I listened to a complete text of Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) on the treadmill. I find that it is easy to “read” books with strong plotlines on the treadmill. Not so with Emma. It is a novel about a closely bound social set. Much of it is conversation back and forth between characters, and it took me quite a while to grab hold of this book and be carried by it. The novel is first of all a book of social manners focused on the courtship of young women. Emma as the main character is self-absorbed and much concerned with the lives and business of others. She spends a good bit of her time trying to arrange matches for one person or another, especially Harriet Smith, whose illegitimate birth, virtually never spoken of, is nonetheless widely known and a primary reason why gentleman of the upper class would never seriously consider marrying her. By setting the young woman up with one gentleman after another, Emma causes her much embarrassment and pain. In believing that she knows what is best for people around her, Emma is largely unaware of what is best for herself. In Austen’s world, what is best for a woman is a good marriage—a marriage to a suitable man, a man of means, of her own social class or better, a man whom she chooses or who she allows to choose her. Much of the novel is concerned with Emma’s interest in people who are not interested in her, or whose interest in her is unwelcome. The obnoxious Mr. Elton, who Emma tries to set up with Harriet, is one example. Mr. Churchill, who seems to be interested in Emma’s company for much of the novel, is another. Emma’s misjudgment of character, her limited appreciation of the feelings of others, is at the center of many of her errors.-
Emma is also a comedy of manners, or, simply, a comedy. Satirical portrayals of characters such as Emma’s father and Mrs. Elton and others reveal Austen’s talent for caricature, for humor in general, and the vehicle for her satire of her society.