Jane Austen is one of the funniest authors I know, and Emma is her funniest moment.
Where does one start?
How about Mr Woodhouse à propos Miss Taylor’s wedding cake, which “had been a great distress to him”? Worried for others’ digestion, he “earnestly tried to dissuade them from having any wedding-cake at all, and when that proved vain, as earnestly tried to prevent any body’s eating it.”
Or Harriet Smith’s portable affections: first, Mr Martin the sensible farmer. Then, under Emma’s cupid arrows, the pompous Mr Elton. After that hope turns to ashes, she reaches for the stars with Mr Knightly, giving Emma not a little twinge of alarm. Then back to her patient farmer…
Mr Elton, the rector, is my favourite character. What exactly did Jane Austen have against the Anglican clergy? Alone with Emma in a carriage, flush with bonhomie and “too much good wine,”he seizes her hand, “making violent love to her.” Emma, shocked, reminds him of Harriet, the bride that she had intended for him. “I am very much astonished, Mr. Elton. This to me! you forget yourself – you take me for my friend – any message to Miss Smith I shall be happy to deliver; but no more of this to me, if you please.” Frustrated love-making swings on a dime to bitter-reproach, “Miss Smith! I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence … never cared whether she were dead or alive!”
Then of course Miss Bates, the poor spinster daughter of Mr Woodhouse’s old widowed friend. She talks too much, but Austen adores her. “She loved everybody, was interested in everybody’s happiness, quick-sighted to everybody’s merits.” From Miss Bates comes one of the novel’s most delightful aphorisms, beguilingly simple, “It is such a happiness when good people get together–and they always do.”
The novel turns of course at the Box Hill picnic. Frank Churchill proposes an amusement, each person must say “one thing very clever, … or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed.” Lovely, self-deprecating Miss Bates, enthuses, “I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?” Emma, under naughty Churchill’s influence, cannot resist: “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty … only three at once.”
Miss Bates flinches. Knightly’s fierce indignation, fed more by his jealous disgust for Churchill’s influence over Emma than the insult per se, bursts out as soon as he is alone with her: “It was badly done, indeed!”
Emma’s ensuing journey of anger, self-realisation, shame, humility, and final redemption, is what makes the book so sweet.
Emma is Jane Austen’s funniest novel. Happily, it is also her second-longest. Perfect to lighten a day or two of quarantine on the couch.