Just before she began writing Emma, Jane Austen called the novel’s young protagonist “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” Emma Woodhouse is privileged, self-involved, often frivolous, and sometimes even (unintentionally) cruel. In her overconfident attempts at matchmaking, she repeatedly misinterprets signals and muddles relationships to the point of catastrophe. She lacks the wise-beyond-her-years insight and the intellectualism of most of Austen’s protagonists. She’s also my favorite of all Austen’s characters.
When I was younger I loved witty, headstrong Lizzy Bennet and the diametrically opposed Dashwood sisters, self-contained Elinor and passionate Marianne. I enjoyed the pompousness of Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh and the sometimes awkward charms of love interests like Mr. Darcy and Colonel Brandon. I watched the 1996 film version of Emma and Clueless, a contemporary adaptation of the novel, but never felt much attachment to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma or to Cher, who came off as shallow and lacking in genuine compassion.
It was only when I read Emma for the first time as a freshman in college that Emma Woodhouse really got to me. As Austen wrote her, Emma felt flawed in a way I could relate to: good-hearted and clever, but too wrapped up in her own world and too assured of her own opinions and talents. She felt like people I knew, or maybe even like me—like a fortunate young woman trying, and sometimes failing, to live well.