I last read Emma about a year and a half ago. Going back to read posts I wrote at the time, I recall being surprised by how much I liked the book. I'm also noticing that any posts I wrote while reading Jane Austen have a certain Austen-esque sound to them. I said in 2008 that Emma was in contest for my favourite Jane Austen, with Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey, and Persuasion. I now begin to wonder if I can't safely call Emma my absolute favourite. I hesitate only because I need to reread P&P and Persuasion, now that I am a more mature Jane Austen reader.
I am a bit in awe of Miss Austen's writing of Emma. Emma herself is one of the most incredibly realistic humans I have ever encountered in a novel. She is biased, she is intelligent, but aware of it so much that she believes herself to be infallible in her understanding. She is very fallible. In other books and movies, characters' misunderstandings are always frustrating to me, because it always seems so easy for these misunderstandings to be resolved. My reaction is always, "Stop being so stupid, you could fix all your problems if you weren't being so stupid." This is never my reaction to Emma's mistakes. She misunderstands not for stupid, far-fetched reasons, where some tiny confusion gets blown out of proportion and stretched out into too much plot, but because she has intelligence and imagination and a good-willed vision of how her friends' lives ought to be, and she believes in her ability to correctly assess their desires and prospects. Emma is changeable and capable of mistakes, but she is also capable of fully correcting her mistakes.
This novel differs from other Jane Austen novels in that we see so much of Emma's internal thoughts. Mental soliloquies are frequent. The story is told essentially from Emma's perspective, and this is probably what makes it feel so realistic. She doesn't see the whole story, but the whole story is always there, and subtle clues about the real relationships between the characters slip through. Once you know the story, it is a joy to find these clues. They are numerous and clever.
Emma is an extremely romantic book. There are more happy marriages by the end than in any of the other books, and fewer unfortunate circumstances to dilute the good. All the most interesting romantic revelations happen sooner than in the other Austen books, so we get more pages of cheerful romantic understanding and conversation. This certainly adds to the believability of any "happily ever after" statement, as we see how these couples will interact in their marriages. The main romance of Emma is probably among the most believable, but without foreknowledge of the plot, probably also one of the most surprising. Most of the other books set up the heroine's romantic prospect early on, but Emma's romance is much more gradual, less marked by big milestones. I used to go and read all the major romantic events in Pride and Prejudice once in a while, but it's harder to do that in Emma, which I suspect makes for a more rounded and cohesive book.
I certainly have more of a particular attachment to Emma than most of the other books, having spent much more time in scholarly geekery over it. I think perhaps it is an example of Jane Austen at her most clever, especially as regards characters. It is probably the book that first gave me a fuller understanding of Miss Austen's wonderful writing abilities, independent of the romantic appeal of these books. So ultimately, it's hard not to jump in and say Emma is my favourite.