Jane Austen began writing Emma on 21 January, 1814, although she was still busy going through the proofs of Mansfield Park. She completed the novel on 29 March, 1815 and it was published in late December of that year by John Murray, although it was dated 1816 on the title page. It was published as a three volume novel.

Emma is set entirely in the county of Surrey where Emma lives in the large village of Highbury, seven miles from Box Hill and nine miles from Richmond-upon-Thames. In time it covers 14 months, from a September in one year through to the November of the next, and is probably set in the years 1813–14. Jane Austen once told a niece that ‘three or four families in a country village is the very thing to work on’ and that is what she does in Emma. The novel brilliantly evokes a sense of community, the English class system and the heroine’s place within her social and economic world. It is the novel which most celebrates Englishness: ‘It was a sweet view — sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive’.

It is the only one of her novels named after its heroine. Emma Woodhouse, ‘handsome, clever, and rich’, is 20 to 21 and was thought by her creator to be ‘a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like’. She is intelligent, witty, playful, bored and she dominates the novel.

Novelist P D James has called Emma a detective story, and it does contain a mystery and several secrets. It is a novel which demands to be re-read in order to pick up the many clues so carefully laid by Jane Austen.

Emma is generally regarded by the critics as Jane Austen’s greatest work and it often and deservedly appears on lists of ‘Greatest Novels Ever Written.

Caption: Illustration for Emma by Philip Gough, 1951

Jane Austen Society of Australia Inc