I have Difficulty with Jane Austen. I found Pride and Prejudice a moreish read; I attribute this characteristic to its sexual tension. Romantic tension… ? No; throw Mr Darcy in with modern readers, and sexual tension it is. It was not “good” and yet it was a satisfying read. The prose was pleasant, yet the plot dragged. Overall, I enjoyed it, but at the same time I wondered what it was everyone saw in Jane Austen.
My very first exposure to Austen was reading Emma. I was fourteen, and to write a project on it at the end of the fourth form year. I have no idea what my mark was, as I never checked it; I didn’t finish the book, made up much of the content of the assignment, and sulked that others got to read Dracula or Frankenstein instead. Emma was boring. Maddeningly boring.
This semester I found myself required to read Emma once again. Sixteen years later, does it seem I had judged it wrong?
No. As I was gratified, and disappointed, to discover, 14-year-old me was not the impatient ignorant she could have been. Emma is even more boring than I remembered. It is so boring, I not-infrequently wished there was a cliff close at hand so that I might fling myself to my death rather than read another seven fucking pages of Mrs Elton being a classless cow or people deciding whether or not a room was suitable for a ball. Holy fucking Christ.
The plot – ultimate love interest and all – is entirely predictable from page ten. Emma will make numerous errors concerning the emotions and attachments of others, and she will marry the one figure in her life who notices she has faults and cares enough to correct them. That established, one has to wait until almost the very end for any sort of actual emotional response on Emma’s part that isn’t shame or self-satisfaction.
Austen said of Emma that she was a protagonist no one but herself would much like. I actually do like Emma. She’s pleasant, she’s witty, she cares a great deal for her friends. She’s a snob, yes, and she can be a damn fool, but nearly all the other characters are just about as much a fool as she is. The only difference is that one doesn’t have access to their arrogant inner monologues. Emma is vain, but not so vain as to make one dislike her. She is wise enough to admit when she has been at fault. Not falling in love for most of the book is not a failing on Emma’s part. It is a failing on Austen’s part.
To quote Black Books, “On and on it goes, with no hint of plot!”
Pride and Prejudice was saved by Elizabeth and Darcy, and the tremendous tension that permeated every scene they shared. There is none of that in Emma. You have to wait until the very bloody end for anything approaching a confession – or even realisation – of actual attachment, and when it does appear, it is utterly unsatisfying.
The prose is good. Just not good enough to save the book.
I don’t hate Austen as much as Mark Twain, but after dragging myself through this novel, I will admit to getting a great deal of satisfaction from his expressions of dislike, such as:
It seems a great pity that they allowed her to die a natural death.