Jane Austen’s Unlikeable Emma

Jane Austen famously wrote of Emma, the protagonist in her novel of the same name, that “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” The main difference between the book and the film versions—most recently Autumn DeWilde’s 2020 film, Emma.—with a period—is that the film versions make Emma too likeable. They take the sharp edges off Emma’s faults. By rounding off her vices, however, they also round off Emma’s distinctive virtue. It is that Emma’s quite serious vices make her singular virtue all the more remarkable that, I think, endeared Emma to Austen so much.

This is not to say DeWilde’s film is not enjoyable. It is, as is the 1996 version starring Gwyneth Paltrow. And my point is not the trite observation that “the book is better than the film.” The book and the films, however, give us different stories—not least in toning down Emma’s faults in the films. As Austen’s comment about Emma’s unlikableness suggests, modern film audiences would be put off by Emma if the films presented her in all of the book’s off-putting splendor.

Yet it is because of her very serious faults, and her rare, distinctive virtue, that Emma is perhaps Austen’s most remarkably Christian character.

Background of the Story

Emma Woodhouse, in the first sentence of the novel, is “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and a happy disposition . . .  and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Unlike the plots in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, primogeniture along the male line does not threaten Emma’s future happiness. Emma’s wealth is secure beyond her father’s death. Emma’s financial independence, and her emotional independence, are not mere thematic happenstance, they are critical to Austen’s account of Emma’s distinctive virtue.

Emma lives with her hypochondriac father. Mr. Woodhouse is vacuous, selfish, and officious. He offers unneeded, unwanted, and, usually, incorrect advice. He’s tolerated because of his wealth, and because he can be ignored with a grin and a nod. As with Emma herself, Austen paints Mr. Woodhouse in darker hues in the novel than the films do. The irrepressible Bill Nighy plays Mr. Woodhouse in DeWilde’s film. He is charming, despite his faults. There is very little charming in Austen’s Mr. Woodhouse. He lives a vain, wasted life in the novel. And, in Emma, the apple has not fallen far from the tree.

A small circle of acquaintances form Emma’s social life. Mr. Knightley, a 37-year neighbor and friend, owns a huge, wealthy estate that abuts and dwarfs Mr. Woodhouse’s estate. Mr. Knightley is the lone member of Emma’s circle who will disagree with Emma, and chastise her for her ill behavior when he thinks it merited. There is Harriet Smith, the natural daughter of no one knows who, and a young protégé Emma has adopted for the purpose of helping her acquire a gentleman husband. (In her incompetent officiousness, Emma almost tragically messes up Harriet’s life.) Mrs. Weston (née Miss Taylor), who was supposed to be Emma’s governess for sixteen years, but, because of her weakness of character, instead served as Emma’s enabler. And then there is Miss Bates, the aging, increasingly poor unmarried daughter of the region’s now deceased rector. Her declining circumstances are an object of pity. But those circumstances do not save her from an annoying propensity to burden everyone around her with vacuous chatter.

The climax of the novel comes when, at a picnic with their acquaintances, during what is supposed to be a silly verbal game, Emma loses patience, and exposes her contempt for Miss Bates in a misaimed joke. Even though revealing nothing everyone did not already know, Emma shames Miss Bates in front of the group.

As the picnic draws to an end, Mr. Knightley approaches Emma in private to rebuke her for her treatment of Miss Bates. This is the pivotal event in the portrayal of Emma’s deep and distinctive virtue. Knightley’s rebuke is worth quoting. Then Emma’s response.

“How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? Hou could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible.

[Was Miss Bates] prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune . . . I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation . . . [But] she is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to, and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!  . . . This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will, – I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel . . .

Austen spends the entire novel up to this point setting up the scene and Emma’s response. Real vice. And painful rebuke. Austen almost has Knightley quote the proverb directly, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 26.7).

Emma’s Independence

Austen carefully creates an Emma who has no external reason to respond positively to Mr. Knightley’s rebuke. If anything, her character would take umbrage at his intervention. This is the purpose for creating Emma’s independence from reliance on others in wealth, character, and inclination against marriage. Emma’s response illustrates a singular virtue that was undoubtedly as rare in Austen’s day as it is today.

Accepting external chastisement requires extraordinary maturity, and even grace. Accepting Knightley’s rebuke, when she had no external inducements to do so, shows us Emma’s striking, and hopeful, spiritual maturity.

This is the problem with the films relative to Austen’s story. By muting Emma’s faults the films also mute Emma’s singular, yet remarkable, virtue. The darker hue in which Austen presents Emma relative to the films, and Emma’s independence from the need to be solicitous of anything Mr. Knightley says, underscore Emma’s singular virtue.

In the book, Emma is like her father, but more active. That’s not a good thing. Like her father, Emma, too, is vacuous, selfish, and officious. Emma’s more active officiousness almost turns into tragedy for Harriet Smith, her protégé. Throughout the novel Emma’s inner dialogue reveals a thoroughly unpleasant person. We would expect this person to reject the rebuke of another, no matter how truthful or well-meaning.

This, also, is the key to why, unique among Austen’s female protagonists, she creates Emma as independently wealthy, and entirely uninterested in marriage. To reveal Emma’s distinctive virtue, it is critical that she have no ulterior motive to respond favorably to Knightley’s rebuke. Austen has to have Emma friendzone Knightley. Austen has Emma engage in an extended conversation with Harriet explaining Emma’s lack of interest in marriage.

 “My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming—one other person at least. And I am not only, not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of every marrying at all.”

“I must see somebody very superior to anyone I have seen yet, to be tempted . . . I would rather not be tempted. I cannot really change for the better. If I were to marry, I must expect to repent it.”

. . .

“I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine.”

. . .

“[Miss Bates] is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious— . . .  I would marry tomorrow. But between us, I am convinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried.”

Emma’s lack of interest in marriage plays a critical role in establishing Emma’s independence from Knightley: There is no ulterior romantic reason for Emma to accept Knightley’s chastisement. She does not desire any proposal at this point of the novel, even one from Knightley.

Given her self-absorption, it is also unclear ex ante that Emma would accept Knightley’s chastisement. As noted above, no one else speaks to Emma as Knightley does. Emma’s father is too self-absorbed. He flatters Emma with the likely intent of keeping her at home to take care of him. Emma’s governess, too, was pleasant but negligent, only indulging Emma during her childhood.

Her wealth, position, and character make her independent of Knightley’s opinion of her, whether good or bad. Knightley’s rebuke, and Emma’s willingness to hear it, is the point to which Austen aims the story. This is the moment to which all of Emma’s faults pointed us: A spoiled, selfish, self-absorbed young woman like Emma would be expected to take offense at and reject Knightley’s chastisement. She had no need for Knightley’s approval, she has no dependence upon him. His rebuke could easily presume far too much on their bantering relationship.

Emma’s Virtue

Yet Emma did take Knightley’s remarks to heart, and it is here that we see her singular virtue:

[She had] only anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern.  . . .  Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel . . .

Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home . . . extraordinary as they were.

Austen’s point is not simply that Emma grows and matures. We can often accept the chastisement of our inner voice while we would be affronted if someone else pointed out the same fault to us. Accepting external chastisement requires extraordinary maturity, and even grace. Accepting Knightley’s rebuke, when she had no external inducements to do so, shows us Emma’s striking, and hopeful, spiritual maturity.

Austen, the daughter of an Anglican rector, treads a fine line in the novel. She faced the difficult task of motivating both Emma’s singular virtue and Mr. Knightley and his rebuke; the well-intended giving of an honest, loving rebuke, and the heartfelt acceptance of the same. Then, as today, an indulgent silence in the face of fault, or the unedifying criticism of the church lady, are more the norm. And, even then, if someone happens to speak an unwelcomed truth, no matter the motivation, we justify and rationalize—to ourselves, if not to them—or attack in response, asking who are they to judge. In Emma, Jane Austen draws a remarkable picture of Christian friendship in truth-telling rebuke and heartfelt response. Emma’s remarkable virtue is revealed all the more through her quite serious vices.