One thing I appreciate about Jane Austen’s stories is the relationships. In Emma readers will meet a young woman who, like them, values her friends and learns life-changing lessons through those she cares about. Two relationships that stand out are Emma’s friendships with Harriet Smith and George Knightley.

Early in the novel, Emma meets 17-year-old Harriet, who is described as “the daughter of somebody.” Very little is known about the plump, witty girl except that she has lived at Mrs. Goddard’s school for most of her life and is now a parlor boarder there.

This mystery only stirs Emma’s imagination. Emma is convinced that Harriet must be the daughter of a gentleman and therefore deserves to marry well. Beautiful, pampered Emma takes Harriet under her wing. She is determined to match Harriet with the town vicar, Mr. Elton, despite this being an odd pairing. Emma and Harriet’s relationship has the potential to stir a lot of discussion about friendship. Is Emma drawn to Harriet because, unlike Jane Fairfax, she has no reason to be jealous of her, or is Harriet simply her next project? Does she really care about Harriet’s future, or does she only want the satisfaction of fixing this poor unfortunate girl?

We immediately see that, while Harriet is sweet and pretty, she isn’t very bright and is easily swayed by strong-willed Emma. Shy, insecure teens might relate to Harriet’s tendency to let a more powerful friend override her own desires, particularly when a guy or possible popularity is involved. Harriet’s willingness to follow Emma’s advice to turn down a proposal from a man Harriet clearly cares about might prompt teens to consider the influence of their peers. How much should what friends say guide them? Are they too quickly assuming that the “cool girl,” or the one with higher social profile, knows what she is talking about?

Emma’s constant hold makes it all the more satisfying when Harriet begins to mature from a naïve girl who follows Emma around like a puppy, hanging on her every word and suggestion, to a young woman who has learned from disappointments and actually begins to think for herself. At the same time, we see their friendship grow into genuine mutual affection. When Emma’s match-making attempts fail, and especially when the two girls fall in love with the same man, Harriet’s honest heartbreak followed by forgiveness models a biblical response, showing teen readers that friendships can survive deep hurt.

Just when we begin to think Emma runs the show, we see the effect that George Knightley has on her. Mr. Knightley is the older brother of her sister’s husband. Long before it becomes obvious that Mr. Knightley is in love with Emma and vice versa, we see him as a person who has the guts to tell her the truth whether she wants to hear it or not. The fact that he doesn’t let his romantic feelings get in the way of what needs to be said, reveals a lot about his character.

Mr. Knightley is the one who risks telling Emma she was wrong to encourage Harriet to turn down Robert Martin’s proposal, points out why she is setting Harriet up for a let-down by trying to match her with a man who is above her socially, and moves her to tears of remorse when she hurts the kind social misfit, Miss Bates.

While Emma doesn’t always agree with Mr. Knightley, she respects him, reminding readers that speaking the truth in love does make a difference, and that a willingness to hear a gentle reprimand can help us grow. Emma’s relationship with Mr. Knightley can encourage girls to examine their responses to those “wounds from a friend.” How does a person know when a friend is interfering, being just plain mean, or loving her enough to tell her what she needs to hear? Comparing the influence that Emma has over Harriet with Mr. Knightley’s power over Emma could strike conversations about what a difference maturity and motives make when attempting to guide others.

Whether teens read Emma for school or for pleasure, looking more closely at the characters, relationships, and what both can teach them will add enjoyment to the read. Learning to see characters like Emma, Harriet and George Knightley as people who struggle and grow in the same ways they do, only in a different time period, can help teens appreciate classic literature in a new way.

Jeanette Hanscome is the author of three books and over 300 articles and stories. In addition to writing, she offers freelancing editing and critiquing to beginning writers, and teaches workshops on the craft. Jeanette is also the mom of  two sons,  a ten-year-old whom she home-schools and a twenty-two-year old.

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