Pretty, bright, and born atop the social strata of the English village of Highbury, Emma Woodhouse has all anyone would want. But she is fated to become the victim of her own irrepressible willfulness.
Because of the recent marriage of her friend and governess, Emma fills the void in her life by attempting to “improve” Harriet Smith, a sweet, pretty seventeen-year-old of unknown parentage. Emma’s good-hearted attempts to rearrange the lives of Harriet and other marriageable townspeople are then the incitement to the book’s subtle, intricately constructed plot.
Austen employs a sympathetic, gentle satire as she portrays the provincial townspeople — all of whom are goodhearted, but have their own particular streak of ridiculousness. Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, is deferred to by all, but maintains an absurd aversion to change and an overweening concern for maintaining what he considers to be a well-measured, healthy lifestyle. The chatty Miss Bates is sweet-tempered, but talks incessantly about everything that comes into view. And then there is Emma herself, who seems to know all but her own heart.
With the tightly weaved movements of the characters and the interplay of their romantic schemes, Emma has elements of a well-done mystery novel. But the book’s leisurely exposition and skillful use of irony make it an amusing comedy of manners in which the reader can savor the all-too-familiar foibles of the heart as it becomes a hunter.
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