Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Profile: Emma Woodhouse

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.

Name: Emma Woodhouse

Age: 20

Hobbies: Other than matchmaking, Emma is the consummate dilettante. She reads, plays the pianoforte, draws likenesses, engages in fine needlework, and even collects the occasional riddle, all with a great deal of natural skill but no diligence.

Most charming quality: Her devotion to her family, particularly her rather trying father. 

Most detrimental tendency: "A disposition to think a little too well of herself."

Greatest strength: A willingness to correct her faults, once they become manifestly clear.

Truest Friend: Mrs. Weston, nee Taylor

Worst enemy: Pick one - Mr. or Mrs. Elton

Prospects: Very good. She is mistress of her father's home and possesses thirty thousand pounds. No other lady in Highbury is her equal.

Favorite quotations: "But, with common sense," she added, "I am afraid I have had little to do."

"Perhaps you may now begin to regret that you spent one whole day, out of so few, in having your hair cut."
"I do not know whether it ought to be so, but certainly silly things do cease to be silly if they are done by sensible people in an impudent way. Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.--It depends upon the character of those who handle it."

"These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good. How trifling they make every thing else appear!—I feel now as if I could think of nothing but these poor creatures all the rest of the day; and yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind?"

"I would much rather have been merry than wise."

"You are sick of prosperity and indulgence. Cannot you invent a few hardships for yourself, and be contented to stay?"

"Oh! I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other; and, therefore, you must give me a plain, direct answer."

"Can you trust me with such flatterers?--Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?"

Musings: It seems that Emma Woodhouse is, after Fanny Price, the most despised of Austen's heroines, and while I feel called upon to defend Fanny (read my profile of her here) because she is so misunderstood, my desire to espouse Miss Woodhouse is based in purely selfish motivation, much like her own. For better or for worse, she is the heroine in Austen that I can best relate to. We are almost sickeningly alike - spoiled, self-consequential, and meddling - but we also share our good qualities. As stated above, Emma's greatest strength seems to be her willingness to learn from her mistakes. So if we acknowledge that she begins the novel as a flawed creature, she is undoubtedly a far superior one by the end. And I think this is really the crux of Emma. It is a tale of blunders, and of learning the hard lessons they teach. The word is used repeatedly throughout the novel, most memorably in the scene where Frank Churchill spells it out with the young Knightley's alphabet letters. However, all of Emma's amendment and repentance does not seem to be enough to excuse her in the minds of the many readers who insist upon hating her. I have only been able to construct two explanations for such unreasonableness. The first is that Austen herself declared that it would be so in her famous statement, "I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like." The second is that Emma is far more privileged than Austen's other heroines, and therefore not an object of commiseration. In regards to the first argument, I suggest we all try to cultivate such good taste, and as for the second, which I find more convincing, I propose comparing Miss Woodhouse to the Austen heroine she most resembles: Elizabeth Bennet. Both are clever, charming, and make mistakes based upon an over dependence on their own intelligence, yet Miss Bennet is universally beloved. Granted, she does not interfere in other people lives the way Emma does, but she is also not so fortunate as to be the most consequential lady in her neighborhood. If we reversed their circumstances, I think we would find them to be uncannily similar. It is interesting that Austen declared her intention of creating a heroine whom no one but she would like almost immediately after receiving the criticisms of Mansfield Park, which always have and always will focus on Fanny Price's lack of Elizabeth Bennet's charms. Perhaps Emma can be viewed as a criticism of the public's taste? I would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.



  1. I think Emma and Fanny are criticisms of public taste, actually. While Austen doesn't hold either up as a perfect ideal (despite what Claudia Johnson may claim), they both force the reader to work harder than the somewhat too-easily-liked Lizzy (I find myself often sympathetic with Prudie from the Jane Austen Book Club - "If this were a popularity contest, then Elizabeth Bennet would be most popular and Fanny Price least" - said with the perfect tone of despair and self-pity :-) I do love Prudie.

    Anyway. I adore Emma for much the same reasons you mention above.

    Side note - did you see the new Jane Eyre trailer - with the wampire Rochester?

  2. Hi ibmiller! Always good to hear from a fellow defender of Austen's least loved heroines. I find it interesting that I received only your comment to this post - perhaps readers weren't thrilled by my proposition that Austen was critical of their disapprobation for Miss Woodhouse? I find Claudia Johnson's writings on Austen far too feminist to invoke my sympathies. I simple cannot view Austen (or any writer, for that matter) from such a confined bubble, and so I tend to disregard her opinions on, quite frankly, pretty much everything, though I do keep on reading her essays, for some masochistic reason.

    I have not yet seen the new Jane Eyre trailer, though I am aware it has been circulating. I find myself increasingly sick of the book, which I adored as a teenager, and so have been unable to muster the slightest bit of enthusiasm for a new film adaptation. Presumably you meant vampire Rochester? I had no notion this was a monster mashup, though it does seems far more fitting to make him a vampire than Mr. Darcy. Perhaps I will look into it after all ...

    Just watched it. Am I missing something? He didn't seem much altered from the book to me. Please explain, as I am now thoroughly confused.

  3. Re: Emma - I dunno - perhaps everyone was tired out by the Emma cliche-fest that was the press's reaction to the most recent miniseries. "No one likes Emma, Emma's a matchmaker, blah blah blah." Seriously, no one but the actual cast and crew seemed to get the interesting bits - Emma's really isolated, Emma's got lots of class issues, Emma is totally awesome (okay, I made the last part up ;-)

    Re: Johnson - I too keep returning to her - partly because I feel like I should know what I hate, partly because she reads too closely for me to totally reject what she says. But she is really annoying with her insistence on deviance and perversion and the utter uselessness of non-gay men.

    Interesting - for me, Jane Eyre has been the opposite. I read it at 17 (right after I first tore through Austen for the first time), and was approving of her writing ability but rather bored by the self-indulgence of the story (not to mention irritated at my first brush with feminist criticism with third-rate Gilbert and Gubar imitations). However, when I was forced to reread the book last year for school, I found myself rather liking it (helped by the 2006 miniseries). I am looking forward the the new film (and just watched the 1944 Orson Wells/Joan Fontaine adaptation - rather liked it - quite nice acting and camerawork), but am perplexed by some things. I do mean vampire, but a friend and I like to make fun of how stupid vampires are by combining the word with "wah" as in "wah wah crying now" - thus, the wampire. And what I was confused about mainly was the scene where Jane and Rochester are apparently kissing, and he pulls away with black eyes (like a Hollywood demon possession or Willow from Buffy on black magic). Someone thought it was probably after he gets blinded - but I've always thought of that as glazed or grey or white eyes. We shall see.

  4. So here's my deal with Miss Eyre. I've read the book at least a dozen times. As a teenager I adored it. I thought Mr. Rochester the greatest thing since sliced bread, even going so far as to cry in his defense in the middle of a classroom. Then, in college, I discovered that my boyfriend of three years (my Mr. Rochester) had been consistently cheating on me the entire time. Well, let's just say that the experience opened my eyes to Mr. Rochester's true character. Any and all romance I attached to the notion of the brooding, misunderstood, and consummately selfish hero (of the Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff models)was totally demolished, and Mr. Darcy quickly became my ideal. Now, Mr. Rochester aside, there are magnificent attributes to Jane Eyre. The depiction of her youth I still find totally fascinating, but once the Lowood School is behind us, I get increasingly frustrated. Bertha Mason remains a subject of interest - in fact, it is generally the women in the story that keep me coming back for rereads - but the men are absolutely infuriating. Bronte portrays a world in which men are either of the St. John type (totally unromantic and agonizingly pragmatic, wanting to mold woman to their purposes), or of the Mr. Rochester type (totally untrustworthy until they are maimed enough to be controlled). This just doesn't ring true to me. And yes, The Madwoman in the Attic probably had no little impact on my adult reading of the tale, especially since I went to a college where Susan Gubar was and is the superstar of the English department (not that I ever met her). Bronte might have accused Austen of lacking passion, but I cannot help but regulate Bronte to the realm of drama queen. That doesn't mean I don't still believe she was a phenomenally thoughtful and philosophic writer, but it does mean that my adult sensibilities - you know, the ones that tell me to act like Elinor and not Marianne - finds her brooding rather irritating. Villette, which was always my favorite of her novels, and still boggles my mind in it's complexity, is perhaps an even better example of Bronte's completely depressed perspective on life, but at least there she creates a hero one can respect. Today I prefer books that lift the spirit and compel one to make the most of life, hence my Austen obsession, while Bronte's novels are more likely to make a person want to commit suicide.

    Oh, and for those who criticize Austen for having overly contrived scenes - like Willoughby's confession and Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth's meeting at Pemberley, let's take a moment and ponder Jane Eyre's oh so bizarre spiritual communication with Mr. Rochester, their voices traversing time and space, carrying their need for each other across the barren moors. Really? I hate that scene.

    On another note, I like the wampire moniker, as I deplore the modern desire to make vampires sensitive and endearing, ala Twilight. These are monsters, people! Vicious bloodsuckers who have only ever been portrayed as romantic because Victorians couldn't depict straight up sex and so devised an alternative method for fluid exchange. They are NOT appropriate boyfriend material, just like Mr. Rochester. I wish women would stop romanticizing bad boys and make some healthier choices in life.

    Nothing like starting the day with a solid rant!

  5. I too share your hatred of bad boy appeal (though it's rather problematized by the fact that a) I'm male; b) there's another stereotype which is just as bad, the nice guy, which is easy to fall into when trying to avoid the "bad boy" persona; c) I actually like Twilight - but mostly for the female characters). It's actually a serious reason I have trouble with the roles of Cary Grant - he is so very selfish in his relationships with women generally (with some exceptions, like North by Northwest).

    The 2006 miniseies seriously challenges the idea that the selfishness is attractive, I think, by making Rochester much more sensitive. I'm curious to see what they're going to do in the new film.

    The Madwoman in the Attic, quite aside from the feminist component, relies so heavily on a model of the artistic process I cannot emotionally or intellectually accept (the psychological model, that is - the idea that a work is all about the author's unconscious, and all characters are first and foremost symbols - I read and write much more in the mimetic tradition, not denying the power of our unconscious desires, but trying to read them as contributors rather than controllers of our fictions) that I find it utterly abhorrent.

    And yes, there's no contest between Austen and Bronte for me. The former encourages me to do good and love wisely, the latter encourages me to look at my navel and love idiots. However, I think there is a certain amount of emotional sympathy I can find for the romance in these types of stories (even Twilight). I don't know how consistent it is, but there is a simple pleasure in straight romance read uncynically. Something I'm still not sure about...

    You should read Insatiable by Meg Cabot - it's a brilliant satire on vampires through the ages, including dead-on (and intelligent, instead of the generally moronic fare I have to suffer through as a Twilight reader) take on the modern vampire craze. Without pulling punches Cabot manages to show both why vampires are attractive and evil. Good stuff (though definitely adult - not quite to Importance of Being Emma level, but edging towards it).

  6. Emma Woodhouse is Austen's least loved heroine? Really? She's a big favorite of mine. I like her so much, because she IS flawed (which makes her character so entertaining) and is willing to acknowledge her flaws . . . unlike another Austen heroine I know.