Jane Austen, Emma: Vol. 1, Ch. 1

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Volume I

Chapter I

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich,d with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one yearsh in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister's marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.

Sixteen years had Miss Taylor been in Mr. Woodhouse's family, less as a governessh than a friend, very fond of both daughters, but particularly of Emma. Between them it was more the intimacy of sisters. Even before Miss Taylor had ceased to hold the nominalw office of governess, the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose any restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they had been living together as friend and friend very mutually attached, and Emma doing just what she liked; highly esteeming Miss Taylor's judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.

The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself;d these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.

Sorrow came—a gentle sorrow—but not at all in the shape of any disagreeable consciousness.—Miss Taylor married. It was Miss Taylor's loss which first brought grief. It was on the wedding-day of this beloved friend that Emma first sat in mournful thought of any continuance. The wedding over, and the bride-people gone, her father and herself were left to dine together, with no prospect of a third to cheer a long evening. Her father composed himself to sleep after dinner, as usual, and she had then only to sit and think of what she had lost.

The event had every promise of happiness for her friend. Mr. Weston was a man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune, suitable age, and pleasant manners; and there was some satisfaction in considering with what self-denying, generous friendship she had always wished and promoted the match; but it was a black morning's work for her. The want of Miss Taylor would be felt every hour of every day. She recalled her past kindness—the kindness, the affection of sixteen years—how she had taught and how she had played with her from five years old—how she had devoted all her powers to attach and amuse her in health—and how nursed her through the various illnesses of childhood. A large debt of gratitude was owing here; but the intercourse of the last seven years, the equal footing and perfect unreserve which had soon followed Isabella's marriage, on their being left to each other, was yet a dearer, tenderer recollection. She had been a friend and companion such as few possessed: intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle, knowing all the ways of the family, interested in all its concerns, and peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of hers—one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault.d

How was she to bear the change?d—It was true that her friend was going only half a mileh from them; but Emma was aware that great must be the difference between a Mrs. Weston, only half a mile from them, and a Miss Taylor in the house; and with all her advantages, natural and domestic, she was now in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude.d She dearly loved her father, but he was no companion for her. He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.d

The evil of the actual disparity in their ages (and Mr. Woodhouse had not married early) was much increased by his constitution and habits; for having been a valetudinarianw all his life, without activity of mind or body,d he was a much older manh in ways than in years; and though everywhere beloved for the friendliness of his heartd and his amiable temper, his talents could not have recommended him at any time.

X [d] Emma

Writing & Reading

For students, teachers, scholars, and the inquisitive general reader: To employ the full capacity of the annotations, please go to bookdoors.com and click on ReSearch Engine. You will discover a variety of illuminating ways to use the annotations to this and to any one of the other BookDoors In Context editions. You will also be able to search the text of all of the other works on the site. …

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X [d] handsome, clever, and rich,

Writing & Reading

The novel's first two words are the heroine's name: Emma would have it no other way. Emma is the fourth of Austen's six completed novels to be published, the fifth to be written, and the only one to take its title from the heroine. With a comfortable home, independence, social preeminence, and a happy disposition, Emma is quite satisfied with life and with herself.…

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X [h] nearly twenty-one years


Twenty-one may seem young but it is scarcely automatic. Including infant mortality, the average life expectancy was 44.8 years. Jane Austen died in 1817 at forty-two of Addison's disease, a kidney ailment. The sixth of seven Austen children, she was the first to die.…

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X [h] governess


Miss Taylor was an unusually fortunate governess in being viewed as a member of the family and a "friend." She's again lucky to find a husband and one who is an agreeable gentleman with a small esstate and money enough to provide her with horses and carriage, conspicuous signs of affluence.…

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X [w] nominal

She's a governess in name only. In reality, she's more like Emma's friend or older sister.

X [d] to think a little too well of herself;

Writing & Reading

The phrase is central and the point delicately but firmly made. Emma enjoys being Emma. No woman in her immediate society has her wit, lively appeal, and energy, but then her society is also small.

Austen never withholds her judgments upon her characters from the reader but instead makes them in rapid, surgical strokes. She does not, though, cut so deeply into the private and psych…

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X [d] as could never find fault.

Emma tends to select her friends on the basis of how strongly they admire her. 

X [d] How was she to bear the change?

Writing & Reading

The question sounds a dominant motif of the novel—change (see the first annotation and that in a moment to "melancholy change"). Emma itself is set in what seems an island of quiet stability, the timeless English village of Highbury, but the period in which the novel takes place is fraught with change (see the introductory annotation and that shortly on "a melancholy change"). Emma…

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X [h] half a mile


By Mr. Woodhouse's standards a marathon. Mr. Knightley readily walks. How characters view distance, weather, and physical effort is a marker in all of the Austen novels. She likes vigor in her women as well as men.

X [d] intellectual solitude.


Emma's lonely position at the pinnacle of Highbury society means that upon Miss Taylor's marriage she will be left largely to the consolations of her father's conversation. Mercifully for her he sleeps much of the time. Otherwise she has needlework, reading, writing letters, the pianoforté, and drawing.…

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X [d] rational or playful.

Describing him by what he is not, Austen suggests the amiable emptiness that he is.

X [w] valetudinarian


A person suffering from weak health and/or much consumed with his health.

That he has been so "all his life" indicates more a psychological than a physiological condition. Apparently like Jane Austen's mother at this period (born in 1739, she lived to be 88), he suffers from hypochondria. Medical theory of the time viewed hypochondria as related to "melancholy," or depression, and …

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X [d] without activity of mind or body,

As often in Austen the parenthetical comment passes by as quietly as an arrow. Mr. Woodhouse's being without activity means, too, that, recumbent in his invalidism, he's not been an active parent but has set a poor example for Emma and her older sister.

X [h] much older man


Mr. Woodhouse was likely in his thirties when he married. He is "old" and unwise. As Emma soon remarks in a different context, what is forgivable in a young person is likely to be detestable in an older one.

X [d] friendliness of his heart

To say that Mr. Woodhouse's talents could not have recommended him "at any time" indicates that he has few to speak of.