I don’t like Emma. There, I said it. I know for a lot of people she’s the favourite Austen heroine, but I find her thoroughly obnoxious. Well, okay, not entirely. She is likeable, and intelligent, and her best feature is her good-naturedness and genuine love for her fusspot of a father. But the way she treats Harriet… Gah! I just want to slap her!
In fact, I find the scene where she destroys Harriet’s marriage proposal the most painful scene in all of Austen. Worse even than Mr Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth, or Mr Thorpe’s messing up Catherine’s walk with the Tilneys.
Here’s sweet, silly little Harriet; she’s over the moon because Robert Martin has proposed – she had no idea he liked her that much, she’d only thought him the most agreeable man she’d ever met, and so kind to her, and so nice, and such a pretty little Welch cow in his stables, and now he’s actually proposed marriage! And then Emma has to go and totally squash Harriet’s happiness. Hitting a puppydog with a slipper, that is. And a puppydog that brought you the newspaper and expected to be praised for it, too. Badly done, Emma, badly done indeed!
In fact, Emma is being a bully here. A well-meaning, self-deluded bully, but a bully nonetheless. It’s just that her bullying is very, very refined, for refined reasons. She’s amusing herself with getting reactions out of Harriet, making her into something she’s not, just to feel her own power in doing so. It’s exactly what bullies do, they poke at you to feel their power of provoking a reaction.
Thank goodness Emma has Mr Knightley to set a counterpoint. Although, he doesn’t play the Knightley in shining armour for Harriet at first, doesn’t protect her from Sweet Bully Emma – that service is reserved for Miss Bates on Box Hill; when he rescues Harriet later in the book, it’s from the bullying of the Eltons. And he kind of saves Emma from herself, from letting her silliness run amok and destroy all around her – which, for me, means he saves her from being so thoroughly disagreeable that I don’t like that book at all.
On a different note, though, I wonder if Emma isn’t the most patriarchy-enforcing of the stories. The lively, spirited heroine calls for a powerful hero to subdue her; Elizabeth and Darcy are nothing to Emma and Knightley. Darcy is still vulnerable because of his shyness and social awkwardness; Knightley has none of that. By the same token, Elizabeth’s economic situation is what makes her vulnerable; Emma has none of that problem. Once again, Austen is all about the money…