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  • Katherine Dahl

Emma: Another Austen in Four Songs

Emma and Harriet (Emma. 2020)

I’m sorry if anyone is sick of Jane Austen, but I just can’t relate. Emma, often thought of as Austen’s masterpiece, is the topic for this week; based solely on vibes, the novel reminds me of the autumn season, which will soon be drawing to a close. It surrounds the clever (yet ironically unaware) Emma Woodhouse, resident matchmaker of the town of Highbury, and her various schemes to instigate marriages between her friends, regardless of any consequences. Her main subject is Harriet Smith, whom she convinces into pursuing various men who turn out to be uninterested—even going so far as to persuade Harriet to reject the one man who is interested. Emma herself realizes throughout the novel the dangerous results of her failed matches, and, with the encouragement of her morally-upright romantic interest, Mr. Knightley, she gradually makes amends to fix her mistakes.

How Glad I Am by Nancy Wilson (1964)

In the beginning of the novel, Emma very much encapsulates the theme of the song “Don’t Rain on My Parade” by Nancy Wilson. She is determined to “get what [she wants]” because she is convinced that she “[knows] how,” no matter what everyone else says about it. She really does keep her “eye on the target” when it comes to her matchmaking; she is rarely half-hearted about it, and rather puts every effort she can think of into pushing two people together. In that manner, she is quite manipulative of those around her, including Harriet. She cannot remain idle when she thinks she has a ‘right’ to correct the ills of her friends’ situations: she refuses to “just sit and putter”.

Fiddler on the Roof: on the screen (1971)

Even so, everyone knows that Emma has had success as the matchmaker of Highbury; Frank Churchill (a young man famous around town) even asks her to find him a wife. Even though he turns out to be joking, Emma doesn’t know that. She thinks everyone wants her help and that she is obligated to give it. Thus, she reminds me of the song “Matchmaker” from the Broadway show Fiddler on the Roof. She really does think that “people can’t decide these things themselves”, which is why she intervenes when Harriet receives a proposal from the farmer Mr. Martin in the beginning of the novel. She takes it on her own authority to “make [Harriet] the perfect match” rather than allow the girl to choose for herself. Really, it is quite manipulative for a ‘friend’ to do to another.

Taylor Swift's 1989 (2014)

Emma even tries to set herself, and later Harriet, too, up with Frank; unknown to her, of course (since she doesn’t notice much that’s not her own delusions), he is secretly engaged to a woman named Jane the entire time. If their engagement is discovered by the public, Frank may be liable to lose his entire inheritance and Jane would remain in poverty for the rest of her life—the stakes are high. The entire town, specifically Frank’s aunt who would revoke his fortune if she found out, “are the hunters” like in Taylor Swift’s “I Know Places.” Frank spends a lot of time in the book cleverly finding time to be with Jane alone (which is really difficult in a time where a man alone with a woman was the height of scandal) in “places [they] won’t be found.” Even if Mr. Knightley notices their hiding “out [...] in plain sight” among the rest of the town, their engagement still remains mostly unknown until the end of the novel.

Trilogy: Past, Present, Future by Frank Sinatra (1980)

Emma herself is shocked to find out, but, by this point, she has realized many of her own faults with the help of Mr. Knightley, who has himself been harboring love for her the entire time. She is shocked to learn of his own partiality for her and of how “with all [her] faults, [he] loves[s] [her] still.” The song, “It Had to Be You” by Frank Sinatra indeed encapsulates their relationship well. Despite many rumors of Mr. Knightley’s interest in other women, Emma is the only one he really cares for. She has fixed many of her mistakes from the beginning, but he still acknowledges she “might [...] be cross, or try to be boss” just because that’s who she is—but that’s why he loves her, after all. She loves him, too, even if it takes her a few hundred pages to recognize it in herself.

Emma & Mr. Knightley (Emma 1996)

As is per usual for Austen’s novels, this one ends happily, and thus is a perfect read for anyone who doesn’t mind a slow pace and complex set of characters. There’s a lot of scheming involved, so these 474-ish pages are not for the faint of heart. But, the element of mystery and entangling love affairs makes the novel stand out among the Austen canon.

Runner-ups: “Dirty Little Secret” by The All-American Rejects, “Dress” by Taylor Swift.


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