This book nearly killed me. I have limited tolerance for stupidity and man, did these people exceed it constantly. I came so close to throwing this book against the wall again and again but I couldn't because this volume is seriously a dangerous weapon. It's heavy and if you are planning to read this in a timely manner and on the go, don't use this version. I highly recommend it but be sure you are prepared to deal with a heavy monstrosity of a book.
First the story itself. This was my first time reading this work by Austen and I have to say, it stood up much better then S&S, to my mind at least. I liked the writing so much more and the use of free indirect style was amazing, sometimes I got lost in how much Emma's thoughts influence the reader and they can easily never notice. The setting in a small village during a specific time with no travel beyond a few miles was perfect, just what I love most about Austen's work - the drama and focus on the minutia that is so incredibly important usually only to the people involved. When you can do that and make a compelling story, you are beyond a good author; you're a great one. The plot was not bad and overall, it would rank between Persuasion and Northanger Abbey except for one tiny detail.
I'm plotting the characters' demises.
Seriously, I've lined them up like in And Then There Were None and have their deaths all planned out, they annoyed me that much. Basically, if your name isn't Mr. Knightly (not John Knightly), you sent me running from this book at least once and probably more. He's the one bastion of sanity in the entire town and sadly, the fact that he's not running for the hills calls that into question. Mr. Woodhouse got on my nerves more then Mr. Elliot (and doesn't that say something) and while I could...sorta understand his reasons for worrying, wanting his daughter to stay by him always, and being a hypochondriac - I mostly found him incredibly selfish, rude and socially beyond the pale at times (calling a married woman constantly by her maiden name at that time, even in front of her husband, would have been beyond rude at that time), and have no idea why someone (anyone!) didn't call him on his crap ages ago. Though I can admit, Michael Gambon's portrayal in the miniseries version of the book did soften me to him...a small amount. Isabelle, Emma's sister, and her husband John Knightly mostly just annoyed me, Isabelle because she acts far too much like her father and had no problem leaving her sister chained to the house while she got married and had little to do with them and John Knightly because he was rude. Though he was smarter then most of the people around, so one could argue he'd been drove to it. Maybe he couldn't deal with the stupid either.
Then there were the Eltons. My Wickham/Willoughby senses got a workout in this book because I called Elton and Churchill both. Elton was weak-willed and while I wasn't crazy about him at first, he really could have gone either way. However, in marrying Mrs. Elton, he sealed his fate. She's an ill-mannered, poorly educated, and self-promoting woman and she drags him down with her. It's really sad to see and stands in counterpoint to Knightly and Emma's relationship, which looks to work in the opposite way. He has already tried to help her grow better during her life and it's clear they can continue this and their partnership will improve one another, not tear them down. The other couple, Churchill and Jane Fairfax, I'm actually not sure about. I'm with Emma on this one, he behaved poorly and beyond what the situation called for. I understand being circumspect but his actions with any other woman and any other father would have lead to extreme unpleasantness on both sides. It was on the man at the time to be sure any single woman of his acquaintance did not feel compromised or even singled out, though the ladies certainly were not suppose to allow themselves to get into such potions. Therefore, his actions are quite reprehensible and I don't think merely understanding his reasons allows you to forgive and forget. Though I'll admit, Jane Fairfax is easily my second favorite character in the book.
And now we come to Emma and Harriet Smith. I more feel sorry for Harriet then anything else. She's not a bad sort, but she's not the brightest crayon in the pack and next to Emma, this clearly shows. Emma controls her, lets just be frank her. Oh, she makes pretty speeches about how she'd never tell her what to think or do but that's exactly what she does. Knightly calls it; she comes close to ruining Harriet's life with her meddling. Emma barely sees her as a person, more of a doll really, even referring to the situation as having a Harriet Smith. It's as if she's an object she owns or a pet. And Emma's meddling does all but destroy Harriet's chances of ever marrying to any advantage - and unlike Fairfax, there is no way Harriet could ever be a governess. As an illegitimate child, her prospects for the future would have been all but nil if it weren't for a happy incident, namely her being far enough away from Emma's sphere of influence.
Emma. I'll agree with Austen on creating a character only the author could love. She's not all bad but seriously, I was plotting her demise quite a number of times. She might just be the queen of TSTL moments, I don't know how many times I was facepalming over something she did or said or thought was going on and it was clearly not. The best/worse was when John Knightly tells her clearly that Elton likes her and she laughs it off because she clearly knows soooo much more about everything! The shock she gets when he proposes almost makes the whole thing worthwhile, except that she then does such a poor job of turning him down even I felt sorry for him. Good grief. Her meddling, her actions towards people, and her glory in how much she knows paints her as a spoiled child and my word, it shows constantly. And nobody calls her on it. I realize that part of it, like her father, is her position in the community but her governess thinks she's wonderful and even Knightly can't seem to stay angry with her, even when she ignores his advice. The thing is, she can be kind and I really want to like her, but I just can't. Even when she finally figures out that maybe she's not as great as she thought she was (the shock and horror), it's almost solely because Knightly is going to be taken away from her. It's all about her, ever excruciating minute of it, and even her worry about Harriet is more that it will be awkward for her. She does feel bad about what her meddling has done but you feel that she wouldn't feel near as bad if she "hadn't got caught." Hopefully there will be more growth in her future but I'm not holding my breath.
All the above, which I hope is legible and makes even a bit of coherent sense, leaves me completely at odds with myself over this book. I don't think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much if it weren't for this annotated version. While much of the vocabulary I knew either from other reading or intuitively, what I really enjoyed and learned a great deal from was the copious notes on the society, history, and other literature of the day. One of the interesting ways of looking at this book they raised was the possibility of Mr. Woodhouse having syphilis. If you know certain things that would have been mostly common knowledge at the time, the clues are there and I'm about 75% convinced. It does give him more reason to be the way he is and makes a lot of sense. For the complete annotation quoted, see here. There was so much more and I'm still looking into the many sources that were mentioned concerning various parts of this book. I learned a great deal and plan to read the other books in this set of annotations. I do feel the price is worth it, particularly as they are quite well put together hardcovers.
So, I'm done. This won't be high on my reread list for quite some time and I don't plan to read it without annotations if I can help it. Hopefully Mansfield Park will be better.
Austen Reads (in order of my preference):
Pride and Prejudice