Jane Austen’s titular character in her novel Emma is an enigma in the sense that hardly anyone fully likes her, she doesn’t have hoards of devotees like Lizzie Bennet (I am one of these girls, Elizabeth is my homegirl!) nor is she disliked as Fanny tends to be. She is the character most people will admit to a love-hate relationship with. She’s arrogant and dissuades poor Harriet from her sweet farmer romance, but on the other hand her dearest friend is her governess, not exactly her social equal. Her rural setting gives her a limited range of acquaintances and so she makes the best of what she has. She’s thoughtless but not cruel. She’s possibly the most human of all of Jane’s characters. She has all the fault’s of Darcy but with the well-meaning and social nature of Catherine Morland. She goes about to do well and makes a mess of everything, but she’s selfish in many ways. We’re happy that she gets her man in the end, but annoyed that she doesn’t realize what a gem Knightley is until she’s in danger of losing him to her socially inferior friend.
The entire novel of ‘Emma’ is for Jane Austen what Hamlet is for Shakespeare. It’s her crowning work, not necessarily everyone’s favorite but everyone admires it’s quality. In a sense Jane explores many of the same themes Shakespeare does just on a much less imposing and dramatic scale. Hers is not the battles for countries and the intrigues of court but the battle of the sexes and the intrigues of courtship. The mistaken deaths leading to tragedy is not her place, but the mistaken impressions leading to comedy is. Benedict and Beatrice are very much the kinds of characters you could meet in Austen’s world. The arrogant bachelor who falls in love in spite of himself and the sassy spitfire who finds out how mistaken she’s been about herself and others. Jane is the domestic to Shakespeare’s epic, which is why, her works like his, never go out of style. They’re timeless because whether it’s Lizzie and Darcy or Emma and Knightley, Beatrice and Benedict or Portia and Bassanio, they never stop entertaining us with their display of human nature in all it’s irony and hilarity, and we’ve all made mistakes when judging the character of others or been outwitted and had to laugh at ourselves. Because that’s what true and good comedy does, it makes us laugh at ourselves.
And Emma is probably the best of Jane’s novels for that, we laugh at the little dramas of Highbury and Emma’s pride and it’s fall, because we’ve done the same.