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.