A little while ago, I bought a cheap audiobook of Jane Austen's Emma on iTunes. And then, this week, I happened to be doing a lot of painstaking, long-lasting but completely mindless activities - knitting a scarf, painting decorations for my upcoming singalong Chitty Chitty Bang Bang party, lots of baking, going for walks, etc. It seemed like perfect timing to pull out an audiobook and listen as I worked.
I make it a point not to read Jane Austen novels too often because I love them so much and get such a pure enjoyment out of them that I don't want to risk becoming used to them. So it's actually been quite a long time since I read Emma, and I've only read it about twice, maybe three times at most. And I found myself rediscovering the book with great pleasure.
I really think it's such a wonderfully-structured novel. It's one of those novels which is very exciting as you read it for the first time, because the plot unfolds with so many little and large surprises. However, I discovered that it's just as wonderful to read a second time - Austen has packed it full of little road signs and ironies that all point towards the ultimate denouement, and these are so enjoyable to pick up on that knowing what is about to happen becomes a positive thing! I also love the skill with which Austen gives us a hidden love story, a love story in the background which is unseen by all the characters and all first-time readers but which becomes clear after the first reading. It is rather a touching love story.
Reading Emma this time around, I think I may have matured a little, because I found Austen's portrayal of Miss Woodhouse very satisfying. Last time, I was probably disappointed by the lasting imperfections of her character. This time, I loved how the narrator is so unreliable, and how Emma is so flawed, and how the narrator never judges Emma. She simply lays out this character who is as charming and well-meaning as she is mischievous/prideful/arrogant. She gives us a character who is lovable despite her faults and even because of her faults. Even towards the end, Austen doesn't fall prey to the temptation to completely rehabilitate her main character. The novel is a journey of self-discovery, and yet it's not over at the end, and she's still not perfect. There's a delicious irony to the fact that Emma feels so exposed to herself and yet there is still so much she is unaware of.
This is characterisation that precludes academic mangling. It resists a Marxist reading, a feminist reading, and many other kinds of readings - it's much more complicated.
Of course, we are given all the wonderful minor characters, a hallmark of Austen novels. Mrs Elton is deliciously awful. Miss Bates is so lovely and yet so painfully familiar to all of us. Mr Woodhouse such a nice, narrow-minded old invalid.
It is rather a long book. Reading it as an audiobook helped a little because I could not skim the longest episodes but had to listen to the whole - and this was definitely worth doing. I loved it. I feel a little sad at the prospect of doing mindless tasks without Jane Austen, now. Four and a half stars. No surprise, given my love for Austen, but I am trying to be unbiased and objective!!