Jane Austen’s “Emma” was published over 200 years ago. Its leading lady is quite selfish and dislikeable. There are no adventurous journeys or tragic lost loves. It is neither modern in its subject nor dramatic in its style. It is true that the story includes delightful comedy and much scope for an artist’s eye, evident in director Autumn de Wilde’s approach to this film, but that isn’t enough to make it relevant.
So after the 1972, 1995, 1996, also 1996, and 2009 versions, why do we need another “Emma”?
Perhaps because “Emma” just might be the most relevant Austen story of all.
When we first meet Emma, she isn’t particularly likable. She is handsome and clever and rich…and she knows it. Emma is aware of her privilege, and she uses it to plan her little world around her. She is selfish, though not entirely selfish; proud, though not entirely proud; and judgmental, though not entirely judgmental.
© 2019 Focus Features LLC. Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse. All Rights Reserved.
It may be uncomfortable to admit, but Emma embodies attitudes we often fall prey to ourselves as well as faults we keep buried under the guise of our manners. She is a balance of selfishness and compassion, leaning toward the former. When we see her insult Miss Bates on Box Hill, we absolutely cringe with the sting of it, and gasp with dismay at her fall into her own malice. It hurts us because we know exactly why she did it and we know exactly how much those malicious words sting. It is hard to like Emma, because we understand her. And it is hard to dislike Emma, because we understand her. We do not need her to be enacting events that reflect our own world, because in the little interactions of her life, all our humanity is displayed with an inescapable honesty.
However, Emma’s fall on Box Hill to flattery, pride and malice is not the end of her story.
© 2019 Focus Features LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Along with all her faults, Emma has openness, just enough openness, and compassion, just enough compassion, to allow herself to be challenged and nourished by the people around her. Again we see this in the aftermath of her crushing Miss Bates on Box Hill, when she really does listen to the chiding of her trusted friend, Mr. Knightly, and is truly remorseful for the pain she has caused. She lets herself be moved to a humble compassion. She is open and loving enough to be moved by the hearts around her – the hearts of people who may not be so handsome or clever but who are, as she herself admits, better people than she.
Emma’s triumph is her slow, steady conversion. Brought by the pains of disappointment in both others and in herself, this gradual shift towards selflessness and humility changes absolutely everything. Her relationship with Harriet matures from resembling a master-pet dynamic into a true friendship. She establishes a more equal and open rapport with Miss Bates. And she becomes free to faithfully love someone outside of her immediately family, as she grows in her ability to accept and return Mr. Knightley’s affections. Her conversion isn’t perfect, and it comes rather more slowly than we’d like. But is it worth it?
© 2019 Focus Features LLC. Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse and Johnny Flynn as George Knightley. All Rights Reserved.
The joyful, beautiful, and welcoming Emma at the end of our story answers: Yes!
Emma is perennially relevant because her interior conversion gives us hope. She shows us that we can learn from the people around us. She shows us how people we may have written off as close-minded or hopeless really can grow with time and help. She shows us how to accept nurturing friendships and how to offer them. She shows us the transformative power of humble compassion.
We all need to be shown that way of interior conversion again and again.
And that is why we need another “Emma.”
Sr Orianne Dyck grew up in Ontario, and is a convert to Catholicism. She earned her Bachelors in Anthropology and Bachelors of Education, and taught for 5 years before entering the Daughters of St Paul, where she is currently a novice.