Kathryn's Reviews > Emma

Emma by Jane Austen
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May 29, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: 2012-reads, regency-romance
Read in June, 2012

Emma is a difficult book to like in many respects, chiefly because Emma herself is so annoying, particularly from a modern American perspective. In general, we don't care for class distinctions in America (over 90% of the population describes themselves as "middle class"), so when we see Emma looking down her presumably patrician nose at a hardworking farmer, we bristle. Sure, Emma was born with money. Good for her. Now get a job, lady!

But leave that aside. Austen was writing in her time, and expecting her to adopt a modern American sensibility makes about as much sense as expecting Edgar Rice Burroughs to research what flora and fauna actually live in the African jungle before writing umpteen books about them. So, let's take Emma on her own terms. She simply cannot accept Robert Martin and his family as social equals - those are the rules of her society.

Emma, however, is hypocritical on this matter. She's highly conscious that Robert Martin is beneath her, but wholly unconscious that the natural daughter (i.e., illegitimate child) of unknown parents is similarly beneath her. Because it suits Emma's romantic nature to invent tales about Harriet Smith in which she is the daughter of nobility, she does so, and most unwisely imparts those tales to Harriet herself, thus teaching Harriet to be above her company and also unconsciously encouraging her (Emma's) own vanity (as Mr. Knightley correctly predicts to Mrs. Weston). Through this error - noticing Harriet and neglecting Jane Fairfax - Emma is pulled further into a web of folly, leading to a number of embarrassing moments and finally culminating in the party on Box Hill, when, at the zenith of her self-absorption, she cruelly and publicly mocks Miss Bates. Thanks to Mr. Knightley's remonstrance, however, Emma is able to recognize her poor behavior; in fact, Mr. Knightley is a catalyst for her recovery from her folly.

And that brings me to something that can be expressed better by no word than "squick". I had already read Emma a couple times before I came across the term "cross-gen" (in college). At first, I found the idea of a cross-generational relationship disturbing, but after thinking about it for a while, I realized that such a relationship is disturbing chiefly when the pair already had a non-romantic bond, such as a mentor/student bond. If the two characters are both adults and simply have a noticeable age difference, it isn't disturbing.

So, having recently thought about this distinction, the next time I read Emma, I realized that Mr. Knightley, sixteen years older than Emma, was Emma's father figure. Her own father, while a kind and caring man, did not provide discipline, rules, or any of the guidance that a father typically provides. Mr. Knightley did. And, he says himself, he has "been in love with [her] ever since [she was] thirteen at least."

Squick. It's the only word. And now that I've seen it, I can't unsee it.

You're welcome.


Original remarks: About halfway through a rereading of Emma. I severely dislike Emma the character, which makes it hard to enjoy Emma the book except in terms of enjoying her various comeuppances. Also, once you see the squick of the Emma/Mr. Knightley match, it's hard to unsee...Detailed review to come.
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