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Emma (1816) was the last of Austen's novels published in her lifetime. 'I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like' she predicted - but most modern readers find Austen triumphed over the artistic problem she created. Emma Woodhouse is lovable despite, or because of, her faults and mistakes.
Sir Walter Scott felt Emma was the best of a new kind of realistic novel that had appeared 'in the last fifteen or twenty years'. Unlike improbable romances, it drew on 'such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks'.
Emma and her friend Harriet Smith collect riddles - the solution to one is 'courtship'. The plot of Emma is itself a riddle, where both the characters and the reader must work out who is courting whom. Emma detects clues wrongly as she tries to match-make amongst her friends - by the end she knows and judges herself and others much more accurately.
Reading again, knowing the ending, you experience many of Emma's dialogues differently. The book is rich in irony - moments where a character does not have full knowledge of their situation, but we can see more than they do. For example, Emma is amused by Mr Elton's blindness in thinking Harriet intelligent. But in fact the riddle, which she thinks praises Harriet's intelligence, is actually addressed to her. Emma is the one who is blind. And the remarks about her intelligence are both true (she is quick to solve the riddle) and false (she fails to realise that Mr Elton fancies her).
These false leads and double meanings give structural complexity. Austen analyses the problems of communication: ...seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure'. Although Emma deals with a few families in a country town, it examines broader themes: reason versus imagination; female education; social status. Some see Austen as a conservative moralist: Emma is schooled by Mr Knightley and marries into her own propertied class, maintaining the Highbury social order. Others consider Austen's view more challenging - one of Emma's biggest mistakes is her snobbery.