I have found the synopses of the Austen books in the back of The Jane Austen Book Club to be woefully insufficient. Here is a full summary but in addition I want to give my take on Emma emphasising the points which I think are most pertinent to The Jane Austen Book Club.
The question in Emma is “What is love”. It is not so much about marriage as it is about "courtship”. How does a woman determine when she is really in love and who she should marry, a “suitable match”. Breeding and class are important ( to Austen) not for themselves but for the personal qualities that came along with them (or should) in her day, and Austen is very pointedly acerbic about those who judge quality solely on the basis of wealth and position and critical of marriage which is not accompanied by a depth of feeling. Emma is also about how blind one can be when it comes to “love” and what “love” really is.
Emma starts out a spoiled, class conscious, prig.
The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having
rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little
too well of herself; ... The danger, however, was at present
so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes
In the book Emma decides to play matchmaker for Harriet and does it- as Austen might say- “very ill”. Marriage and love is a serious business and not to be trifled with and Austen must teach this lesson to her character, Emma. This she does through the character of Knightly. Emma seems oblivious or dismissive of the real currants of feeling swirling around her. She ignores the attentions of Robert Martin to Harriet ( and discourages Harriet’s obvious affection for him) thinking him beneath her friend's station.
Instead she tries to put Harriet in the way of Mr. Elton the new vicar thinking him more “suitable” ( read higher class) even though Harriet doesn’t “love” Mr. Elton. This backfires on Emma as Elton thinks the attention means he has a chance with Emma herself. He doesn't care for Emma but is impressed by her status and wealth, while Harriet has neither. This Emma is unaware of at first.
Emma is susceptible however to the artificial charms and flattery of Frank Churchill the son of a neighbour who doesn’t really care for Emma at all but uses her to mask his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax (granddaughter and niece of a couple of impoverished but respectable ladies of the town.) Instead Emma imagines that Jane is involved in an affair with Jane’s former employer Mr. Dixon, a married man. She is also jealous of her as she rivals Emma in accomplishments.
Emma seems unaware that Mr. Knightly ( her brother-in-law and long time friend of the family) whose concern for Emma is constant, if at times critical, has any interest in her other than fatherly.
Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see
faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them:
and though this was not particularly agreeable to Emma herself,
she knew it would be so much less so to her father, that she would
not have him really suspect such a circumstance as her not being
thought perfect by every body.
"Emma knows I never flatter her," said Mr. Knightley,
Knightly calls Emma out when her behaviour is below what he expects of her, especially when she is cruel to Jane’s aunt, Miss Bates, a poor- of lower status- but a sweet lady. Meanwhile Harriet mistakes Knightly’s kindness and respect to her as affection, while Emma, finally realising she doesn’t really care for Frank, thinks he might be a match for Harriet, which is far from Harriet’s mind taken as she is now with Knightly. Only when Emma believes Knightly might care for someone else (Harriet, Jane) does she realise her own affection for him. Nothing is as it first appears to Emma. All is surprise.
The knots are all eventually worked out, and we the readers, frustrated at times by Emma’s blindness, see her gradual enlightenment to the virtues of Mr. Knightly and her own fallibility. Harriet marries Robert as she well should, following her true affection, Mr Elton marries some rich lady as materialistic as himself, Frank’s love of Jane can be revealed when his controlling aunt dies and Emma, well, she falls in love with Knightly just when she thinks she has lost his favour. She wouldn’t have been happy with Knightly at the beginning of the book of course but because of the incidents through the book and what she learns about herself and what “suitable” means to her she is a changed woman and is no longer the stuck up, know it all, youngster she was.
So we start out in the Jane Austen Book Club in March at Jocelyn’s discussing Emma.
We are encouraged to compare Jocelyn to the character of Emma. There are things in her relationships that are similar to Austen's Emma and things that contrast.
That's for the next post.