Featured In: Emma by Jane Austen (1815) – plus a whole bunch of subsequent film adaptations, sequels and retellings.
Check out the latest Emma-inspired book, the delightful Emma: A Modern Retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith.
About Her: Emma Woodhouse is the eponymous main character in Jane Austen’s fourth published novel. The book is quick to lay out Emma’s situation and character in its first pages: “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…The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”
Unlike other famous Austen heroines, Emma is financially and socially well-off enough that she feels no pressure to marry in order to improve her or her family’s circumstances. Instead she idles away her cushy country life by matchmaking and “improving” the lives of her less-fortunate (in her opinion) neighbors and friends, with decidedly crappy results. Among many affected by Emma’s thoughtless meddling are Mr. Elton, the pompous vicar; handsome Frank Churchill, who performs some selfish, less well-meaning manipulation of his own; the silly, sweet, common Harriet Smith; and Mr. Knightley, a lifelong friend and would-be lover who ultimately finds Emma “faultless despite all her faults,” even as he encourages her to recognize her own potential.
Jane Austen herself called Emma “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” I think most readers agree that Emma’s realization that she might be a little clueless when it comes to, well, everything and everyone, including herself, is more endearing than annoying. Emma Woodhouse has always been my favorite Austen heroine, and I find her a worthy fictional lady to crush on.
Fun Fact: The 1995 film Clueless, written and directed by Amy Heckerling, is loosely based on Emma. I loved Clueless when I first saw it as a kid, unaware that it was an adaptation, and appreciated it even more once I realized how cleverly Heckerling had adapted Austen’s characters and plot points into a modern setting. Janeites around the world may drool over Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy in the Pride and Prejudice mini series that was released that same year, but seriously? As if. True fans know that Paul Rudd’s mid-nineties version of Mr. Knightly as a socially conscious, flannel shirt clad college student is the studliest Austen hero on film.