Emma Woodhouse, the heroine in Jane Austen’s Emma, is quite a handful. She is whip-smart, funny and loves nothing better than to matchmake in her small village. But as the “big fish in a small pond” she also has to transform, with writer Eleanor Catton lauding this as a “feminist idea.”
In an exclusive conversation with Express.co.uk, Catton spoke of her new adaptation of Emma, directed by Autumn de Wilde and starring Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn.
Asked whether Emma herself is a feminist, Catton denied this claim, but did make some interesting observations on how the story can be an even better example for women today.
She said: “She [Emma] is exemplary because she makes mistakes and we all do, and I think a version of feminism which says, ‘Look a this faultless woman, you should be more like her,’ is kind of unhelpful.
“With somebody like Fanny Price in Mansfield Park [another of Jane Austen’s novels], she is an exemplary person, but what does she really teach you?
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Emma movie: Writer reveals why Jane Austen’s Emma is a TRUE feminist icon
“I don’t think you feel that close to her so what she has to teach you is less than what Emma Woodhouse teaches you.”
Emma is imperfect, making her a better example for women everywhere, however there is even more to her title as a feminist icon than just that.
Catton continued: “I think the ‘path out of self-centredness’ – that is a feminist idea – that there are more perspectives than just one.
“In order to see the world and see those multiplicity of perspectives, you have to move outside yourself, so the fact that Emma transforms makes the story… the story is alive to that it would be wrong to stamp a modern idea of empowerment onto it in a specific way and make her a poster child for a philosophy.
The poster for Emma, featuring Anya Taylor Joy, Johnny Flynn and Callum Turner
“But I think feminism is definitely served by seeing more women who are real – and she is awful in a lot of ways!
“She’s terrible snob and she’s so wrong and privileged and she really hurts the people around her, but she’s not a cruel person.”
However, Emma’s cruelty doesn’t come from being just a bad person – Catton has another theory on how that has taken place.
She said: “The more I read the novel, the more it seemed to me to be a story about intellectual starvation.
Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize for her novel The Luminaries
“Emma is so intelligent, she is so quick on her feet, she is so well ordered in her thinking and she can riff on concepts and she’s so funny in a way that requires such intelligence to pull off.
“I feel a lot of empathy for her in that I think she has been spoiled by her privilege and by being a big fish in a small pond, she has been indulged by people around her.
“Mr Knightley is the only person who is interested in her moral education but everybody else has kind of given her a free pass, and the novel kind of shows us the danger of that.
“If people are indulged they can lose a proper sense of themselves and the results can be quite dangerous.
Anya Taylor Joy and Mia Goth in Emma
“I have a lot of sympathy for that, I suppose, as feminist it’s really interesting problem that a lot of women face that their environment has encouraged them to behave in a way which is not in their best interests and it’s cutting off a better part of themselves.
“If it weren’t for Mr Knightley and Emma having enough empathy herself to see when she does wrong, she might always be that person.”
Whether Emma is the cruel person or the feminist icon she has been proclaimed to be, it’s definitely worth seeing in the new adaptation.
Emma is in cinemas on Valentine’s Day, on February 14