Unlike with Pride and Prejudice, I cannot remember the exact time I first read Emma. I remember that my initial dislike of the titular character was tempered by Clueless and exacerbated by Gwyneth Paltrow. On the surface, Emma is not a loveable character. Jane said herself that only she could like her. The problem, as I see it, it that Emma is an awful lot like most of Austen’s male villains. She is young, rich, spoiled and bored. She manipulates a young girl right out of her own better feelings and into behaving as Emma wishes. She is Willoughby and Crawford in female form! How can anyone love her?
I remember clearly the circumstances surrounding my second reading of the once loathed tome. I was thirty years old living eight hours away from all my family and close friends with my husband and one-year-old son. Soon after little man’s first birthday, I found out I was pregnant again via a home pregnancy test. He was not yet walking, and we were having another one! Surprise soon turned to elation, and we started planning the next seven months, beginning with a trip to the OB.
For those who have experienced it, you know the words ‘unviable pregnancy’ cut right through you. That’s what happened at the OB when the ultrasound showed a mass of cells but no heartbeat. The next days were spent in and out of the doctor’s office as they drew blood and tested hormone levels. Some mix up occurred and a few days went by before I was called in and told those words again. The Monday before Thanksgiving, I was treated for a miscarriage and sent home to heal.
We had plans to visit fellow Mississippi transplants in Chattanooga for the holiday. Not wanting to sit in our apartment and dwell on the sadness of our loss, we decided to go and then to drive down to Atlanta to visit another couple we knew from college. While there, I became fatigued and experienced severe pain in my shoulder. Believing it to be some sort of tendonitis, which would not have been unusual, I took some Tylenol and slept through pretty much the entire visit.
The following Monday I was called into the doctor’s office again for more blood work. By this time the sight of a needle had me in tears. I was so tired and just wanted it to all be over. My tiredness and grief were pierced later that day when the boy finally took those first wobbly steps. He had been teasing us for weeks, but when he decided to finally do it, there was no holding back. The next day he wore me out just watching him master the new skill while staying close making sure he did not hurt himself. By mid-morning, I was exhausted and counting the minutes before I could put him down for a nap and take one myself. Before that could happen, though, I got another call from the doctor’s office, this time from the doctor himself. It was imperative that I get to the hospital right away. He looked at my blood work from the previous day, and my hormone levels were rising. I was still pregnant.
My shoulder pain and extreme fatigue over the weekend had been the results of a burst fallopian tube. The pregnancy was ectopic, and they missed it. While I was watching my son take his first steps, I was unknowingly bleeding to death. If I had taken that nap, I would not have woken up.
So, what does all this have to do with Emma? While I recovered from the surgery (which, of course, included more needles and a blood transfusion) and a stomach virus I picked up while in the hospital, my dear husband was doing his best to care for both our son and me on his own. Being so far away from family, we had no one to help us with the day to day life that continued in spite of our loss.
Before going to Mother Goose story time at the local library, he asked me if he could pick up a few books while he was there.
I will never know what influenced my still fogged mind to ask for Jane Eyre and Emma, two books I had not read or really thought about in years. But, days after my son had nearly lost his mother, I began reading these stories about motherless children. Realizing that made me see Emma (and Jane Eyre, too, but that’s a story for another time) in a much more forgiving light. I will go into more detail about my feelings for Emma, but first I’d like to share what struck me most in that second reading.
If I ever desire proof that God knows what he’s doing, I need only remember that he delivered what I needed most at that time, through book form—a family. In Emma, the disconnected individuals of Highbury are a necessary part of each other’s lives. It seems such a modern concept, forming a family from the people around you, but that is what I see when the characters support Emma in her care for her father and how so many are eager to forgive Frank for his deceptions. They know and largely accept each others’ faults and oddities and the absence of one is felt by the whole. They need each other.
I have read Emma several times since then with a much different attitude than the first. Now, I adore Emma and Knightly is second only to Darcy in my ranking of Austen heroes. When I read about her snobbery and interference, I believe I do so much the same was as Knightly—seeing the potential but getting frustrated with the current behaviors. Emma, to put it simply, is bloody brilliant. If she had been born a man in her time, or as either gender in our time, she would be quite the force. Her self-confidence and debating skills are enviable, and when she recognizes her faults, she matures into the kind of person you want to be.
This seemingly light comedy has much more depth that you may realize upon a first reading. We could easily delve into how Austen portrays female relationships, how being born to an ailing parent can create similar paranoia (Isabella) or a type of survivor’s guilt (Emma), or how wonderful it is to be loved by a man who both loves you for who you are and for who you could be.
If you find yourself far away from the people you’ve known forever, reading Emma can be a great cure for loneliness. Celebrate the 200th anniversary of its publication by picking it up again and cheering on Emma as grows from villain to one of Austen’s best heroines.