Monday, February 22, 2010

Old Favorite / New Read

by Jane Austen

Emma Woodhouse is a rich young lady living in a small community. She is practically the head of her household, independent, lively, and a little spoiled. She becomes friends with another young woman, Harriet Smith, the illegitimate daughter of no one knows whom, but Emma is certain that no gentleman farmer is good enough for Harriet. She is determined to make a better match for her friend. At the same time, the stepson of her old governess, Mrs. Weston, comes for a visit and shows Emma every attention.

I always find it hardest to convey what I think and feel about books that are so beloved they have become old friends. Emma is one such book, having read and reread it since I was a teenager. When I was younger, it was my favorite of the three Austen novels I had read (at the time - the fourth is Mansfield Park, which I first read as an adult). My relationship to the characters and the story has changed with time, however, and having shortly reread Pride and Prejudice (my current favorite, in case you were wondering), I couldn't help but compare the two in my mind's eye. Emma Woodhouse and Elizabeth Bennet are nearly the same age, but Emma seems to me much the younger of the two characters. Indeed, I think one of the reasons I loved Emma as a teenager was because I could related to her youth and naivete when it came to individuals and their relationships to one another. Elizabeth is in some ways much more a woman of the world, while Emma is a little insulated from such things as class, being as she is the richest woman in her set.

In fact, the treatment of class in Emma struck me more than ever before, as one distinction between characters that governs how much intimacy one can have with another, something that cannot be ignored, perhaps for Harriet especially, though for other characters as well. While still present in Pride and Prejudice, class distinctions are not quite the same hurdle, or at least not so clearly affecting the heroines in their choice of friends. But one of the greatest joys of rereading is rediscovering elements of an old favorite to which I had paid little attention. Though no longer my favorite Austen, Emma still evokes a great deal of affection from me, and I'm sure I will reread it again with pleasure.

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