By sheer good fortune, (and my birthday being in early March, thus making it predate the first pandemic lock-down), in 2020, I was able to go to the theater to see Autumn De Wilde’s first full length feature film- Emma! I am always a bit nervous whenever there is a new adaption of a classic, if only because I have been dissatisfied in the past because often newer adaptions make changes to the story which I often don’t particularly like. But overall, I found this film to be quite enjoyable and an absolute visual feast! The production quality of this film was extremely high and a costume lover’s dream. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the exquisite gowns and tailored waistcoats all beautifully presented in a charming array of pastel hues. Lovely confections aside though, the cast was also extremely capable, particularly Bill Nighy (Pirates of the Caribbean) as Mr. Woodhouse and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit) as Emma herself. I thought Anya was a particularly unique and compelling choice and she was able to imbue Emma’s character with a freshness I found convincing and intriguing. Emma is in some ways a difficult character to pull off because for someone who isn’t always one hundred percent likable there is an expectation that she needs to be played sympathetically enough so that audiences are able to like her and connect with the story. Jane Austen herself even expressed a belief that some would see little to like in her character,
Emma is pert, prone to meddle, and a bit spoiled, all traits that particularly in female characters are liable to make them unpopular. Anya Taylor-Joy mentions in an interview she gave that,
“I was really sick of women having to be not just likable, but also easy to like. Whenever she had a bad moment, I wanted it to be a moment in which people would see her behaving badly.”Anya Taylor-Joy
This speaks to the underlying notion that has existed for centuries that women, much like children, were to be seen and not heard, and that women not only need to be likeable, but that they are also held to an even higher standard of virtue that many male characters are not. This idea has persisted for quite some time, but perhaps it would not be remiss to trace some of its more contemporary origins at least as far back as the 19th century. The popular belief in even as recent as the Victorian era, long after Emma was published, was that women were to be what was commonly referred to as “the angel in the house.” Essentially, a veritable domestic goddess, dispensing charity, mercy, and mildness wherever they went. They were supposed to bear up with fortitude against every wrong committed against them and to never complain. Women were, in a sense, placed on a pedestal and held to be the guardians of morality, and when they failed to live up to these unrealistic expectations, they were judged harshly.
This idea is only one of many that have plagued people’s views of women for centuries. Another of these is the related Madonna-whore complex: either women are villainous temptresses with insatiable appetites for evil, or they are pure, fragile, angels of light. Women then were mainly viewed in extremes, and even when women were sometimes cited as being men’s superiors, more compassionate, more kind, they were often as trapped by these inhuman expectations, however positive they might seem. To quote Gloria Steinem, “a pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.” Just as men are told to not shed tears as children, women are taught that it is inappropriate for them to be angry, jealous, or rude to anyone, even in instances that do warrant it, and even at the expense of their own feelings. This also extended to their reputations, which they were supposed to regard as sacrosanct.
What Jane Austen then in her novel does is subvert this trope of the perfect woman. Emma is at once a character that is enviable, and yet one who we do not see as the end-all-be-all moral standard. When she is rude to Miss Bates at the picnic we, as Mr Knightley does, rightly agree that she was in the wrong and that her actions were cruel. Yet at the end are most readers not happy to see Emma wed happily? Emma does not become instantly unlikeable by her mistakes, instead she becomes more human. Haven’t we all, even the best of us, said something or other at one time that we bitterly regretted? None of us are perfect and neither is Emma, and in a time where showing a flawed heroine was still rare, this must have come as some relief to many female readers. Because for every Agnes Wickfield there is a Catherine Earnshaw or an Anna Karenina. It is important to show all kinds of female characters and Austen does this wonderfully well.
She is also quick to wittily point out the hypocrisies that existed during the era in which she and her characters lived. Emma jokingly ribs Mr Knightley when she disagrees that her friend Harriet is not an appropriate match for Mr Elton,
Austen subtly undercuts the notion that women are supposed to be pretty, sweet, and to give little trouble or inconvenience to anyone they meet, by pointing out that the very things that Knightley suggests are not enough to make Harriet appealing, are, in fact, paradoxically, the very qualities men normally pursue, and, Emma argues, are the same qualities that would make her a perfect bride in the eyes of Mr. Elton and other men of his class.
Austen’s society also functioned under the expectation that to maintain the level of material comforts one was used to, or to move up in the world if one was not endowed already with wealth, one must marry into it, so women who did just that were simply performing the role they had been prepared for since infancy. To level charges then at these women for seeking the very thing they had been taught to value, or to shame them as “fortune hunters” would then be disingenuous. It is unjust to criticize women for the very behavior that society takes such pains to foster in them. As Austen shows in the character of Jane Fairfax, there were few options for women who did not come from money or had no family, and in many cases these women had to pursue work as governesses, barring them forever from “polite society” and exiling them into an uncertain role between lady and servant. This also further illuminates why someone like Jane would forgive Frank Churchill’s indiscretions and flirtatious behavior, if it granted her a degree of security and dignity as a gentleman’s wife. Such women then, Austen seems to suggest, deserve sympathy, not censure.
Autumn De Wilde’s film captures all of these nuances quite well. The film also does not reinforce the idea that Emma is merely a petulant child that needs to be put in her place and corrected by the infinitely wiser Knightley. He doesn’t come off as overbearing. He challenges Emma and her behavior when he believes she has done wrong, but she also helps him to grow and see her perspective, as well as her well-meaning, if sometimes misguided, efforts. The movie ends with the feeling that both of them have come to a mutual understanding and appreciation of the other, and that Emma has matured through her own experience, and not only due to Mr Knightley’s influence, thus preserving the enduring strength of Austen’s ideals.