Folks, have you ever thought about things you did, and thought to yourself ‘Wow, I’ve been an idiot.’ And I don’t mean this in the ‘I was today years old when I realized that Ajax was a Greek soldier famous for his strength, so the dish soap’s slogan ‘Ajax – stronger than Grease’ is just a really elaborate pun.’
No, I mean it in the ‘shit, past me was really a not-good person.’ It happens to all of us. Hopefully. It’d be weird if you didn’t find some of your past actions cringey. But that’s how you learn – you accept your mistakes, learn from them, and hopefully avoid them in the future. (That’s the ideal.)
To help you learn how to come to this realization, please read Emma. The entire book is about this process of learning and understanding the mistakes of your past actions.
There’s a common conception that all of Jane Austen’s books are simply good romance novels. And there’s romance in all of them, but they are never just books about old-timey people falling in love. They are always, without an exception, about an intrinsic trait of human nature.
In Emma, it’s about personal growth.
(I mean it when I say that this isn’t a love story – the ‘falling in love’ is limited to the last 40 pages.)
So you have Emma Woodhouse – rich, charming, spoilt by a caring but eccentric father, obsessed with matchmaking and blind to everyone’s faults – including her own. Jane Austen reportedly said that nobody but herself could ever love Emma – but she was wrong about that.
In a way, Emma’s all of us – we’re all a bit stupid and ignore our shortcomings until we have to.
There’s a lot more – plots about people falling in love, or falling out of it – but that’s really secondary. The main thing is that Emma decided that Mr Martin, a mere farmer, isn’t good enough for her friend / protegee Harriet. She therefore advises Harriet to decline the marriage proposal, much to the chagrin of Mr Knightley, Emma’s friend and advisor.
Poor Harriet, you think, because you know that Mr Martin was her best shot at going anywhere in life – she’s an orphan without prospects. Eventually, through many plot twists and character developments, Emma agrees and sees her mistakes.
It’s refreshing, in a way – because you don’t love Emma less for messing up. It’s almost as if, because you like her so much, you want her to do better than that. And isn’t that a marvel of writing – that you develop so much empathy towards this character, that you want her to become a better version of herself?
(And then, if you think ‘hey, that’s how I should approach my own mistakes – I shouldn’t see them as irrefutable proof that I am The Worst, but as a starting point towards a better self – then you realize how powerful novels can be.)
If all of this rings a distant bell, you’re right: Emma was the basis for the cinematic masterpiece Clueless (1995). I’m not kidding.
Oh, and one other thing: So eventually, Emma and Knightley profess their love for each other, he proposes, she accepts, but then realizes that she’d have to leave her father behind, or move her father.
Now, her father is one of the most amazing characters in this book. Or eccentric. Either way. He talks about the importance of thin gruel before bed and you know that this guy has an opinion on everything, is not afraid to voice it, and will not shut up. Ever. He also doesn’t deal with changes very well, so Emma knows she can’t move out, and he won’t move out with her – meaning the marriage would have to wait until the father’s … dead.
Knightley, probably eager to tie the knot (IF YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN), proposes something completely outrageous for the time: He’ll move in with THEM.
Now, it does sound a bit random, and the importance of this might not be immediately clear to the modern reader, but think about it this way – it’s as if Knightley decided to take Emma’s last name, in today’s terms.
He’s a catch. (I’m purposefully not mentioning that Knightley is 14 years older than Emma, which is … weird.)
Anyway. Read Emma and feel better about yourself.