Elizabeth Bennet. Emma Woodhouse. Anne Elliot. Elinor and Marianne Dashwood. Catherine Morland.
All of these Jane Austen characters are, in their own quietly unassuming ways, determined to marry for love, or not at all. And during the Regency, when marriage was still a matter of finance, not romance, such attitudes were novel, indeed.
Not for these young women a loveless match or an arranged marriage. Instead, they ran their lives (and sometimes others’ lives, too), while remaining true to their convictions – even if doing so meant relinquishing their own chance at happiness.
When asked, “Who’s your favourite Jane Austen heroine?” nine readers out of ten will likely answer, “Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice.” And with good reason. She deserves our admiration. Elizabeth is opinionated, she’s intelligent and witty, she speaks her mind without regard for the inevitable repercussions that doing so will bring.
And Mr Darcy loves her all the more for it…as do we.
But it’s Emma Woodhouse who takes the honor as my favorite Austen heroine. Yes, she meddles in other peoples’ lives. Yes, she’s a snob. Yes, she usually ends up making a complete muck of things. But in her own misguided and blithely clueless way, she does try. And although her machinations lead inevitably to wounded feelings, ruined friendships, and eventually, to her friend Harriet’s broken heart, there’s no denying that her intentions – at least in her own mind – are well meant.
Unlike most of the young women of her acquaintance, Emma has a unique advantage – she doesn’t need to get married. She’s wealthy and clever and perfectly happy taking care of her father at Hartfield, thank you very much. There’s no need to fall in love; no call to rush to the altar with the first suitable man who asks her. She’s accustomed to running her father’s household; why not remain single and run the (love) lives of those around her, as well?
The problem is, her lack of experience in matters of the heart doesn’t prevent her from trying to manage the love lives of those around her.
Emma imagines herself far more skilled at matchmaking than she actually is, as she proves to comical effect after misreading Mr Elton’s amorous intentions, and later to more serious consequence when she persuades Harriet to turn down a proposal of marriage from a perfectly respectable and worthy young farmer.
Emma is convinced that Harriet can do better.
But of course she can’t, and on her friend Emma’s advice, has passed up the only suitable proposal of marriage she will likely ever get. Mr Knightley spares nothing of his anger when he roundly berates Miss Woodhouse for her wrong-headed interference.
Badly done, Emma, oh, badly done…but at least we know you meant well.
What Would Lizzy Bennet Do? is the first book in my new Carina UK series, The Jane Austen Factor, available now!
…and look for The Trouble With Emma, coming in February 2016