Jane Austen famously wrote about Emma, the protagonist in her novel of the same name: “I’m going to take a heroine that nobody but me will like very much.” The main difference between the book and film versions – most recently Autumn DeWilde’s 2020 film Emma – with a period – is that the film versions make Emma too personable. They take the sharp edges from Emma’s mistakes. However, by rounding off her vices, they also round off Emma’s distinctive virtue. It is that Emma’s rather serious vices make her singular virtue all the more remarkable in that I believe it made Emma so popular with Austen.
That’s not to say that DeWilde’s movie isn’t fun. It’s like the 1996 version with Gwyneth Paltrow. And my point is not the mundane observation that “the book is better than the movie”. The book and the films, however, give us different stories – not least to mitigate Emma’s mistakes in the films. As Austen’s comment on Emma’s improbability suggests, if the films presented her in all the disgusting glory of the book, Emma would put the modern film audience off.
Because of her very grave flaws and her rare, distinctive virtue, Emma is perhaps Austen’s most notable Christian character.
Background of the story
Emma Woodhouse is, in the first sentence of the novel, “handsome, smart and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy vibe. . . and had lived in the world for almost twenty-one years without tormenting or annoying it. “In contrast to the acts in Austen’s pride and prejudice and sense and sensuality, primogeniture along the male line does not threaten Emma’s future happiness. Emma’s wealth is assured beyond her father’s death. Emma’s financial independence and emotional independence are not a mere thematic event; they are crucial to Austen’s account of Emma’s distinctive virtue.
Emma lives with her hypochondriac father. Mr. Woodhouse is empty, selfish, and malicious. He offers unnecessary, undesirable, and usually incorrect advice. It is tolerated because of its wealth and because it can be ignored with a grin and a nod. As with Emma herself, Austen paints Mr. Woodhouse in the novel in darker colors than the films. The irrepressible Bill Nighy plays Mr. Woodhouse in DeWilde’s film. He is charming despite his flaws. In Austen’s Mr. Woodhouse, there is very little charming. He lives a futile, wasted life in the novel. And Emma’s apple didn’t fall far from the tree.
Emma’s social life forms a small circle of friends. Mr. Knightley, a 37-year-old neighbor and friend, owns a huge, affluent property adjoining and dwarfing Mr. Woodhouse’s property. Mr. Knightley is the only member in Emma’s circle who doesn’t approve of Emma and punishes her for bad behavior if he thinks it’s deserved. There is Harriet Smith, the biological daughter of no one who knows who, and a young protégé Emma adopted to help her find a gentlemanly husband. (In her incompetent malice, Emma tragically upsets Harriet’s life.) Mrs. Weston (nee Miss Taylor), who was to be Emma’s governess for 16 years, but instead served as Emma’s trailblazer due to her weakness of character. And then there is Miss Bates, the aging, increasingly poor, unmarried daughter of the now deceased rector of the region. Your deteriorating circumstances are an object of compassion. But these circumstances do not save her from an annoying tendency to burden everyone around her with empty chatter.
The climax of the novel comes when Emma loses patience while having a picnic with her acquaintances during a supposedly silly verbal game and exposes her disdain for Miss Bates in a false joke. Although Emma does not reveal anything that not everyone already knew, she embarrassed Miss Bates in front of the group.
As the picnic ends, Mr. Knightley approaches Emma privately to reprimand her for treating Miss Bates. This is the pivotal event in portraying Emma’s deep and distinctive virtue. Knightley’s rebuke is worth quoting. Then Emma’s answer.
“How could you be so numb to Miss Bates? Could you be so naughty about a woman of your character, age and situation? – Emma, I didn’t think it was possible.
[Was Miss Bates] wealthy, I could allow much for the occasional spread of the ridiculous about the good. Was she a woman of happiness? . . I wouldn’t argue with you about any freedom. Was it the same in your situation? . . [But] She is poor; She’s dropped from the comfort she was born to, and if she lives to old age, she’ll likely have to drop more. Your situation should secure your compassion. It was done badly indeed! . . . This is not comfortable for you, Emma – and it is far from comfortable for me; but I must, I will, – I will tell you truths as long as I can, content to prove myself to be your friend by very faithful advice. . .
Austen spends the entire novel up to this point setting up the scene and Emma’s response. Real vice. And painful rebuke. Austen has Knightley quote the proverb almost directly: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 26: 7).
Austen carefully creates an Emma who has no external reason to respond positively to Mr. Knightley’s reprimand. If anything, her character would be offended by his intervention. This is the purpose of creating Emma’s independence from dependence on others for wealth, character, and propensity for marriage. Emma’s answer shows a singular virtue that was undoubtedly as rare in Austen’s time as it is today.
Accepting external chastisement requires extraordinary maturity and even grace. Accepting Knightley’s reprimand when she had no external incentive to do so shows Emma’s striking and hopeful spiritual maturity.
This is the problem with the films in terms of Austen’s story. By muting Emma’s mistakes, the films also dampen Emma’s unique, but notable, virtue. The darker shade in which Austen presents Emma in relation to the films and Emma’s independence from the need to strive for everything Mr. Knightley says underscores Emma’s unique virtue.
In the book, Emma is like her father, but more active. This is not a good thing. Like her father, Emma is empty, selfish and malicious. Emma’s more active malevolence becomes almost tragedy for Harriet Smith, her protégé. Throughout the novel, Emma’s internal dialogue reveals a thoroughly uncomfortable person. We would expect that person to reject someone else’s reprimand, no matter how true or well-intentioned.
This is also key in why she, unique among Austen’s female protagonists, creates Emma as independently wealthy and completely uninterested in marriage. In order to reveal Emma’s distinctive virtue, it is important that she has no ulterior motive for responding positively to Knightley’s reprimand. Austen must have Emma Friendzone Knightley. Austen lets Emma have a detailed conversation with Harriet, in which she explains that Emma is not interested in marriage.
“My charm, Harriet, is not enough to make me marry. I have to find other people charming – at least one other person. And not only will I not get married right now, but I have little intention of getting married at all. “
“I need to see someone superior to anyone I’ve seen before to be tempted. . . I would rather not be tempted. I can’t really change for the better. If I got married I would expect to regret it. “
. . .
“I’ve never been in love. it’s not my way or my nature; and i don’t think i ever will. And without love, I’m sure I should be a fool to change a situation like mine. “
. . .
“[Miss Bates] is as impressive a picture as you can imagine, Harriet; and when I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly – so satisfied – so smiling – so prosing – so indistinguishable and tasteless -. . . I would get married tomorrow. But I am convinced that there can never be any similarity between us, unless we are single. “
Emma’s lack of interest in marriage plays a crucial role in Emma’s independence from Knightley: there is no romantic reason for Emma to accept Knightley’s punishment. She doesn’t want a suggestion at this point in the novel, not even one from Knightley.
Given her self-recording, it is also unclear ex ante whether Emma would accept Knightley’s punishment. As mentioned above, no one speaks to Emma other than Knightley. Emma’s father is too lost in himself. He flatters Emma with the likely intention of leaving her home to take care of him. Emma’s governess was pleasant too, but careless and only indulged Emma in her childhood.
Her wealth, position, and character make her independent of Knightley’s opinion of her, good or bad. Knightley’s rebuke and Emma’s willingness to hear is where Austen’s story aims. This is the moment all of Emma’s mistakes pointed us to: a spoiled, selfish, selfish young woman like Emma is expected to insult and reject Knightley’s punishment. She didn’t need Knightley’s approval, she didn’t depend on him. His reprimand could easily suggest way too much of their joking relationship.
But Emma took Knightley’s remarks to heart, and here we see her unique virtue:
[She had] just anger towards yourself, humiliation and deep concern. . . . She had never felt so excited, ashamed, or saddened under any circumstances in her life. She was beaten the most violently. The truth of his account could not be denied. She felt it in her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel? . .
Emma felt the tears run down her cheeks most of the way home. . . extraordinary as they were.
Austen’s argument is not straightforward that Emma grows and matures. We can often accept the chastisement of our inner voice while being offended if someone else points out the same mistake to us. Accepting external chastisement requires extraordinary maturity and even grace. Accepting Knightley’s reprimand when she had no external incentive to do so shows Emma’s striking and hopeful spiritual maturity.
Austen, the daughter of an Anglican rector, goes a fine line in the novel. She was faced with the difficult task of motivating both Emma’s unique virtue and Mr. Knightley and his rebuke. the well-intentioned giving of an honest, loving correction and the warm acceptance of it. Then as now, an indulgent silence in the face of mistakes or unwavering criticism of the church lady is more the norm. And even when someone speaks an unwanted truth, regardless of motivation, we justify and rationalize – for ourselves if not for them – or attack in response and ask who to judge them. In Emma, Jane Austen paints a remarkable picture of Christian friendship in truthful rebuke and warm response. Emma’s remarkable virtue is revealed all the more through her rather serious vices.