Emma was written between January 1814 and March 1815. The setting of the narrative's action would appear to be recent: 1813-14. By this period, Austen was a known and successful writer. Like Sense and Sensibility, the work was published on commission by the distinguished house of John Murray. It was published ('by the author of Pride and Prejudice, etc.') in December 1815 (dated 1816 on the title page). The novel was dedicated to the Prince Regent, at the request of the Carlton House Librarian, the Revd James Stanier Clarke.
When , in January 1815, Jane Austen began to write her fifth novel, EMMA, she stated that she was working at creating a heroine that nobody but herself would be able to like ("I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.")
Emma Woodhouse is beautiful, clever and wealthy (the only Austen heroine to own all these “virtues”) but also spoilt and a bit snob. Readers, especially Austen’s contemporary readers, shouldn’t like her much since Emma definitely lacks the common sense, balance and measure of other heroines. Yet, even with her faults and her mistakes, the character of Emma is drawn to get sympathy and understanding; the reader tends to forgive her and to side with her in a totally irrational way. Emma’s defects, constantly underlined in the text, make her the perfect anti-heroine: she is not particularly accomplished, she has been educated by too an indulgent father and too a friendly governess, she has great self-esteem and tends to misinterpret reality according to her wishes. In a few words, she is not “by the book”, if we think of the 18th century “conduct - books” about the education of girls belonging to high society. But , of course, Jane Austen, is mocking those clichés, so her Emma is not only beautiful and intelligent but , above all, free. It is Mr Knightley himself to acknowledge that Emma is perfect with all her imperfections.
Mr. Knightley can be considered as the novel’s model of good sense. He is often considered a fatherly figure, but he is also a very tender passionate lover. The fact that he is much older than Emma has produced this stereotype of him , that of a father figure to Emma who has always had a weak real one in Mr Woodhouse. Mr Knightley scolds her and rebukes her when she 's wrong, he tries to make her understand her mistakes, but more as a dear affectionate friend, an older admirer , than a fatherly presence. When he finally declares his love to her he finds even the word "friend" unacceptable: "Emma, that I fear is a word ... - no I have no wish."
Knightley’s love for Emma is the one emotion he cannot govern fully. It leads to his only lapses of judgment and self-control. Before even meeting Frank Churchill, Knightley decides that he does not like him. It gradually becomes clear that Knightley feels jealous. When Knightley believes Emma has become too attached to Frank, he acts with uncharacteristic impulsiveness in running away to London. His declaration of love on his return bursts out uncontrollably, unlike most of his prudent, previous well-planned actions. Yet Mr Knightley’s loss of control humanizes him rather than making him seem like a failure.
From his very first conversation with Emma and her father in Chapter 1, his purpose—to correct the excesses and missteps of those around him—is clear. He is unfailingly honest but tempers his honesty with tact and kindheartedness. Almost always, we can depend upon him to provide the correct evaluation of the other characters’ behavior and personal worth. He intuitively understands and kindly makes allowances for Mr. Woodhouse’s whims; he is sympathetic and protective of the women in the community, including Jane, Harriet, and Miss Bates; and, most of all, even though he frequently disapproves of her behaviour, he can't stay away from Emma, he never deserts her.
Is Mr Knightley a Mr Perfection meant to mild Emma's imperfection?
SOME QUESTIONS FOR THE DISCUSSION OF THE NOVEL
1. Emma is clever but continually mistaken, kindhearted but capable of callous behavior. Austen commented that Emma is a heroine “no one but myself will much like.” Do you find Emma likable? Why or why not? How can a character as intelligent as Emma be wrong so often?
2. Emma experiences several major revelations in the novel that fundamentally change her understanding of herself and those around her. Which revelation do you think is most important to Emma’s development, and why?
3.Emma is filled with dialogue in which characters misunderstand each other. How does humor work in the novel?
4. Emma both questions and upholds traditional class distinctions. What message do you think the novel ultimately conveys about class?
5. In what ways, if at all, might Emma be considered a feminist novel?
6. Frank Churchill and Mr. Knightley represent two different sets of values and two different embodiment of manhood. What values does each of them represent? How does the novel judge these values?
7. Is Mr Knightley a father figure to Emma? Are they a perfect match?
8. In Emma we have - just hinted at - the stories of two children separated from their families for financial difficulties, Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Then Emma and her father's relationship, Miss Bates and her mother's. How are family ties depicted in this novel?
9. Love courtship and marriage are among the main themes in this novel too. What do we get about these issues in Emma?
10. If compared to the disappointing quick (or skipped) final declarations and proposals in the other novels, Mr Knightley's eventual revelation of his feelings is really detailed and touching . What do you think about thiscene which can be considered rather unusual in Austen so far? Is the ending as genuinely happy as it is presented to be, or does Austen subtly inject a note of subversive irony into it?
Although convinced that she herself will never marry, Emma Woodhouse, a precocious twenty-year-old resident of the village of Highbury, imagines herself to be naturally gifted in conjuring love matches. After self-declared success at matchmaking between her governess and Mr. Weston, a village widower, Emma takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new friend, Harriet Smith. Though Harriet’s parentage is unknown, Emma is convinced that Harriet deserves to be a gentleman’s wife and sets her friend’s sights on Mr. Elton, the village vicar. Meanwhile, Emma persuades Harriet to reject the proposal of Robert Martin, a well-to-do farmer for whom Harriet clearly has feelings.
Harriet becomes infatuated with Mr. Elton under Emma’s encouragement, but Emma’s plans go awry when Elton makes it clear that his affection is for Emma, not Harriet. Emma realizes that her obsession with making a match for Harriet has blinded her to the true nature of the situation. Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law and treasured friend, watches Emma’s matchmaking efforts with a critical eye. He believes that Mr. Martin is a worthy young man whom Harriet would be lucky to marry. He and Emma quarrel over Emma’s meddling, and, as usual, Mr. Knightley proves to be the wiser of the pair. Elton, spurned by Emma and offended by her insinuation that Harriet is his equal, leaves for the town of Bath and marries a girl there almost immediately.
Emma is left to comfort Harriet and to wonder about the character of a new visitor expected in Highbury—Mr. Weston’s son, Frank Churchill. Frank is set to visit his father in Highbury after having been raised by his aunt and uncle in London, who have taken him as their heir. Emma knows nothing about Frank, who has long been deterred from visiting his father by his aunt’s illnesses and complaints. Mr. Knightley is immediately suspicious of the young man, especially after Frank rushes back to London merely to have his hair cut. Emma, however, finds Frank delightful and notices that his charms are directed mainly toward her. Though she plans to discourage these charms, she finds herself flattered and engaged in a flirtation with the young man. Emma greets Jane Fairfax, another addition to the Highbury set, with less enthusiasm. Jane is beautiful and accomplished, but Emma dislikes her because of her reserve and, the narrator insinuates, because she is jealous of Jane.