This weekend, Masterpiece “Classic” presents a new version of Jane Austen’s Emma. I am watching this adaptation as I write, and I am struck with this revelation, not new to me, but new to this blog, that try as I might, I just can’t get myself to like Emma Woodhouse. Not only is she a busybody, but she’s the kind of girl that manages to remain oblivious as men (one after another) fall madly in love with her. You know these women… they are always quite pretty and mercilessly charming, because of these fortuitous characteristics, they manage to float around in a fantasy land while other people suffer the consequences of their actions. Example: Emma classically convinces her poor illegitimate friend Harriet Smith that the well-to-do Mr. Elton is in love with her. Simple economics suggests that such a match will simply never happen: Harriet is poor, and Mr. Elton has aspirations above his birth. Of course, Emma is adorably shocked to discover that Mr. Elton has only been hanging around the estate to get closer to her. Needless to say, while Mr. Elton is disappointed to learn that Emma will not marry him (there are other girlfish in the sea), Harriet is devastated. In Emma, as in every Austen novel, things work out for the characters we have grown to care about, but this only exacerbates my antipathy to Emma Woodhouse, that girl that makes all kinds of stupid mistakes and STILL ends up just fine.
Is it fair that the male characters in the Jane Austen novel can assume any woman who pays them the slightest attention wishes to marry them? No. But it’s also not fair that some people (namely those born into privilege) manage to remain aloof to the political-economic context of society while the rest of us pick up the pieces of all the people who’ve been stepped on in their selfish haze.
In spite of my bitterness, I’m determined to give Emma another shot, and so, I watch on.