In February 2016, when the fifth season of Lena Dunham’s Girls begins, I don’t imagine Jane Austen’s Emma, which marks its 200th anniversary this month, figuring in the conversation of the opening episode. But it would be fitting if one of the girls turned out to be an Austen fan or was seen carrying around the Penguin Deluxe 200th-anniversary edition of the novel.
What makes Dunham’s character, Hannah Horvath, and her friends so interesting is their combination of intelligence and self-absorption—the two qualities that most define Austen’s eponymous heroine, Emma Woodhouse.
Emma is very different from such immediately likeable 19th-century heroines as George Eliot’s hypersensitive Dorothea Brooke of Middlemarch or Henry James’s plucky Isabel Archer of Portrait of a Lady. Emma takes a great deal of getting used to before we feel affection for her. Austen’s achievement, like Dunham’s achievement with the twentysomethings of Girls, is to make us care about Emma before our patience runs out.
Austen puts us in a position to feel superior to Emma in the first sentence of her novel when she writes, “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.”
Then to make sure there is no room for our doubting Emma’s unearned self-confidence, Austen adds, “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”
It’s only natural for us to take pleasure early in the novel in the failure of Emma’s plans for a marriage between her protégé, Harriet Smith, “the natural daughter of somebody,” to Mr. Elton, the local vicar in the rural village of Highbury, 16 miles from London, where Emma lives. We laugh when the socially ambitious Mr. Elton ends up proposing to a shocked Emma, who has no romantic interest in him.
Emma’s first failures don’t, though, cause us to dismiss her as nothing more than a patronizing rich girl. Austen makes a point of letting us see that Emma’s conceits are inseparable from a childhood that has been difficult. At age 12, Emma lost her mother, the one woman who could cope with her, and ever since then she has been the mistress of her house, the daughter who can do no wrong in the eyes of her doting father but who gets no guidance from him.
Austen lets us see that while Emma’s efforts to arrange a marriage for Harriet are a product of having too much time on her hands, Emma is motivated by the realization that unless Harriet, who has been living on charity, gets married to someone with money, she is going to have to spend the rest of her life as a dependent—most likely a governess.
Emma may not be a feminist or even a proto-feminist, but she is deeply aware of the vulnerability of the majority of women in her society. “I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry,” she tells Harriet. “Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want.”
What Emma will do with her own life is the question that remains as her efforts to help Harriet flounder. When Emma speaks of her life as a mature single woman, she paints a picture of her busying herself with such activities as drawing and carpet work.
As it turns out, Emma’s life must get worse before it can get better, and it does get worse when at a picnic, she makes a cruel joke at the expense of Miss Bates, the impoverished and much-beloved daughter of the former vicar of Highbury.
Emma is called to task for her rudeness by Mr. Knightley, an old family friend 18 years her senior, whom she respects. Instead of arguing with him, as she usually does when he disagrees with her, she is crushed by his criticism. “The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!”
For once, Emma has no words, but her embarrassed silence marks a turning point for her. She sets about mending her ways, treating Miss Bates with new respect and acknowledging the vulnerability of Jane Fairfax, a woman who is her rival in talent and beauty but, like Harriet, is doomed to a life as a dependent unless she can make a successful marriage.
The new Emma, now willing to look within herself, is even able to realize that she loves Mr. Knightley and when—following the changes he sees in her—he proposes marriage, she accepts. At last she has found someone who understands her and can guide her in a way that her father never has.
If Emma were a standard 19th-century novel guided by the conventions of the marriage plot, it would end at this point, but what makes Emma particularly modern is that its happy ending brings with it difficulties that reflect the complexities that have shadowed Emma from the first time we met her.
Harriet, urged by Emma to set her sights on a wealthy husband, has come to think Mr. Knightley is in love with her, and it falls on Emma to put Harriet back in her place when she secures Mr. Knightley’s love. Emma quietly rejoices that Harriet, who will subsequently be rewarded with marriage to Robert Martin, a local farmer, has been driven by hopes that turn out to be a delusion, and she never thinks of sacrificing her own love interest for Harriet’s. “She felt for Harriet, with pain and contrition,” Austen notes, “but no flight of generosity run mad, opposing all that could be probable or reasonable, entered her brain.”
Emma’s widowed father—who, with Emma’s older sister, has come to center his life on Emma—is not so easily disposed of, however. Emma believes that she cannot leave him, and it is not until Mr. Knightley proposes that they move into her father’s house that they are able to go ahead with their wedding.
Emma thus ends not with husband and wife living happily ever after—but with husband, wife, and father doing so as a trio. Here, as with her distancing herself from Harriet when Harriet reached too far above her station in pursuing Mr. Knightley, Emma’s self-interest (benign in the case of her father) prevails. She has achieved the modern fantasy of getting everything she wants while giving up nothing that matters to her.
Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College and author of American and English Fiction in the Nineteenth Century.