"If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more." So says Mr.Knightley to Emma. If anyone were to ask me, I would say that this one line more than equals Mr. Darcy's impassioned proposal to Elizabeth Bennet. Yet, Emma is different from Pride and Prejudice in that, the protagonist comes in for a lot more censure than Lizzy Bennet ever did. Nor is Mr.Knightley's love so full of struggle like Mr.Darcy's. He too loves with a constancy, but with a touch of the benefactor, the concern of a father, the wisdom of a brother. Here, though, I must stop: this after all is not a comparison between these two superior creations of Ms.Austen, and I am rambling.
In the very first chapter, the diametrically opposite characters of Emma Woodhouse and her father Mr.Woodhouse are thrown into sharp relief. After many years with the family, first as Emma's governess and then as her companion, the family's beloved Miss Taylor marries! Emma, although regretting the loss of a companion that she has grown to love, rejoices in the fact that (according to herself) she has brought about the match between Miss Taylor and Mr.Weston. Her father on the other hand, a man who hates to leave his own fireside for anything, hates change of any sort and lives in the state of most pitiable agitation over the health of simply everyone he knows cannot find any comfort in Miss Taylor marrying and going away. Into this glum cheerless of an evening in the first chapter, Mr.Knightley infuses much good sense, warmth and cheer by taking a cheerful view of things. I have always felt that Ms.Austen has done a brilliant job in introducing all three characters at the outset. These three have much to do with each other, and once you have become acquainted with them, it is fun to sit back and enjoy their interactions as the story progresses. Emma, young, rich, beautiful, clever and slightly spoilt loves a project and her favourites are usually of the matchmaking variety. With this in mind, she takes under her wing a certain Harriet Smith, a girl that boards at Mrs.Goddard's. Harriet although beautiful, is a timid shy girl of seventeen, the daughter of "nobody", her parentage is unknown and she has neither money nor prospects. Emma's aim is to get her married favourably and establish her forever in good society. What follows is a series of sometimes comic, sometimes distressing errors involving a certain Mr.Martin (a respectable, though "poor" farmer and therefore deemed not "good enough" for Harriet) a Mr.Elton (who ends up proposing to Emma instead), a certain Frank Churchill (whom does he really like? Emma? Harriet? Or is there a third girl?) and incredibly Mr.Knightley himself! What really happens? Whom does Harriet finally end up with? And what about Emma, in her folly about rank and aristocracy does she get to know her own heart before it is too late?
This book is for and about only Emma Woodhouse. Many faults she may have, yet, you can't help loving her. Emma has none of the tempestuousness of Pride and Prejudice. It is gentler, it lets us examine the events in Emma's life at a leisurely pace and in its very portrayal of the protagonist as one for whom rank and birth are important, exposes the folly of such thoughts. Mr.Knightley provides the perfect foil for Emma Woodhouse and this is where the book scores.
Visit Highbury and Hartfield, get drawn into all the joys, sorrows, petty fights, the good people and the bad. Jane Austen is at her sparkling best and she absolutely does not disappoint.