The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

X. Jane Austen

§ 6. Emma

Emma, the fourth and last novel which Jane Austen published in her lifetime, was begun in January, 1814, and finished in March, 1815, to appear in the following December. Jane Austen was now at the height of her powers. The book was written rapidly and surely; and the success of her previous novels doubtless encouraged her to express herself with confidence in the way peculiarly her own. She chose, as she declared, “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”; and, in delineating her, she made no sacrifices to any public desire for what Mary Russell Mitford, in passing judgment on her work, called “the beau ideal of the female character.” Emma is a tiresome girl, full of faults; and yet, far from not being “much liked,” she has called forth more fervent affection than any other of Jane Austen’s characters. Jane Austen herself admired Elizabeth Bennet; she loved little Fanny Price; Emma, she both loved and admired, without a shade of patronage or a hint of heroine-worship. That Emma should be loved, as she is loved, for her faults as well as for her virtues, is one among Jane Austen’s many claims to the rank of greatness in her art. Scarcely less skilful is the portrait of the wise and patient Knightley, whose reproofs to the wayward girl never shake the reader’s conviction of his humanity and charm. The laughter of the comic spirit never comes near to sharpness in Emma, except in the case of Mrs. Elton; and, even with Mrs. Elton, we feel, as we scarcely feel with the Steele sisters or with Mr. Collins, that Jane Austen is not allowing the lady to show herself at her very worst. For Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates and Harriet Smith she clearly had some degree of affection, which she communicates to her readers. And, with regard to Harriet Smith, it is to be noticed that, rarely as Jane Austen touches our pity, she feels this helpless, bewildered creature to be a fit occasion for compassion, as her more capable women are not, and allows us to be touched by Harriet Smith’s regrets for Robert Martin and the Abbey Mill farm. There are, we may add, few finer examples in fiction of suggestive reticence than Jane Austen’s treatment of Jane Fairfax. The mystery of the story demands that we should be kept in the dark about her; yet we feel that we know her as well as any character that Jane Austen created.