As Laura Linney introduces Masterpiece Theatre’s adaptation of Emma, she quotes Jane Austen’s intent to create “a heroine no one but myself will much like.” That is, Emma Woodhouse (Romola Garai) is rich and beautiful, as well as spoiled, thoughtless, and self-deluded, imagining herself both clever and wise while she plays matchmaker to her neighbors and friends with less than stellar results. Unlike previous adaptations, which tend to portray Emma as mischievous (see Gwyneth Paltrow’s 1996 turn as the heroine, or Alicia Silverstone in Clueless that same year), this Emma sticks closely to the novel — the heroine is truly offensive at times, and causes real pain to the people around her.
The series opens rather morosely, as we are introduced to a collection of motherless children left to varying fates and fortunes. Emma (played by Sophie Alibert at seven) stays at Hartfield, her family’s estate, with her indulgent, overprotective father (Michael Gambon), while Frank Weston and Jane Fairfax are taken away from their respective families to be raised by relative strangers. Emma’s staying home suggests her parents were better off — a status she takes very seriously.
Emma begins her matchmaking career with success by encouraging a connection between Mr. Weston (Robert Bathurst) and Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess (Jodhi May). Lonely after Miss Taylor’s departure from Hartfield, Emma befriends Harriet Smith (Louise Dylan), the “natural child of no one knows who.” Romanticizing her illegitimacy and determined to fix her up with a proper husband, Emma ignores the fact that Harriet already has formed something of an attachment with Mr. Martin (Jefferson Hall). Emma steers her protégé towards a more suitable prospective husband, someone Emma could acceptably visit. “Let us think of superior men,” she advises Harriet.
And this is the trouble with Emma, underscored in this Masterpiece Theatre edition. She is class conscious where it affects her, but is oblivious as to how class is constructed or how it restricts options — for and her friends or projects. She may be able to think of many men superior to Mr. Martin, but she is (ahem) clueless that those same men will see themselves as far superior to Harriet. Even when she is advised by family friend and unwitting mentor Mr. Knightly (a frankly superb Jonny Lee Miller) that Mr. Martin disdains Harriet’s class, Emma cannot grasp it. It’s not that she thinks such prejudice is wrong, but she has convinced herself that Harriet belongs, if not in the center of her circle, certainly on the fringe. When she tells Harriet, “There have been many happy and unequal marriages,” one has to wonder what fuels that idea, since there none exist around her.
The “lessons” Emma must learn are manifold. In her introduction to Part Two, Linney describes 18th century English marriage laws and a woman’s place, such that marriage was the only option for financial security. Emma has to learn to respect class structures when it comes to marriage. Further, she has to accept Mr. Knightley’s reproof of her character (the well-known “Badly done, Emma”), which, interestingly, instructs her to be charitable to those of a lower social position, the acceptable limit of “happy and unequal.” Most importantly though, Emma must step in line and make a match for herself.
Its to this version’s credit that the social critique in Austen’s novel is neither trivialized nor tweaked to seem sympathetic for a modern audience (unlike, say, the Mr. Darcy in 2005’s Pride and Prejudice, who was more socially awkward than prejudiced). Austen fans will be happy. If Emma is like Austen herself, pairing up couples in marriage, she is also unlike her. Austen knew better than to think that “happy and unequal” was a likely reality.
Emma acknowledges and expands this authorial frame, in its surprisingly timely examination of “acceptable” marriages, or more precisely, how such marriages were defined, less by those who lived them than by those who judged and exploited them. Austen’s enduring relevance and interest lie here, as social relations are still and even increasingly unbalanced. While Linney quotes Leslie P. Hartley’s famous line, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there,” it’s worth noting that at its sharpest, this Emma shows that they also do things very much the same.