“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” So begins Emma, one of Jane Austen’s most beloved books. But not everyone is carried away by Emma’s charm. To some readers, her decidedly unhandsome actions—meddling in love affairs and acting like an entitled brat among them—are cause for vexation and distress in and of themselves. And, writes English scholar Barbara Z. Thaden, that could even be the point. “Emma was not intended to be or become a sympathetic character,” she writes—and, she suggests, Miss Woodhouse might not even be her eponymous book’s own heroine.
Unlike Austen’s other heroines, Emma is beloved and seemingly blessed. Well treated by her family and well regarded by everyone around her, she flies in the face of heroines like Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, who is charming but without social cachet, Sense and Sensibility’s stoic Elinor Dashwood, or Persuasion’s forgotten spinster Anne Elliot. She resembles others in the Austen world, though—but as Thaden suggests, it’s the condescension, pride, and social security of plenty of Austen’s villains that she shares.
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Thaden dissects Emma’s supposed charm—a quality that, she argues, pulls the wool over readers’ eyes. Meddling, cruelty, and entitlement are interpreted by other characters, and readers, as evidence of her superiority, but unlike other charming and wealthy Austen characters, Emma never has to prove her worth. Instead, she manipulates other people’s lives and romances, and seems unlikely to change her ways after snagging Mr. Knightley, a longtime friend she has encouraged another woman to love.
The enigmatic Jane Fairfax, on the other hand, is given none of her foil’s intrinsic tools. Forced to seek a post as a governess because of her orphan status, she is the only woman Emma envies. But she is nothing like her: Where the richer Emma can do as she pleases, Jane must “endure silently while a flirt of high social standing plays with the man she loves.” Jane Fairfax, argues Thaden, is more like Jane Austen than most of her heroines.
Link to the rest at JSTOR