Northanger Abbey was the first Jane Austen novel I ever read and it set the tone for my appreciation of her work for many years. It was an English Literature text when I was 12 or 13 and at an all-girls' school where I argued the toss about feminism on a daily basis. I was incredibly independent, without a father (or any older male in my life) but with a very strong mother who'd been widowed, left with four children, and was working her way up to being a headteacher.
I simply couldn't bear the novel; it made me want to run screaming and howling from Bath, a rigid social hierarchy, female entrapment in a male society, the pressure on young girls to conform, keep quiet, and sell themselves to the highest bidder. I failed to understand how the niceties and fusspottery of social intercourse between a group of moneyed and apparently unemployed people could matter to anyone. It made me wonder how I would have coped in Regency England. I suspect I might have dressed as a sailor and gone to sea.
This is the spirit in which I approached Emma when I was 15. And surprise, surprise, I couldn't bear Emma with her caprices, selfishness, and queen bee approach. But most breathtaking of all was her snobbery, something which I couldn't even regard as amusing, and I certainly didn't think she would ever be cured of it or reformed by marriage and Mr Knightley.
So I hadn't read Emma since then. Until last week, when I enjoyed it enormously. I still have a problem with Emma's appalling snobbery (but then I also have a problem with JA's own snobbery and find it difficult to know whether she is satirising this society or very much a part of it) and her meddling makes me feel horribly uncomfortable. But what a beautifully written and managed book. There are no longueurs, no tedious verbal sparring, no sententiousness. Instead, there is some wonderful comedy, a huge amount of accurate insight into human nature, and some unforgettable characters: Miss Bates is a triumph, Mrs Elton a shocker, Mr Elton a creep.
Nevertheless, much as I was engrossed in the comings and goings of Highbury (it reminded me of Cranford in so many ways), I was still railing against the treatment of women there, the expected behaviour, their circumscribed lives, the necessary concealments, and the forms of control imposed on them. I am still disappointed that it takes an older man to educate and improve Emma (shades of Pygmalion), and even more disappointed that he gives up his home to move in with Emma and her self-centred father who is something of a monster dressed in lamb's clothing (it doesn't take a psychologist to understand his control methods) instead of whisking her off to Donwell Abbey. If I were in Emma's situation, I might have married Knightley for his strawberry beds, but I would definitely have made him run off to sea with me.