Published in 1815, Emma was written at the height of Jane Austen’s popularity. The novel focuses on a heroine who takes an interest in matchmaking. The Prince Regent, George, did Austen the "favor" of allowing her to dedicate Emma to him. Austen probably wasn’t so excited about the prospect of dedicating her novel to a man who was, by all accounts, dissipated, drunk, and superficial. George set the standards of "gentlemanlike" behavior during his time. According to him, fashionable men were dandies – the sort who would ride sixteen miles to London just to get a haircut.
Interestingly, Austen’s novel also takes up the question of gentlemanly – (and gentlewomanly) behavior – but she comes to very, very different conclusions than the Prince Regent. It might not be a coincidence that Mr. Knightley, the rugged, thoughtful, honest hero of our novel, is also named George. Ironic? Just a little. We like to imagine the good prince squirming in his seat as he read this novel.
Emma contains one of Austen’s most remarkable heroines. That’s a huge claim, we know – Austen is known for her strong, intelligent, amazing women. Emma is, of course, strong and intelligent and pretty amazing – but she’s also amazingly flawed. She charges right in to mistake after mistake, convinced that she’s somehow impervious to the sorts of errors in judgment which she’s so quick to notice in those around her. Misguided heroines are actually pretty common in literature, but rarely do they display the sorts of tenacity and charm that Emma exudes. We love her even when she’s screwing up – largely because she’s able to accurately dissect most peoples’ characters even as she remains blind to her own.
We could think of Jane Austen as the Stephen Colbert of her generation. Sure, she doesn’t have daily updates on the state of the nation, but they’ve got pretty similar signature moves. Human nature, after all, can be pretty ridiculous – and Austen, like Colbert, has a knack for exploiting the silliness of even the most important issues. Of course, for Austen, those issues are love and marriage, but she infuses a good dose of irony into any and all relationships she creates. After all, love and marriage happen to be pretty much the only major issues that women could think about during the early nineteenth century. Turning these interests into social satire allows Austen to poke some fun at the good ol’ patriarchy that limits women’s options.
But back to The Colbert Report; we’re particularly fond of "The Word." That’s the moment in the show when Colbert breaks down what’s really going on with hot issues of the day. Austen’s narrator operates in the same way. Nobody escapes without our narrator spending a few minutes considering his or her most shallow or, well, silly characteristics. Perhaps that’s why Austen was – and is – such a bestseller. Everybody likes a good laugh. Heck, maybe Colbert picked up a few tips from Jane!
So, to sum up: if you have no idea who Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are, if you hate to laugh, or if you’re against love and happiness in general, then this book is not for you. If, however, you’re not a miserable human being without a sense of humor, chances are that you’ll find something in Emma which makes you smile. So turn off that TV (Colbert will still be there tomorrow, we promise) and sit down for a good dose of the original, the only, Jane Austen.