Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
We start the book with a thumbnail profile of our main character. The breezy description has a sort of complacency to it that echoes the complacent nature of Emma Woodhouse, who has had "very little to distress or vex her" - until now; that will, of course, change. And as we will find out, our narrator is entirely correct about Emma, and her words are well-chosen. Emma is good-looking, wealthy and intelligent, but "clever" implies something more than intelligence.
Because words (and the use and meaning of words) are one of the themes it can be fun to examine in Emma, I figured we might as well start with the first sentence. Here's how Merriam-Webster defines clever:
Clever: 1. skillful or adroit in using the hands or body; mentally quick and resourceful 2. marked by wit or ingenuityQuickness of thought, wit and ingenuity all come into play in this book - and as we shall see, sometimes they lead Emma into trouble. Watching her as applies (or misapplies) her cleverness and loses a great deal of her complacency, only to replace it with a better (and Austen might say, more right) understanding of the world has delighted readers for generations.
Emma's backstory is neatly summed up in this chapter: Her mother is long dead, her father is affectionate and wealthy and a valetudinarian ("a person of a weak or sickly constitution, especially one whose chief concern is their health") - today we'd likely refer to him as a hypochondriac, although it's not quite the same thing - and she has an older sister, who is married to John Knightley and living in London. (Trust me on the John Knightley info for now.)
She's been raised largely by Miss Taylor, her governess, who has long been more of a friend than anything else. Our story starts on the day of Miss Taylor's marriage to Mr Weston, a local widower whose backstory we get later in the book. And our narrator aligns herself with the Woodhouses in describing Miss Taylor's marriage as a sorrowful event. To Emma, it's a gentle sorrow - she's lost her companion, the woman with whom she's spent most of her days since she was five years old. Miss Taylor is Emma's (highly indulgent) mother figure, after all, and she's leaving Emma alone with her elderly father. To Mr Woodhouse, Miss Taylor's marriage is a disaster. Like Wayne & Garth, he fears change, and he is unhappy when the people he loves get married and move out. (This applies to his elder daughter as well as to "poor Miss Taylor".)
The other person we meet in this Mr George Knightley (again, trust me on that first name for now), the elder of the Knightley brothers, who lives on a nearby estate and is a good friend to the Woodhouses. Mr Knightley is about 37 or 38, making him about 17 years older than Emma. I'm just putting that right out there. He is sensible and kind and good and, as I mentioned last week, is one of Jane Austen's two favorites of her own heroes, the other being Edmund Bertram from Mansfield Park.
Mr Knightley has an allegorical sort of name, even though he's described in practical and not romanticized terms. He behaves properly in all circumstances, and is noble and good and true, etc. He's also the one person who does not treat Emma as if she can do no wrong, but is willing to call her on her shit - yet he does so with the best of intentions, not simply to be contrary. We quickly see that Emma and Mr Knightley have a comfortable, playful edge to their relationship, yet when Emma becomes a bit teary over the loss of Miss Taylor, Mr Knightley is quick to comfort her, which he does by (a) saying something sweet about Emma and then (b) reminding her to be happy for her friend:
"It is impossible that Emma should not miss such a companion," said Mr Knightley. "We should not like her so well as we do, sir, if we could suppose it; but she knows how much the marriage is to Miss Taylor's advantage; she knows how very acceptable it must be, at Miss Taylor's time of life, to be settled in a home of her own, and how important to her to be secure of a comfortable provision, and therefore cannot allow herself to feel so much pain as pleasure. Every friend of Miss Taylor must be glad to have her so happily married."We learn that Emma considers herself as having been responsible for the match between Miss Taylor and Mr Weston, although Mr Knightley is quick to point out that she did nothing more than hope for the match - and that she has decided to try to make a match for Mr Elton, the young clergyman who performed the ceremony. Mr Woodhouse doesn't want to see anyone else married, so he's against it. Mr Knightley agrees, but on different grounds - he believes Mr Elton, who is about 26 years old, can make up his own mind on marriage.
Tomorrow: Chapter Two