Andrew Davis created another proficient and loyal adaptation of Austen’s work, a year after his success with Pride and Prejudice(1995). Emma (1996 TV) shown on PBS last night is effectively written for the screen, bringing out all the crucial scenes in congruent sequences. Great acting from all, except I must say, Mark Strong’s Mr. Knightly seems to be a bit too severe and lacks the forbearing and benevolent nature he possesses in the book. Maybe because of that, Kate Beckinsale is a more subdued Emma, less spriteful as Gwyneth Paltrow’s portrayal. I have enjoyed Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax and Samantha Morton as Harriet Smith, who is more appropriately cast than Toni Collette in the 1996 movie.
“I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” –Jane Austen on Emma
Is Emma such a despicable character that Jane Austen thought no one but herself would much like?
At first, I thought so. Emma is manipulative, imposing and snobbish. In her pride, she has toyed with Harriet’s emotions, misdirected her path, and dominated her decisions. In her blindness, she has misjudged intentions and at times, behaved disdainfully. If Lady Catherine were around, her words targeted at Elizabeth Bennet would be most appropriate here: “Obstinate, headstrong girl!”. Lizzy would also decry: “Insufferable!”
But, why did Jane Austen still like her?
In her ingenious style, Austen has led us in a most gratifying way, to see our heroine regret. Emma is not a perfect human being. Far from it. She probably has more ingrained flaws than most of the other characters in the story. However, that is the way our beloved author likes to sculpt her heroines: making them earn their respect by their mending their ways. And she knows how gratified her readers must feel to see Emma enlightened and humbled. By showing a regretful and corrected Emma, Jane Austen has aligned our views with hers, helping us to appreciate our heroine as a respectable character who is not afraid to own up to her blunders. Emma’s tears of regret have melted our hearts away.
Moreover, and most importantly I think, Austen has inconspicuously led us to see Emma from the eyes of Mr. Knightly towards the end of the story. Mr. Knightly has been Emma’s moral compass and benevolent mentor. While he can see her errors clearly, and does not hesitate to correct and admonish, he is also ready to forgive. He has chosen to love her from a distance while she is still an immature and self-deluded girl, albeit an imaginative one.
At the end, we are rewarded to see Emma gaining self-understanding:
“I seem to have been doomed to blindness.”
Hearing Knightly’s declaration of love, the undeserved euphoria is unspeakable. But of course, Mr. Knightly sees it otherwise:
“I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”
His kindness and love for Emma compel him to still give her credit in her most self-deprecating state. In his eyes, she is ‘faultless in spite of all her faults’.
So, from Mr. Knightly’s point of view, we’ve come to appreciate a very human Emma, humbled by experience, regretful of her ways, and in the end, ever so ready to change. After all, it’s about time that a blissful match is made for herself.
Update: You can read this article as well as other interesting and informative articles on Jane Austen and the Regency Period in the Jane Austen Centre Online Magazine.