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Emma ()

    "And you have forgotten one matter of joy to me," said Emma, "and a very considerable one--that I
    made the match myself. I made the match, you know, four years ago; and to have it take place, and
    be proved in the right, when so many people said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may
    comfort me for any thing."

    Mr. Knightley shook his head at her. Her father fondly replied, "Ah! my dear, I wish you would
    not make matches and foretell things, for whatever you say always comes to pass. Pray do not make
    any more matches."

    "I promise you to make none for myself, papa; but I must, indeed, for other people. It is the
    greatest amusement in the world!"
                  -Jane Austen, Emma

The edition of Emma that I just finished has a lovely portrait of a young woman on the cover painted by Josef Stieler.  So as a coworker walked by my desk she asked : Are you reading a chick book !?

I quickly protested it was not a chick book--one has one's pride after all--but the cover and her question raise the question : why is it not a chick book ?  Why are the novels of Jane Austen, dealing as they do with the machinations of English gentry of marriageable age and their convoluted courtships, so popular among all readers ?  We well understand why she should have been a favorite of Henry James, but why did Winston Churchill continually reread her also ?  These questions are directly related to another which plagues modern arguments over Jane Austen : do her novels have political ramifications ?  The answers to all these questions are to be found in Emma, which is my favorite of her novels.

At the outset let me admit that this only became clear to me when watching the terrific movie Clueless, which is based on this novel, but I now believe Emma to be one of the greatest political novels ever written.  Austen predicted of Emma Woodhouse : "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."  She was quite wrong; Emma is exactly the kind of misguided busybody with a heart of gold for whom, unfortunately, we have trouble nursing much dislike.  The plot of the tale is presumably too well known to need much rehashing here : suffice it to say that Emma is a pleasant and well-intentioned young woman who fancies herself a matchmaker, having successfully joined her governess and Mr. Weston, and so proceeds to meddle in the romantic lives of those around her despite eschewing the idea of marriage for herself.  In particular, she takes Harriet Smith, a pretty young girl of dubious social station, under her wing and tries finding her a husband.  There follow the expected misunderstandings and hurt feelings before true love finally outs and Emma realizes that not only did she not know what was best for others, in fact she did not understand her own heart's desires.

Now, at first blush that may not sound all that political, but the fundamental point Ms Austen conveys is actually not dissimilar to the argument of the great political philosopher F. A. Hayek in The Road to Serfdom (read Orrin's review).  Hayek's devastating critique of the modern state and centrally controlled economies argued that no government bureaucrat could ever effectively make decisions for other people because it is impossible to process all of the information that goes into other people's decision-making.  Only the free market, which allows for the greatest flow of information that humans have thus far devised, can even begin to approach the levels of efficiency that a complex economy requires to function smoothly.  Likewise, Jane Austen, over a hundred years earlier, warned us of the unsatisfactory results to expect when one person sought to make decisions for others, even when acting with their best interests at heart.  There will always be those among us, like Emma or like Hilary Clinton, who wish to manipulate our lives (always, we are assured, for our benefit rather than for the joy they take in the exercise), but the results are seldom salutary and never what the manipulators intended.

The idea of poor Jane Austen having to hide her writing when a family member entered the room and confined to the novel of manners is nearly totemic to feminists.  They decry the system of oppression which restrained her talents to insignificant topics and sentenced her to writing about romance.  In reality, Austen, at least in Emma, demonstrates that simple human wisdom knows no bounds and is as likely to be found in a comedy of manners as in any scholarly journal.  In its own way Emma is as stern a rebuke to centralization and authoritarianism as can be found in the Western Canon.  That her books are wonderfully witty and evoke images of an inviting pastoral past is merely icing on the cake.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Jane Austen Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jane Austen
    -PODCAST: The Art of Living: Jane Austen’s “Emma”: with Dr Gillian Dooley (The Minefield with Waleed Aly, Scott Stephens, 7 Jul 2022, )
    -ESSAY: Moral philosophy and the novel: The struggle between good and evil in Jane Austen’s “Mansfield Park” and Iris Murdoch’s “A Fairly Honourable Defeat” (Gillian Dooley, 11 Jul 2022, ABC: Religion & Ethics)
-ESSAY: On Jane Austen and The Lovable Unlikability of Emma Woodhouse: Emily Harding Can't Separate the Independent Streak from the Austen Worldview (Emily Harding, May 24, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: The Perfection of Jane Austen (Eva Brann, July 17th, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: DETECTING JANE: A POSSIBLE CAUSE OF JANE AUSTEN’S EARLY DEATH: After decades of writing detective novels featuring Jane Austen, Stephanie Barron has developed a theory about the author's death. (STEPHANIE BARRON, 2/17/22, CrimeReads)
    -ESSAY: How Jane Austen Created a Shakespearean World in Pride and Prejudice: The Late Harold Bloom on the Delights of the Beloved 1813 Novel and the Joys of Rereading (Harold Bloom, December 23, 2021, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: On Jane Austen’s Politics of Walking: Rachel Cohen: These Characters Walk to Be Themselves and to Change (Rachel Cohen, July 24, 2020, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: Jane Austen’s Unlikeable Emma (James R. Rogers, 11/10/20, Law & Liberty)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Your search: "jane austen"
    -ETEXTS : Jane Austen (Electronic Literature Foundation)
    -ETEXTS : Jane Austen E-texts (Grinnell College)
    -FILMOGRAPHY : "jane austen" (Imdb)
    -The American Society Of Jane Austen Scholars (University of Wisconsin Whitewater)
    -The Republic of Pemberley
    -James Dawe's Jane Austen Page (University of Alberta)
    -Persuasions : The Jane Austen Journal
    -Jane Austen Quarterly
    -Hampshire - The Jane Austen County
    -The Jane Austen Centre in Bath.
    -Guide to the Jane Austen Collection (
    -The Literary Gothic : Austen, Jane
    -COMPREHENSIVE LINKS : Jane Austen   (1775-1817) (nagoya)
    -LINKS : AUSTEN, JANE (1775-1817) : a web guide to Jane Austen from
    -LINKS : Web Citations : Janeites Unite (Atlantic Monthly)
    -LINKS : Jane Austen Directory - Women Writers (
    -ACCESS INDIANA Teaching & Learning Center : Jane Austen
    -IPL Online Literary Criticism Collection : Jane Austen (1775 - 1817)
    -ARCHIVES : "jane austen" (NY Review of Books)
    -EXCERPT : Chapter One of JANE AUSTEN :  A Life By David Nokes
    -DISCUSSION : On Valentine's Day, some thoughts about Jane Austen, love and related matters. (Elizabeth Farnsworth, Online Newshour, PBS)
    -ESSAY : Jane Austen's Concern with Society (DW Harding, Penguin Classics)
    -ESSAY : Jane Austen Changes Her Mind (Christopher Clausen, The American Scholar, Spring 1999)
    -ESSAY : Jane Austen's venture into tragedy (H. R. Harris, Contemporary Review)
    -SPECIAL ISSUE : Emma on Film (Persuasions)
    -ESSAY : Metaphors of Control: Physicality in Emma and Clueless  (SUE PARRILL, Persuasions)
    -ESSAY : Austen in Cyberspace (Sarah Collins , NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Literary Critics Find Politics Everywhere (RICHARD BERNSTEIN,  New York Times)
    -ESSAY : THE FATE OF WOMEN OF GENIUS (Mary Gordon, NY Times Book Review)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Emma (Debra Grossman , Spark Notes)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Mansfield Park (Melissa Martin, Spark Notes)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Pride and Prejudice (Ross Douthat, Spark Notes)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Sense and Sensibility (Ilana Kurshan, Spark Notes)
    -REVIEW: of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen  (Dwight Garner, Hungry Mind Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE JANE AUSTEN COMPANION. Edited by J. David Grey, A. Walton Litz and Brian Southam (JOHN GROSS, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of LETTERS TO ALICE On First Reading Jane Austen. By Fay Weldon (Hilma Wolitzer, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  JANE AUSTEN A Biography By Claire Tomalin (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of JANE AUSTEN A Life. By Claire Tomalin (Kevin Barry, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : Feb 5, 1998 Hilary Mantel: Not 'Everybody's Dear Jane', NY Review of Books
       Jane Austen: A Life by Claire Tomalin
       Jane Austen: A Life by David Nokes
    -REVIEWS : of JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE Claire Tomalin and JANE AUSTEN: A LIFE David Nokes (Malcolm Bradbury, New Statesman)
    -REVIEWS : of Jane Austen by Claire Tomalin and Jane Austen:  A Life by David Nokes (Lee Siegel, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of JANE AUSTEN A Life. By David Nokes (Claude Rawson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of THE LIFE OF JANE AUSTEN By John Halperin (Marilyn Butler, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of  JANE AUSTEN Obstinate Heart: A Biography By Valerie Grosvenor Myer (CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of  JANE AUSTEN Her Life. By Park Honan (Peter Conrad, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Jane Austen: A Biography , By Claire Tomalin (Denver Post)
    -REVIEW : of Jane Austen. By Carol Shields (Eilis Ní Dhuibhne, Irish Times)
    -INTERVIEW : Anything-but-plain Jane :  Writing a biography of Jane Austen, Carol Shields tells SANDRA MARTIN, made her rethink both Austen and her own writing. (SANDRA MARTIN, Globe & Mail)


now this political interpretation malarkey is just getting out of hand.

hilarious review

- brit

- Oct-08-2003, 11:08