Can we read the first sentence of Emma in the following way?: “Jane Austen, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and has lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (1).
Upon examining Emma we find some distinct similarities between Emma Woodhouse and her author, Jane Austen. The reader can’t help but wonder if the character of Emma is based off of Austen herself, that perhaps she might be offering a sort of critique of her own character while asserting her power of authorship. The first and most obvious similarity of Emma to Jane Austen is the role she takes on as a novelist. It seems often times that it is Emma who is displaying Austen’s typical “free and direct discourse” as she attempts to sense the feelings, words, and motives of other characters. She even forces herself into their lives and puts them in whatever situation she sees fit, most notably with Harriet. Emma, the match maker, after being pleased with the match she made with Mr. and Mrs. Watson, tries to match Harriet with Mr. Elton, just as Austen the author sets her characters up in certain situations “uniting some of the best blessings of existence” through the characters in her novels. Is her failure a critique of Austen as a novelist? Does Austen ever fail in her match making?
Emma’s judgments of characters is ever present throughout the novel. She attempts to examine the character of Mr. Elton concerning his match for Harriet:
This man is almost too gallant to be in love… I should say so, but that I suppose there may be a hundred different ways of being in love. He is an excellent young man, and will suit Harriet exactly; it will be an ‘Exactly so’ as he says himself; but he does sigh and languish and study for compliments rather more than I could endure as a principal. I come in for a pretty good share as a second. But it is his gratitude for Harriet’s account (48).
This is but one example of Emma offering her own judgment of the different characters in the novel, in this way, she plays the role of author, offering the reader judgments in the way that Austen usually does as narrator.
Emma even takes on the role of author in the way that she speaks for the characters, particularly Harriet. After reading Elton’s charade, “[Harriet] was not wanted to speak. It was enough for her to feel. Emma spoke for her” (71). She then goes on to praise herself for the match and even says "It will give you everything you want--consideration. independence, a proper home" noting ever so pointedly what Harriet's desires are without Harriet uttering a word. Such is the characteristic of free and direct discourse: this is not an epistolary novel where the characters seemingly speak for themselves without any intrusion or creation of feelings or words by an author. Emma takes on the role of the author and even goes so far as to speak for the characters, inserting her judgments and feelings in the way that Jane Austen would as author. Ferguson cites Casey Finch and Peter Bowen who say ““the development in Austen’s hands of free indirect style marks a crucial moment in the history of novelistic technique in which narrative authority is seemingly elided, ostensibly giving way to what Flaubert called a transparent style in which the author is ‘everywhere felt, but never seen.’” (162). In Emma, the author is surely “everywhere felt” but she is also always seen because in some ways it seems that Emma is the author herself, ever present throughout the novel.
We cannot help but note that this is the first time the protagonist of an Austen novel is not striving for marriage, in fact she is only trying to set up others' marriages and appears to be perfectly content with her single life. Of course, we cannot ignore that Austen herself never married but only wrote about marriage. Though Emma is anything but "Dear Aunt Jane," the novel might be offering a glimpse into who Jane Austen really was, outside the confines of her heavily edited letters. In Auerbach’s Searching for Jane Austen she quotes Leanoard Woolf who “called the happy marriages in Austen’s novels ‘a kind of compensation daydream for her failure in real life” (31). What if Emma Woodhouse is Jane Austen’s portrayal of herself, unmarried, a creator, author, spectator, and intruder of other’s lives? Their difference might be that Emma eventually married, and perhaps this was what Austen may have wished of herself. Was Jane Austen offering a critique of herself through Emma? Is this novel just fiction, or is there something behind the character of Emma? Is it even possible to discover anything about the author’s own life through the lives of her characters? If so, what can we learn about Jane Austen through her novels?
Also note, if we find that Emma could not possibly be an avatar of Austen, are there any other characters that could be?