s death in her childhood, she is brought up by a governess, Miss Taylor, whose mildness of temper hardly allowed her to impose any restraint.

As her father is also affectionate and indulgent, Emma is used to having her own way and doing whatever she pleases.

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………”

She declares herself uninterested in marriage and is happy to live out her life at Hartfield with her elderly father.

George Knightley, whose younger brother is married to Emma’s older sister, is described as a sensible man of thirty eight.  He is the only one who ever sees any fault in Emma, or who tells her anything about her faults.

After Miss Taylor gets married to Mr. Weston, Emma believes she is the one who made the match. She takes pride in her matchmaking skills. She sets her sights on Mr. Elton – the vicar of Highbury, in spite of Mr. Knightley’s and her father’s caution against doing so.

In need of a new companion following the marriage of Miss Taylor, she attaches herself to Harriet Smith, a pretty seventeen year old girl whose parentage is unknown. As rightfully suspected by Mr. Knightley, this friendship does not bode well for Harriet.

Emma looks upon those she deems beneath her in class with disdain. Regarding a well- to-do-family of low origin, she thinks –

“The Coles were very respectable in their own way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them.”

She only accepts an invite to their house because all of her friends have already accepted.

She considers Mr. Martin, a respectable farmer, as being someone whom she can have nothing to do with. She finds one of her father’s oldest friends, Miss Bates, tiresome; dislikes Jane Fairfax, not just because she finds her reserved, but also due to her superior talents and elegance.

Emma’s meddling makes a lot of people upset and she ends up presenting herself in very bad light. Mr. Knightley continually tries to steer her onto the right path, although it is only at the end that she reflects upon her behaviour and accepts that she has behaved badly.

I must admit that I was taken aback by Emma’s character, as I previously thought that  Jane Austen’s heroine’s were sensible and pleasant, even as they were surrounded by more disagreeable characters. No wonder then, that Jane Austen herself is reputed to have stated that she wrote a heroine that only she would like.

Although I really liked Mr. George Knightley, I found most of the other characters in the book quite disagreeable – the worst being Mr. and Mrs. Elton, Frank Churchill and his aunt. Emma does have some redeeming qualities in that she takes care of the less fortunate families and is devoted to her father.

I found the story line featuring Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill a bit tedious and did not understand Jane at all – reserved or not, I did not get how she put up with Frank’s horrendous behaviour.

Given the sixteen-year age gap between Emma and Mr. Knightley, the difference in their characters and the way he is constantly correcting her, it was at first hard for me to see these two together as a couple. I wondered what sort of marriage one would have with a man who is used to correcting one’s behaviour since childhood……..

What is clear though, is that Emma holds Mr. Knightley in very high esteem and even though she often seems to ignore his advice, she does not like displeasing him. This is most evident when she gets a tongue rashing from him following her dreadful behaviour at Box Hill.

“It was badly done indeed!”

To her credit Emma is eventually able to see how bad her behaviour is and how her actions hurt others.

“She had been often remiss, her conscience told her so.”

She sets out to apologise and make amends. I liked this aspect of the book as Emma undergoes a lot of growth. It was also interesting for me to see different manifestations of love. Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor showed their love to Emma by indulging and spoiling her, whilst Mr. Knightley showed his love by endevouring to make her a better person.

This is a story of two people who are not fully aware of their feelings and need to be jolted by something to find their way to each other. Maybe because of this, it felt to me like romance was not the central theme of this story as it plays out very late in the book. I think the broader lesson is on the importance of friendship in a relationship.

In as much as class was still a central theme, in comparison to Pride and Prejudice, there wasn’t too much emphasis on women getting married solely to secure their future. It was refreshing to see an alternate life, other than marriage, being proposed for women in that era – like becoming a governess or remaining single.

This book was quite long at almost six hundred pages, especially since the characters do not really get up to much. At some point, I found that it dragged on a bit, especially with the side stories involving Jane and Frank.

For me, Emma is a 3 out of 5 as it was really hard for me to empathize with the main character.


There have been numerous adaptations of Emma, as with most Jane Austen novels. I found many listed with the oldest one being from 1948 and the most recent being the 2009 miniseries. The 1995 movie Clueless is a Beverly Hills American adaptation loosely based on Emma. A new adaptation is expected in 2020.

1972 BBC Miniseries.

The costumes were very different from later adaptations (less cleavage). Mr. Knightley looked much older. This version has the best Mr. Woodhouse!

The 1996 ITV production starring Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong.

They showed us this Emma’s thoughts through reveries and dreams. I loved Kate Beckinsale in this.

The Miramax 1996 movie featuring Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam.

I enjoyed this version but thought Mr. Knightley looked younger than he should be. I loved the costumes!

In 2009 BBC made this four part series starring Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller.

This is my best adaptation so far. I felt it brought out the story better.

Though I found Emma hard to like, I know many readers empathise with her in the end and say her behaviour was due to her naivete. After all, she did eventually reflect on her wrongful actions and change.

Did you like Emma? Did you feel the romance? Let me know!

6 thoughts on “Emma

  1. A very fair review. This is my least favourite of Austen’s books, largley because Emma is so unlikeable, but as you point out very few of the characters appeal much. For example I couldn’t see what Robert saw in fickle brainless little Harriet either. And I must say the idea of Knightley having kind of trained Emma from childhood to be the kind of woman he likes always makes me feel uneasy, even though I know I’m letting modern values get in the way. However, any Austen has something to admire, and I liked the slightly different look at class in this one too.


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