For much of this year, bookworms worldwide have been celebrating the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Emma, first published in December 1815. Possibly one of the most beloved of Austen’s six novels next to Pride and Prejudice, Emma is a wonderfully witty comedy of manners in which the fun-loving, slightly spoiled, but ultimately kind-hearted Emma Woodhouse sets herself up as a matchmaker for her friends and acquaintances while, perhaps predictably, failing to listen to the yearnings of her own heart until it’s almost too late. The novel has spawned numerous retellings and adaptations, and its hero, Mr. Knightley, stands second only to Mr. Darcy in the eyes of Austenites. In honor of the novel’s bicentennial, here are 10 quotes from Emma that can teach us how to love, how to laugh, and how to live happily ever after.
1. “I may have lost my heart, but not my self-control.”- Emma Woodhouse
After discovering that Frank Churchill has been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax while blatantly flirting with Emma, Emma smiles, brushes herself off, and maintains as much dignity and self-composure as she can. The takeaway here is simple: sometimes you’re going to have your heart broken and your emotions toyed with. It’s not unnatural to feel wounded, but be sensible about it and don’t wallow.
2. “I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other.”- Emma Woodhouse
Again, our heroine puts it succinctly; never settle for anything less than the best you feel you deserve in life, whether in your friendships, your workplace relationships, or your romantic partnerships.
3. “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”- Mr. Knightley
Not altogether unlike Mr. Darcy, Mr. Knightley is a man of actions, not words, when it comes to expressing love. Anyone with eyes in their head—anyone except Emma, of course—can see how tenderly he loves her and holds her in high regard, even if he never says quite as much until the last possible moment. The kindest of words can sometimes be the most insincere if not accompanied by an action meant from the heart. (Frank Churchill, anyone?)
4. “Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.”- Mr. Knightley
Though Mr. Knightley offers these words to Emma as a caveat against puffing her friend Harriet Smith up above her station in life as the illegitimate daughter of, well, someone or other, his words here nonetheless encapsulate what we love most about Austen heroes: that they love and cherish women of good sense whom they can value as their equals rather than as playthings.
5. “I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him.”- Emma Woodhouse
While Emma offers this advice to Harriet simply because she thinks the gentleman farmer Robert Martin beneath Harriet’s notice, Emma raises a fair point here; if it doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, and the truth is that if Harriet—young and impressionable as she is—can’t make up her own mind about her feelings without consulting Emma, she isn’t quite ready to commit herself yet. Removed from Emma’s influence, she eventually comes, on her own, to discover that she still loves Mr. Martin and takes her happiness into her own hands. The salient point here, then, is quite simply, to look before you leap. If anything gives you pause, trust your instinct.
6. “If things are going untowardly one month, they are sure to mend the next.”- Mr. Weston
Ah, good old Mr. Weston, ever-cheerful, ever-hopeful, always sure that Frank will come to visit, even when he doesn’t. Nothing dampens his spirits, and however exhausting we might sometimes find his relentless good humor, it reminds us that however bad things seem, they do eventually get better.
7. “Never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”- Emma Woodhouse
Emma might be spoiled; she might be her father’s pet, but, say what you will, she devotes herself to his care and is rewarded with the highest regard, and until she recognizes a deeper love in Mr. Knightley, she need be content with nothing else. Sometimes we would do well to remember that no one can love us as our parents do, with all of our flaws.
8. “How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!”- Frank Churchill
Frank might be impetuous and a bit of a rake, but sometimes, we need to grab our pleasures where and when we find them and live in the moment because no one wants to live with the regret of having squandered an opportunity.
9. “A woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter.”- Emma Woodhouse
This, like so much of Austen’s advice, is shot straight from the hip. The women of Austen’s world had perhaps fewer choices than women in the 21st century do, but she still recognized a key point in exercising agency in one’s own life; seizing an opportunity simply because someone places it in front of you isn’t choosing. It’s settling. Women in the 21st century do have choices, and marriage is just one of those choices. Societal pressure, or the fear of dying alone and being eaten by wild dogs or stray cats should never force your hand into something you don’t want.
10. “Miss Bates had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavor to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good will.”- The Narrator
This description of the good-natured, exhaustively chatty spinster Miss Bates at once amuses and inspires. Relentlessly cheerful despite her reduced circumstances, Miss Bates counts herself supremely blessed with the good fortune of kind friends and neighbors who love her and see to her comfort, and this, in truth, is what we ought to value most in life.
Featured photo credit: Emma by Jane Austen via amazon.com