I admit that I cheated a little with Emma, having watched the 1996 adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor and Jeremy Northam before reading the book. However, if I liked the film, I fell in love with the book. Emma Woodhouse considers herself something of a matchmaker. She credits herself with the happy marriage of her former governess and sets out to accomplish the same for a girl of unknown parentage, Harriet Smith. Unfortunately, Emma is not as astute as she likes to believe and crossed wires and heartbreaks soon ensue from which she herself isn't immune. Her friendship with her brother-in-law Mr Knightley is finally put to the greatest test.
Perhaps the main strength of this novel is the dialogue between Emma and Mr Knightley. It absolutely crackles and their arguments are both amusing and intelligent. At times, however, I found myself wishing Jane Austen had deigned to use more dialogue tags - debates that go on for a while can get confusing! My favourite character in this one is probably Miss Bates, a relatively poor woman who makes up what she lacks in wealth with a voice that could - and does - go on for hours. Although I felt like I needed a sit-down after every one of her speeches, she was easily the most amusing character in the book.
Austen has created characters as relevant to us today as they were in her lifetime. Miss Bates is the chatterbox who means no harm, Mr Woodhouse is the kind old gentleman who doesn't like change and tends to worry about everything. You've got Emma herself, the confident young woman who thinks she knows best, alongside Mrs Elton, the most unpleasant, self-centred woman imaginable. Every character is recognisable and probably will be for all time. Emma is both enjoyable and amusing. I'm sorry to have finished it but there are many scenes that linger in my head and will for some time. Not least, Emma's realisation scene...
"Emma's eyes were instantly withdrawn and she sat silently mediating in a fixed attitude, for a few minutes. A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress; she touched, she admitted, she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr Knightley than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet's having some hope of a return? It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself!" (p328)