Emma Woodhouse is determined never to marry. That, however, does not prevent her from attempting to set up the men and women of her parish. Then one day the charming Frank Churchill finally arrives for a visit. Will there finally be a match for Emma?
Emma may be my favorite Austen work. It is a deliciously subtle book, one that delights in showing the irony of Emma’s own feelings about class and propriety while describing her censure of others for being proud and vain. But though Emma’s desire to be cleverer than others often leads her astray, her open nature makes her lovable all the same. I long for her to find her happy ending every time I return to her world.
Part of Austen’s charm is, I think, her assumption that readers are in on the joke while the characters remain oblivious. To achieve this, some knowledge of the social customs of Austen’s day is needed, which makes a good edition with footnotes invaluable, though casual readers are likely to pick up many social cues even without annotations. Hearing Mrs. Elton chatter on about the wealth of her relations, seeing that Emma refuses to associate with the newly wealthy Coles while the rest of her acquaintance have no such scruples, and listening to Emma chastise Mr. Knightley for not using his carriage more often as befits a gentleman are all amusing circumstances. Intimate knowledge of various types of carriages and how much wealth is needed to keep one is not strictly necessary, though it can often be fun.
Rereads are also delightful as they allow readers a greater opportunity to be in on the intrigue. Although an astute reader may pick up on the secrets the various characters hold, the certainty of knowing the outcome holds its own charm. The silences, the looks of characters take on deeper meaning and readers can again feel satisfied and smug. Emma, with all her cleverness, makes many mistakes. But we the readers know better.
Something about reading Austen is always deeply satisfying. It is an experience that enables the reader to feel as if they share Austen’s powers of wit and observation, while also enabling them to enjoy the feeling that they are moving in high circles. Though many of her characters face financial uncertainty, a good number of them are also concerned with no more than which suitor they ought to choose. Entering her world is both amusing and wish fulfilling. After all, we also hold the certainty that the heroines will always end up with their perfect match. And some income to boot.