I hope everyone enjoyed tonight's airing of Emma on Masterpiece. Though I'm actually a bit obsessed with the Paltrow/Northam version, I quite liked this one as well. Below is a review of this Andrew Davies adaptation from Jill Pitkeathley, author of the forthcoming Cassandra and Jane, a novel that imagines the story of Jane Austen and her sister (a relationship I have renewed interest in from watching Becoming Jane this past summer). The first five commenters will receive an advance reader's edition of Cassandra and Jane, which will be published in September 2008.
"I have in mind a heroine who no one will like but myself" said Jane Austen as she embarked on writing her fifth and many say, her finest novel, Emma. Did she succeed? Do we dislike Emma as much as Jane evidently intended? In my view she is not really dislikeable--especially when played so well by Kate Beckinsale--but she is exasperating and she is a bit of a puzzle.
Unusually for a heroine of Jane's, Emma is rich and occupies the first place in her local society. She is accomplished, at least to a deree. She plays, sings and draws, though not terribly well, and while envying those, like Jane Fairfax, who are truly accomplished, she will not apply herself to improvement. She uses her position in society shamelessly to manipulate and match-make but does it very badly--always getting it wrong. She can be cold, as she is to Jane Fairfax and cruel, as she is to Miss Bates in the memorable scene on Box Hill, yet she is infinitely kind and patient with a father who would try the patience of a saint and evidently devoted to her nieces and nephews. Is she a snobbish spoilt brat and a misguided, interfering busybody or a well intentioned caring young woman who happens to make a few misjudgments?
In my view we should acquit her of snobbishness. Emma is first in her society and she wishes her dear friend Harriet to remain on her level by marrying well. This is understandable in terms of the standards of the time. Robert Martin would certainly not enjoy the acquaintance of Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield. Her mistake is allowing her imagination to run riot over Harriet's background and give her greater consequence and indeed intelligence than she in fact possesses. "Everyone has their level" says Mr. Elton when Emma tells him she thought he was paying court to Harriet. Emma's mistake is not realising just what level her friends occupied.
What of Frank Churchill--is Emma duped by him or merely blind? She ignores Mr. Knightley's warnings about the degree of acquantiance between Frank and Jane Fairfax because she is flattered by his attentions to her but who would not be? Frank Churchill is the sort of young man Emma has never met before in her small society and she has always had fantasies about him. She simply does not entertain the idea that he would be committed to a woman like Jane Fairfax, so much farther down the social scale. She ignores the jealousy of Frank displayed by Mr. Knightley--much more explicit in this TV adaptation than it is in the book--and never considers just why the jealousy exists. Ther readers/viewers see it though. George Knightley is not as handsome as Darcy nor as sympathetic as Captain Wentworth but we can see quite early on his devotion to Emma and that is is the only man who could cope with her.
Part of Emma's trouble is that she has an exaggerated imagination--very well illustrated by the fantasy scenes in this production--and many of us can identify with that. We are also prepared to forgive her faults because her mistakes provide so much comedy. This is perhaps the funniest of Jane Austen's books. Mrs. Elton and Miss Bates are two of her great comic creations--magnificently portraed by Lucy Robinson and Prunella Scales. Mrs. Elton is much lower on the social scale than Emma as her brother-in-law the famous Mr. Suckling--has made his fortune in trade but nontheless that fortune has enabled Mrs. E to see herself as the controller of the life of "Poor Jane Fairfax" who is entirely dependent on earning money for herself. It is hard to remember now that for a woman in the early eighteenth century there were few alternatives if you were poor. You could marry or you could be a governess, otherwise you would be dependent forever on the kindness of your male relatives. Emma is spared those worries, she is intelligent, charming and cosseted. Yet she constantly gets it wrong. She is in her own words "doomed to blindness" and to be the victim of her own weaknesses. Perhaps that is why we warm to her and like her in spite of ourselves. Sorry Jane!
Emma was written mostly during the very harsh winter of 1814 when Jane was confined to the house by deep snow and intense cold. It took her a year to complete which meant it was written more quickly than any of her other works. Perhaps that is a sign that Emma was written at the height of her powers, when her identity, so long concealed, was at last known and when the praise she was beginning to receive made her more confident in her abilities as a writer than had been the case hitherto. Sense and Sensibility and particularly Pride and Prejudice had been rapturously received, Mansfield Park slightly less so, but Jane's position as a fine novelist received full recognition when the Prince Regent requested that she devote her latest book, Emma, to him.
This she did in a fulsome preface calling herself "His Royal Highness' most dutiful and obedient, humble servant." Somehow, one feels that Jane did this somewhat tongue in cheek as her dislike for "Prinny" was well known in her family. Perhaps she wanted to share the joke with us, her readers, and give us another reason for rejoicing in the glorious comedy of Emma.