Our theme for July was #JaneAustenJuly and to celebrate her life and work, we as a book club picked Emma for our next classic. Many claimed that it wasn’t their favourite Austen and some (including me) struggled with the language/pace at times, but we persevered and most of us were proud to have finally tackled one of Austen’s novels.
Between the hour of 8pm – 9pm (UK time), eight questions were posted for book club members to comment with their thoughts. Here is what they said:
Q1: How long, if at all, did it take you to get into the book/story?
For some, this was a re-read, but for others, this was their first time reading an Austen classic and therefore it took us a while to get used to the language and the pace of the novel. If you go into a classic book thinking it’s going to be all twists and turns and full of drama, you will most likely be bitterly disappointed so it took some of our members (including me) time to adjust to Austen’s writing style.
Most of us agreed that it took a few chapters for us to understand who everyone was and what role they played in the story. I think the general consensus was that the second half of the book was much better and easier to read, as the plot was beginning to take place and there was suddenly a lot going on!
Q2: How did you view Emma’s friendship with Harriet Smith?
As a whole, most members felt sorry for Harriet because she was unaware of Emma’s meddling and we could see her naivety. We as readers knew Emma was using her as some sort of project, and we could sense that Emma simply using Harriet as her protégé would only end in tears.
Some of us questioned whether their friendship was genuine, and we began to question why Emma was using her? Was it her because she was bored and needed something to entertain herself with? Was it because she was lonely now that Mrs Weston had got married and moved out? Was it even an ego-booster for Emma to be seen as a do-gooder? Or perhaps the saddest reasons of them all is that Emma never really had any female companionship and with Harriet being so keen to have Emma as a friend, perhaps Emma could now fully experience what it is like to have a sister?
I think we all agreed that there was definitely some sort of motive behind her friendship with Harriet.
Q3: What did you make of Mr Woodhouse? What kind of daughter is Emma to him?
Members were very torn on their opinion of Mr Woodhouse as words such as ‘irritating’, ‘hilarious’, ‘endearing’ and ‘cute’ being used to describe him. I think we all agreed that he was suffering from some sort of nervous disposition, probably caused by grief. One of the members said that everybody knows a Mr Woodhouse and we all surprisingly seemed to agree with this!
Most of us felt sorry for Mr Woodhouse because he was obviously a sensitive soul and it’s easy to see why. All the women in his life seem to come and go, for example, his wife, Emma’s sister and Mrs Weston, but with Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley, hopefully, she can remain at home with him.
What we all agreed on was that Emma’s relationship with her father is one of the few relationships that Emma holds with true love and real compassion. Some argued that her reason for not wanting to marry was because she didn’t want to leave her father, and was putting her life on hold to ensure her father’s happiness. Her love for her father seemed to be her only redeeming quality and we all admired Emma for this.
Q4: What did you think of Mr Knightley? Did your opinion change at all?
Mr Knightley was a HUGE hit with the ‘Let’s Get Classical’ Book Club. Although we were a little unsure of him at first because he seemed to question Emma about everything and was extremely patronising, we grew to love him towards the end and agreed that he was definitely a good match for Emma.
Mr Knightley did wonders for Emma’s development as he was the only character who didn’t hang on Emma’s every word. He was often considerate of others, especially Mr Woodhouse and Harriet and some of us stated that ‘he is just what a young man ought to be’.
One of our members even pointed out that Knightley’s judgements are often clues and foreshadow was it about to happen in the book. Turns out that Mr Knightley isn’t just a pretty face after all…
Q5: Do you think Emma learnt anything from her behaviour? Do you think she grows as a character?
A lot of members mentioned that when Emma is rude to Miss Bates during the picnic, this seems to be a turning point in the novel. Emma finally realises the woman she is becoming and she doesn’t like it. I think from this point forward, she realises that she is quick to act before she thinks and that her actions impact those around her. She always believes she is doing the best for everyone but soon realises that her meddling can have severe consequences.
Some of us even noticed that Emma seems to realise at the end of the novel that money, class and social status isn’t everything to everyone and once she realises this, she becomes a more compassionate and ‘real’ character.
Most were frustrated by her journey to realising this, as it was only right at the very end that she has her epiphany, but others were sceptical to whether Emma would actually ever fully change her ways.
Q6: Marriage is a central theme in Emma. What do you think Jane Austen was trying to say about marriage?
As this was my first Austen novel, I was unaware that most of her female heroines marry for love. Many of the marriages we witness in the novel (and there’s a few!) are more about gaining social status or financial stability. Emma doesn’t need any of those things and therefore vows never to marry. Maybe there is a fear that with marriage, she will lose her independence and that scares her.
Many of us debated what Austen was trying to say about marriage through the novel and most of us agreed that she was promoting getting married for love and nothing else. Perhaps Austen was proving that marriage shouldn’t just be for securing wealth and class but should be because you’ve fallen in love with the right person at the right time.
We also loved that she was ahead of her time by proving that women have a choice when it comes to marriage when she said:
“If a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him.”
Q7: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Did you like Emma?
The general consensus around this question was that we didn’t like Emma at first and we found how she loved to meddle and gossip in affairs that did not involve her, unbearable to read at times. Yet as the book progressed, we grew to love her sass and independence.
Some of us questioned whether she would be someone we’d hang out with, and most of us agreed that although she loved to gossip, Emma knew her own mind and she knew what she wanted out of life, which to us was admirable.
Members agreed that we wanted to read a sequel to see how Emma and Mr Knightley got on with married life and to see whether she really had changed. Yet what we loved most about Emma was that her flaws made her a more relatable and real character which brings us nicely onto our next and final question…
Q8: In what ways, if at all, can Emma be viewed as a feminist novel?
Members were torn about this question because Emma somewhat is and somewhat isn’t a feminist novel. Emma is sassy, independent and headstrong; she knows what she wants. She knows her wealth and status around Highbury and because of this, she, therefore, has the confidence to do exactly as she pleases.
A few of our members raised an interesting point when they argued that it is because of her wealth and social status that she has the option to marry for love, instead of only marrying to secure financial security. Poorer people at this time would not have had these same luxuries.
Yet one thing we all agreed on was that Emma showed us that women can have faults and they weren’t always these perfect little wives that men at this time wish they would be. Women should have their own say in who they marry and why they marry, and that should never be frowned upon, but instead celebrated.
As Emma marries Mr Knightley in the end and is kind of ‘tamed’ by him, we all said we wouldn’t go as far as naming it as a feminist novel but it is definitely ahead of its time.
And there we have it, I hope you enjoyed reading this book club discussion summary, and if you would like to get involved next month, make sure you join the Let’s Get Classical Book Club Facebook Group! We are currently voting for our August book club read, so be sure to head over there to have your say!