Emma by Jane Austen
I reread this for an online book group and it was an absolute joy to do it. I’ve seen recent film versions so the plot was clearly in my head before I started and I was able to observe how Austen worked it out. No wonder this one is seen as the epitome of Austen’s canon.
Initially Emma is not as appealing a young woman as Elizabeth Bennett of Price and Prejudice and the novel doesn’t have the quite the comic relief, but the character strengths which bring Elizabeth and Darcy together are shown again in Emma, but this time we see the working out of the character traits. We see Emma make mistakes, recognize them, and attempt to redress wrongs. We see her misunderstand clues and then figure it out. We see her learn to know herself and those around her.
So what’s different from P&P, you say?
The comedy inherent in Austen’s brand of social commentary is there still. The chatter of the uppity clergyman’s wife previews some of Dickens’ pretentious social climbers. Miss Bates, the aunt of Jane Fairfax, who talks incessantly has been made the most of on film by actresses like Prunella Scales. But the focus in Emma is the development of character in a young woman.
Emma is almost a perfect novel. The plot is clever. The characters believable. The theme is important. The writing is exquisite. The social criticism is ageless and handled with delicate irony and humor. The only "problem" I see for contemporary readers is that a stratified society is assumed and people are assumed to be most fulfilled in the strata of society to which they by birth belong. Even though Emma is chastised for some of her assumptions about people's place (the Coles made their money in trade; Harriet Smith is probably the natural daughter of a "gentleman"), the value system of the novel does not allow for the kind of equality among humans that we tend to value today.