top of page

Classic of the Month: Emma

Updated: Mar 11

As you probably recall, I started a new monthly series that will highlight a new "classic" every month. This month's classic is Emma by Jane Austen. Again I am very loosely basing my idea of classic's on this "A classic is a novel that represents a genre or a writing style, or it can be a novel that makes a contribution to literature. There are all kinds of classics, from horror classics to romance classics, from novels that sold millions of copies to a novel that changed how a genre was written." Due to the widely different views on what a classic is, these books may be considered classics by me but your opinion may be different.


What is Emma?

Emma, by Jane Austen, is a novel about youthful hubris and romantic misunderstandings. It is set in the fictional country village of Highbury and the surrounding estates of Hartfield, Randalls and Donwell Abbey, and involves the relationships among people from a small number of families. The novel was first published in December 1815, with its title page listing a publication date of 1816. As in her other novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian–Regency England. Emma is a comedy of manners, and depicts issues of marriage, sex, age, and social status.


Plot Overview (Detailed)

Emma Woodhouse's friend and former governess, Miss Taylor, has just married Mr. Weston. Having introduced them, Emma takes credit for their marriage and decides that she likes matchmaking. After returning home to Hartfield with her father, Emma forges ahead with her new interest against the advice of her sister's brother-in-law, Mr. Knightley. She attempts to match her new friend Harriet Smith to Mr. Elton, the local vicar. Emma persuades Harriet to refuse a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, a respectable, educated, and well-spoken young farmer, though Harriet likes him. Mr. Elton, a social climber, mistakenly believes Emma is in love with him and proposes to her. When Emma reveals she believed him attached to Harriet, he is outraged, considering Harriet socially inferior. After Emma rejects him, Mr. Elton goes to Bath and returns with a pretentious, nouveau-riche wife, as Mr. Knightley expected he would do. Harriet is heartbroken, and Emma feels ashamed about misleading her.

Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son, arrives for a two-week visit and makes many friends. Frank was adopted by his wealthy and domineering aunt, and has had few opportunities to visit before. Mr. Knightley tells Emma that, while Frank is intelligent and engaging, he has a shallow character. Jane Fairfax also arrives to visit her aunt, Miss Bates, and grandmother, Mrs. Bates, for a few months, before starting a governess position due to her family's financial situation. She is the same age as Emma and has received an excellent education by her father's friend, Colonel Campbell. Emma has remained somewhat aloof with her because she envies Jane's talent and is annoyed by everyone, including Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, praising her. The patronizing Mrs. Elton takes Jane under her wing and announces that she will find her the ideal governess post before it is wanted. Emma feels some sympathy for Jane's predicament.

Emma decides that Jane and Mr. Dixon, Colonel Campbell's new son-in-law, are mutually attracted, and is the reason she arrived earlier than expected. She confides this to Frank, who met Jane and the Campbells at a vacation spot a year earlier; he apparently agrees with Emma. Suspicions are further fuelled when a piano, sent by an anonymous benefactor, arrives for Jane. Emma feels herself falling in love with Frank, but it does not last to his second visit. The Eltons treat Harriet poorly, culminating with Mr. Elton publicly snubbing Harriet at the ball given by the Westons in May. Mr. Knightley, who had long refrained from dancing, gallantly asks Harriet to dance. The day after the ball, Frank brings Harriet to Hartfield; she fainted after a rough encounter with local gypsies. Emma mistakes Harriet's gratitude to Frank as her being in love with him. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston wonders if Mr. Knightley fancies Jane, but Emma dismisses that. When Mr. Knightley says he notices a connection between Jane and Frank, Emma disagrees, as Frank appears to be courting her instead. Frank arrives late to a gathering at Donwell in June, while Jane departs early. Next day at Box Hill, a local scenic spot, Frank and Emma are bantering when Emma, in jest, thoughtlessly insults Miss Bates.

When Mr. Knightley scolds Emma for insulting Miss Bates, she is ashamed. The next day, she visits Miss Bates to atone for her bad behaviour, impressing Mr. Knightley. On the visit, Emma learns that Jane accepted a governess position from one of Mrs. Elton's friends. Jane becomes ill and refuses to see Emma or receive her gifts. Meanwhile, Frank has been visiting his aunt, who dies soon after his arrival. Now he and Jane reveal to the Westons that they have been secretly engaged since autumn, but Frank knew his aunt would disapprove of the match. Maintaining the secrecy strained the conscientious Jane and caused the couple to quarrel, with Jane ending the engagement. Frank's easygoing uncle readily gives his blessing to the match. The engagement is made public, leaving Emma chagrined to discover that she had been so wrong.

Emma believes Frank's engagement will devastate Harriet, but instead, Harriet says she loves Mr. Knightley, and though she knows the match is too unequal, Emma's encouragement and Mr. Knightley's kindness have given her hope. Emma is startled and realises that she is in love with Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley returns to console Emma from Frank and Jane's engagement thinking her heartbroken. When she admits her foolishness, he proposes, and she accepts. Harriet accepts Robert Martin's second proposal, and they are the first couple to marry. Jane and Emma reconcile, and Frank and Jane visit the Westons. Once the mourning period for Frank's aunt ends, they will marry. Before the end of November, Emma and Mr. Knightley are married with the prospect of "perfect happiness".


What is the genre of this book?

The genre of Emma is considered to be a Novel of Manners. A novel of manners is work of fiction that re-creates a social world, conveying with finely detailed observation the customs, values, and mores of a highly developed and complex society.


Was this book ever banned?

As far as I can tell this book has never been banned.


Why is it a Classic?

Emma is considered by many readers to be Jane Austen's crowning achievement, a timeless comedy of manners that lays bare the limits on women's autonomy in Regency England. The disparity between Emma Woodhouse's self-confidence and self-knowledge, and her determination to arrange marriages for her friends while avoiding one for herself, leads to a painful series of misunderstandings for everyone who suffers from her well-meaning altruism – and with Mr Knightley being the only person of her acquaintance who has the good sense to challenge her, Emma must eventually recognize her match in every sense. Long praised for its rich detail and perfect craftsmanship, Emma is one of those classic masterpieces that readers go back to again and again for its inexhaustible fund of humanity.



Emma has been the subject of many adaptations for film, TV, radio and the stage. The profusion of adaptations based on Jane Austen's novels has not only created a large contemporary fan base but has also sparked extensive scholarly examination on both the process and effect of modernizing the narratives and moving them between mediums. Examples of this critical, academic work can be found in texts such as Recreating Jane Austen by John Wiltshire, Jane Austen in Hollywood edited by Troost and Greenfield, Jane Austen and Co.: Remaking the Past in Contemporary Culture edited by Pucci and Thompson, and "Adapting Jane Austen: The Surprising Fidelity of 'Clueless'" by William Galperin to name a few.


  • 1995: Clueless, a loose American modern adaptation of the novel, set in Beverly Hills and starring Alicia Silverstone as Cher Horowitz (Emma)

  • 1996: Emma, an American comedy starring Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma

  • 2010: Aisha, an Indian modern adaptation of the novel, starring Sonam Kapoor as Aisha (Emma).

  • 2020: Emma., directed by Autumn de Wilde, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Emma Woodhouse and Johnny Flynn as Mr Knightley.


  • 1948: Emma, live BBC TV broadcast, starring Judy Campbell (who also wrote the screenplay) as Emma, and directed and produced by Michael Barry

  • 1954: Emma, live NBC TV broadcast, starring Felicia Montealegre as Emma

  • 1957: Emma, another live NBC TV broadcast in their Matinee Theater series, starring Sarah Churchill as Emma

  • 1960: Emma, live BBC TV serial in six parts, starring Diana Fairfax as Emma and directed by Campbell Logan

  • 1960: Emma, live CBS TV broadcast in their Camera Three series, starring Nancy Wickwire as Emma

  • 1972: Emma, a six-part BBC miniseries, starring Doran Godwin as Emma

  • 1996: Emma, an ITV TV film, starring Kate Beckinsale as Emma

  • 2009: Emma, a four-part BBC miniseries, starring Romola Garai as Emma


  • 2013: Emma Approved, a YouTube web series produced by Pemberley Digital and developed by Bernie Su, starring Joanna Sotomura as Emma.

  • 2017: The Emma Agenda, a YouTube web series produced by Quip Modest Productions, starring Selis Maria Vargas as Emma. In this version the role of Mr. Knightley is female, which makes it the first lesbian version of Emma on screen.


  • 1991: Emma, a stage adaptation by British playwright Michael Fry, first produced by the Cloucester Stage Company in 1991, and since then produced by a number of theatre companies in Britain and the US.

  • 2000: Emma, a musical written by Stephen Karam and first performed by the Brownbrokers student theatre group at Brown University under the direction of Darius Pierce. In 2004 Karam's musical was put on at the New York Musical Theatre Festival under the direction of Patricia Birch.

  • A theatrical adaptation by Michael Napier Brown was performed at the Royal Theatre in Northampton in 2000.

  • 2007: Jane Austen's Emma – A Musical Romantic Comedy, a musical written by Paul Gordon, which premiered at TheatreWorks in Menlo Park, California. It has since been performed at the Cincinnati Playhouse, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego.

  • 2009: Emma, a stage adaption by Rachel Atkins for the Book-It Repertory Theatre in Seattle, directed by Marcus Goodwin with Sylvie Davidson in the title role.


  • Joan Aiken wrote a companion novel, Jane Fairfax: The Secret Story of the Second Heroine in Jane Austen's Emma.

  • Alexander McCall Smith wrote a detective version, titled Emma: A Modern Retelling (2014), as part of HarperCollins' six volume Austen Project.

  • Reginald Hill wrote Poor Emma in 1987, included in the 2007 paperback There is no ghost in the Soviet Union, where finance plays a crucial role.

  • The importance of being Emma, a novel published in 2008 by Juliet Archer, is a modern version of Emma

  • Emma and the Werewolves: Jane Austen and Adam Rann, Adam Rann, is a parody of Emma which by its title, its presentation and its history, seeks to give the illusion that the novel had been written jointly by Adam Rann and Jane Austen, that is, a mash-up novel.

  • Emma and the Vampires, a 2010 installation of the Jane Austen Undead Novels by Wayne Josephson, preserves the basic plot of Austen's original while adding contemporary humor and a thematic flair for the undead.

  • The Matchmaker: An Amish Retelling of Jane Austen's Emma (2015) by Sarah Price

  • Emma Ever After, a 2018 modern retelling of Emma by Brigid Coady. In this version, Emma is a PR manager for celebrities and George "Gee" Knightley is the former member of a boy band.

  • The Code for Love and Heartbreak (2020) by Jillian Cantor


  • In June 2015, a manga adaptation published by Manga Classics Inc. was adapted by Crystal S. Chan with art by Po Tse.


3 views0 comments


bottom of page