In one sense of the word, Emma surely is clever. She’s an intelligent young woman with a quick wit and an active mind. In others she readily sees what they lack. Only when it comes to understanding herself, the question whether Emma really is so clever can at least be argued. Her meddlings in other peoples‘ lives, especially in that of „poor Harriet“ as Emma’s father Mr. Woodhouse might say, don’t really show a superior understanding.
Nevertheless, Emma isn’t a character whom you can honestly dislike. Much in her favour is her disposition of reasoning with herself and being willing to acknowledge mistakes in her conduct and her actions. Therefore, Jane Austen’s assessment that Emma might be „a heroine whom no one but myself will much like“ can’t be taken that seriously, I think. Jane Austen certainly was sure that her girl would meet with a good deal of sympathy among her readers and I imagine Jane Austen was having a lot of fun when she created her protagonist.
Besides, there are other characters in the book whom you CAN dislike for sure. Take for example the ill-behaved Elton-couple. Mr. Elton, when he is refused by Emma, is so injured in his pride that he loses no time to get himself someone who is willing to have him. The success of their marriage, however, is questionable and their union presumably doesn’t last longer than the merry days of a fresh impression guarantee. That is what Jane Austen vividly suggests. Both, husband and wife, are depicted as vain and insolent, driven by a most improper behaviour towards others, especially those whom they feel superior towards.
Then, there is the ambigious character of Frank Churchill. With him, one cannot be sure if he can be liked despite his flaws of character or if he is just too deceitful and reckless. I think Jane Austen hoped him not to be out of reach of improving by setting the good and sweet character of Jane Fairfax against (or rather beside) him.
Emma’s source of intellectual development and coming to a better understanding is the worthy and reasonable Mr. Knightley who is not even blinded by his love for Emma to her faults and takes pains to criticise and advise her, nevertheless. One thing which makes Emma so amiable is her accepting and appreciating such advises and her admission of having acted in a wrong way when she did.
I liked Emma, not only the character but the novel at all, a great deal. It perfectly attests one more time Jane Austen’s sharp powers of observation in regard to human character traits and people’s follies. It also shows her conviction that people can work on themselves, that they are able to improve their minds and their characters especially with a fitting partner at their side.
I never saw the movie Emma with Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam, so I’ll treat myself and borrow it from my local library for a nice and cosy screening on Sunday afternoon while outside the weather most probably will remain as it is now – cold, wet and untempting.