Over-sexed: Romola Garai as Emma in the new BBC adaptation
Emma Woodhouse, "handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition", seemed to unite most of the blessings TV drama producers ever wanted. Nothing in her life could vex them. They could hire an actress who was more ravishing than "handsome", without doing undue violence to Miss Austen's intentions. They could instruct her to turn Emma's "happy disposition" into the feisty style that so commends itself to today's commissioning editors. And if the location manager decided that Emma's "comfortable home" should be a Georgian mansion of the type long coveted by Britons of all classes, no one but a cavilling critic could object.
What a catch that girl has been over the decades: as reliable as an inheritance in the funds. A flock of Emmas schemed their way through the mid-1990s. Clueless set the story in LA and had Alicia Silverstone play Emma as a Beverly Hills girl. Andrew Davies produced a conventional TV adaptation, which found itself up against a second Emma-the-movie in as many years, this time starring Gwyneth Paltrow. Bollywood is proposing to move Highbury to New Delhi and now the BBC has a new version.
Emma is Austen's most technically brilliant work. Never again would she display such mastery of her material. Yet modern producers invariably go wrong because they cannot come to terms with a type of conservative writer that no longer exists. Austen is rooted in the anti-Jacobin reaction of the 1790s against the Rousseau-ian assumption that the spontaneous and the natural are superior to the restrained and the learned — it is this dangerous assumption which her Tory contemporaries believed had led to the terror of the French Revolution. As her finest modern critic, Marilynn Butler, says, Austen is rare among the great novelists in her "desire to place the individual in a pre-ordained moral framework".
Emma is not just a beautiful woman who makes enchantingly silly mistakes. She is the best surviving protagonist of the Georgian morality tale. Emma, like so many inferior creations from the time, goes through the hard task of discovering the good in herself and others, before receiving a respectable place in a Christian society as a reward for her self-knowledge.
She is 20 at the start of the novel. Mr Knightley is 37 going on 57. He spends most of the book telling her off, but surpasses himself in the story's turning point, the mortifying scene on Box Hill when Emma cannot resist mocking poor Miss Bates for being too dull for superior company. "I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance," he tells her in the voice of a disappointed schoolteacher. "How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age and situation? Emma, I had not thought it possible." Emma realises she has failed to understand that her position in society requires her to show compassion to her shabby-genteel neighbour. After hearing him out, she decides that "she never had been so depressed".
Imagine pitching Austen's plot to a studio boss and then concluding with a shout of triumph, "And you'll never guess the twist. Emma, right, she's so taken with the old dude who keeps nagging her, she decides he's hot and marries him!"