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.

Reader Discussion

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on November 10, 2020 at 07:55:47 am

Nicely done, Rogers, and a refreshing change of pace.

A couple of personal observations: I note that Emma's exceptional response to rebuke reflects what is perhaps a home-grown, self-generated emotional independence but also (what Rogers calls) "a spiritual maturity," which seems to have no source outside herself and is, thus, not apparently a matter of faith. This is a curious situation we find in Austen's novels. They are set in Georgian England where both the Anglican Church and a growing evangelism were powerful spiritual forces. Yet Austen portrays spiritual maturity as ("mere" ?) moral rectitude, which appears to be either self-motivated (as with Emma) or culturally-induced and family-reinforced but detached from Christianity.

And Rogers points out the uniqueness in our day of Emma-like responses to rebuke. He says, "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."

How right he is! This is a dolorous, omnipresent reality, especially on the left in matters of politics, where any disagreement is inevitably an "unwelcomed truth" seen as impertinent, personal rebuke and received as a threatening micro-if-not-a-macro-aggression. This is because for the left politics is life's purpose, personal identity is subsumed by politics, and life has meaning only because of politics. For the emotionally-immature, spiritually-bereft left, a political rebuke is psychologically tantamount to a death threat.

More Democrats need to be more like Emma. They need to grow up.

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on November 10, 2020 at 08:48:08 am

A brilliant essay. The moment towards the beginning of the novel when Emma dissuades Harriet Smith from marrying Robert Martin is truly shocking.

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Terence Kealey
on November 10, 2020 at 08:56:16 am

Yes, indeed. "Nicely done". Very nicely done. Thank you.

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on November 10, 2020 at 10:12:25 am

It is good that Jane Austen remains popular in our cultural times. But on the issues discussed here she is a poor man's Henry James and Thomas Hardy. August Wilson pushed far beyond her in terms of the stakes of the domestic sphere. The moral life is not at the center of her concerns. It is wheeled in when the main dramatics, of money and social set, permit the topic to be diverting and interesting. To mistake her treatment of moral concerns (which includes speaking of her lead characters as heroines) as primary is to risk getting gulled by Austen's inability, probably unwillingness, to dig below the superficiality of fixation on material comforts and the ability of people set up in such circumstances to make byplay. The old barb that Austen is a glorified gossip is not far from the mark. The giants of the 19th century novel—Dostoevsky was such a sight more serious on these matters—foresaw the danger in faking out humanity into thinking that chatter superficially in the moral vein is anything more than ersatz moral practice, and enervating at that. When James wrote that women are made for love, he was not quipping but expressing a scientific identity, an equation. In this one reaches one's potential qua woman in overcoming ersatz womanhood (droning on about situations with a dose of morality-talk) and gets down to the task of doing as one is made to do.

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George Elliott
on November 10, 2020 at 11:04:49 am

Yes, very nicely done! A Jane Austen fan, I especially like Emma for all the reasons you have discussed here. I have not seen the newest film adaptation, but I have the Miramax (Gweneth Paltrow) version and the BBC (Kate Beckinsale) version in my home movie collection. While the Miramax version is entertaining, the BBC film gives much more depth and gravity to the characters. How refreshing to see this article from Law & Liberty in my Inbox!

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Jennifer Purvis
on November 10, 2020 at 13:09:03 pm

I think it felicitous that George Elliott is not spelled George Eliot. I doubt that George Eliot would agree with George Elliott as to the genius of Austen's unobtrusive lens which offers such clarity of character. And I think Eliot would appreciate Austen's sober perspective on love, so different from her romantically-obtuse heroine in Middlemarch.

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on November 11, 2020 at 10:51:10 am

Right again! Thank you.

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on November 11, 2020 at 11:07:11 am

From what I know about Austen's life ,show from her, the true personality she knew she had and admits "Emma" is the closest to her character. Her family never had money and in fact worries over it, particular her mother. She tells Jane should find a man with money and marry him not for her sake but for her family. But Jane like her character has no feeling about marrying only for money. Jane is a romantic. She wants love.

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Linda Harris
on November 11, 2020 at 17:36:31 pm

Several very interesting points. But as a Jew, I must protest at seeing these qualities as specifically Christian virtues. Shaming is totally forbidden by the Jewish religion, and one of the sages said: A person should prefer to throwing himself into a burning furnace to shaming another in public.

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Tali Avishay
on November 12, 2020 at 11:20:01 am

Note to self: Be wary about asking Professor Rogers for a character reference.

This was a singularly uncharitable character portrait, not only of Emma Woodhouse, but of all the characters in the novel. "Throughout the novel Emma’s inner dialogue reveals a thoroughly unpleasant person." "Mr. Woodhouse is ... tolerated because of his wealth, and because he can be ignored with a grin and a nod."

It is true that Jane Austen famously predicted that Emma would be "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” but it is also true that her prediction was famously wrong. John Henry Newman better captures the response of most readers when he writes: "Emma herself is the most interesting to me of all [Miss Austin's] heroines. I feel kind to her whenever I think of her...That other women, [Jane] Fairfax, is a dolt- but I like Emma."

Rogers is not wholly mistaken in his criticism of Emma, but he exaggerates her vices and does not do justice to her virtues. She is spoiled, haughty, and officious, yes. But it is going too far to describe her as self-absorbed and selfish; Emma is in fact quite generous. She interferes in Harriet's love life because she wishes to improve her prospects. Her compassion for those in need leads her on many errands of mercy in the neighborhood, and she knows how to help the downtrodden with great delicacy and tact. Austin makes clear that Emma is extraordinarily patient and forbearing with the moral failings of the indigent in her community without sentimentalizing them.

And let us not forget that her resolution of never marrying does not arise from her haughtiness alone—from her belief that she could not find anyone good enough for her—she is also resolved never to leave her father, who depends on her. Her life of bringing comfort to a nervous, hypochondriac father is clearly a dreary one, but she embraces it with good humor and love. That resolution to stay by her father’s side wobbles, but it never topples, even after she falls in love. She only consents to a wedding after Knightley promises to move to Hartfield and join the Woodhouse family.

Rogers is correct to describe the scene at Box Hill as the climax of the novel, but he is incorrect to say that when Emma "exposes her contempt for Miss Bates" she was "revealing nothing everyone did not already know." The reason the scene is so shocking -- to the reader and to Mr. Knightly -- is because we had never before seen Emma act cruelly, neither in thought nor in deed. This vice was something new.

"Emma, I had not thought it possible," said Mr. Knightley. He later confesses that he left town under the dreadful belief that the episode at Box Hill was evidence of Frank Churchill’s influence over her, and he was probably right. Emma does not love the foppish, thoughtless, heedless (one might be forgiven for saying heartless) Frank Churchill, but she does love his flattery. And Emma was never cruel before that afternoon’s flirtatious badinage with that young man.

All of the above is not to deny that even Emma Woodhouse's smaller vices do cause great harm. "(In her incompetent officiousness, Emma almost tragically messes up Harriet’s life.)" That's true. But in this life, even well-meaning errors may cause great harm to others, while monumental sins may do no damage except to one's own soul.

In sum, Rogers is correct when he argues that Emma's mortification and repentance after Knightley's rebuke reveals a great virtue. But it should not be necessary to exaggerate her faults in order to throw this one virtue into starker relief. Most readers will continue to enjoy the novel in the same manner as John Henry Newman did. "I feel kind to her whenever I think of her... I like Emma."

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Lynn Uzzell
on November 18, 2020 at 17:01:39 pm

Very nice reply.
You've convinced me that, not just in her response to rebuke, Emma is a grown-up, forgivable of her minor errors and worthy of emulation in her over-arching character. I did not know of Newman's admiration for Emma. Quite a character reference!
BTW: I admire your writing on this blog site about the Founding, including particularly your analysis of Madison's Notes. We may share the opinion that more historians and fewer law school prof's might clarify the analysis and strengthen the foundations of originalism.

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Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.