Though Austen described Emma Woodhouse as "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like" (James Edward Austen-Leigh's Memoir of Jane Austen, p. 158), both Emma the character and Emma the novel have delighted many readers throughout the years. This site and its frequenters are testament to that fact.
Opinions of Emma, From the Period
Novelist Sir Walter Scott, at Emma publisher John Murray's suggestion, provided a major, early, and positive critical opinion of the novel in his October, 1815 Quarterly Review piece. In correspondence, Murray asked Scott if he felt Emma lacked "incident and romance," to which Scott responded in his piece with qualified agreement. Certainly, Emma is not an eighteenth century "romance," as it lacks the kind of story and excitement that is dependent on fantastic heroics and uncommon occurences. However, according to Scott, Jane Austen manages the difficult task of creating natural, recognizable personalities and circumstances that are at once familiar to an average audience and yet so well-crafted as to maintain the reader's excitement and interest:
"We...bestow no mean compliment upon the author of Emma, when we say that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners and sentiments, greatly above our own. In this class she stands almost alone..."
Novelist Maria Edgeworth - a favorite novelist of Austen's and one with whom Scott compared her favorably - was perhaps less impressed by Emma, essentially declaring it plotless:
"There is no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet's lover was an admirer of her own—& he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow—and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma's father's opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel."
I don't know how Jane Austen took Edgeworth's comments, but she seemed satisfied with Scott's (anonymous) review. She wrote of it to John Murray in April, 1816:
"I return to you the Quarterly Review with many Thanks. The Authoress of Emma has no reason I think to complain of her treatment in it - except in the total omission of Mansfield Par. - I cannot but be sorry that so clever a Man as the Reviewer of Emma, should consider it as unworthy of being noticed."
Further, Austen frequently clarified that she was happy to continue creating "pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages," leaving the high adventure to others. Responding to suggestions from the Prince Regent's personal librarian, James Stanier Clarke, she stated, "I could no more write a Romance than an Epic Poem. - I could not sit seriously down to write a serious Romance under any other motive than to save my Life..."
Austen's own family, friends, and acquaintances were at times less than enthusiastic in their descriptions of Emma, but their reviews were generally - and in some cases very - favorable. Even some of the least favorable reviews reflect the basis of Scott's praise above; one reader claimed that Emma was "too natural to be interesting." So, in essence, Austen was too good at fashioning her slices of life. ;)
Below is Jane Austen's own aggregation of various opinions of Emma and its characters. Personally, I can't see how anyone could prefer Mansfield Park to Emma, but here it is...
Opinions of Emma
Captn. Austen.- liked it extremely, observing that though there might be more Wit in P & P - & an higher Morality in MP - yet altogether, on account of it's peculiar air of Nature throughout, he preferred it to either.
Mrs F. A.  - liked & admired it very much indeed, but must still prefer P & P.
Mrs J. Bridges - preferred it to all the others.
Miss Sharp - better than M P. - but not so well as P. & P. - pleased with the Heroine for her Originality, delighted with MrK - & called MrsElton beyond praise. - dissatisfied with Jane Fairfax. [Anne Sharp was a close friend of Jane Austen's and a possible inspiration for the "governess" characters in Emma, Anne Taylor and Jane Fairfax; she was a recipient of one of twelve presentation copies of the novel]
Cassandra - better than P. & P. - but not so well as M. P. -
Fanny K.  - not so well as either P. & P. or M P. - could not bear Emma herself. - Mr Knightley delightful. - Should like J. F. - if she knew more of her. -
Mr & Mrs J. A.  - did not like it so well as either of the 3 others. Language different from the others; not so easily read. -
Edward  - preferred it to M P. - only. - Mr K. liked by every body.
Miss Bigg - not equal to either P & P. or M P. - objected to the sameness of the subject (Match-making) all through. - Too much of Mr Elton & H. Smith. Language superior to the others. -
My Mother - thought it more entertaining than M P. - but not so interesting as P. & P. - No characters in it equal to Ly Catherine & Mr Collins. -
Miss Lloyd  - thought it as clever as either of the others, but did not receive so much pleasure from it as from P. & P - & M P. -
Mrs & Miss Craven - liked it very much, but not so much as the others. -
Fanny Cage - liked it very much indeed & classed it between P & P. - & M P. -
Mr Sherer - did not think it equal to either M P - (which he liked the best of all) or P & P. - displeased with my pictures of Clergymen. -
Miss Bigg - on reading it a second time, liked Miss Bates much better than at first, & expressed herself as liking all the people of Highbury in general, except Harriet Smith - but cd not help still thinking her too silly in her Loves.
The family at Upton Gray - all very much amused with it. - Miss Bates a great favourite with Mrs Beaufoy.
Mr & Mrs Leigh Perrot - saw many beauties in it, but cd not think it equal to P. & P. - Darcy & Elizth had spoilt them for anything else. - Mr K. however, an excellent Character; Emma better luck than a Matchmaker often has. - Pitied Jane Fairfax - thought Frank Churchill better treated than he deserved. -
Countess Craven - admired it very much, but did not think it equal to P & P. - which she ranked as the very first of it's [sic] sort. -
Mrs Guiton - thought it too natural to be interesting.
Mrs Digweed - did not like it so well as the others, in fact if she had not known the Author, could hardly have got through it. -
Miss Terry - admired it very much, particularly Mrs Elton.
Henry Sanford - very much pleased with it - delighted with Miss Bates, but thought Mrs Elton the best-drawn Character in the Book. - Mansfield Park however, still his favourite.
Mr Haden - quite delighted with it. Admired the Character of Emma. -
Miss Isabella Herries - did not like it - objected to my exposing the sex in the character of the Heroine - convinced that I had meant Mrs & Miss Bates for some acquaintance of theirs - People whom I never heard of before. -
Miss Harriet Moore - admired it very much, but M. P. still her favourite of all. -
Countess Morley - delighted with it. -
Mr Cockerelle - liked it so little, that Fanny wd not send me his opinion. -
Mrs Dickson - did not much like it - thought it very inferior to P. & P. - Liked it the less, from there being a Mr. and Mrs Dixon in it. -
Mrs Brandreth - thought the 3d vol: superior to anythin [sic] I had ever written - quite beautiful! -
Mr B. Lefroy - thought that if there had been more Incident, it would be equal to any of the others. - The Characters quite as well drawn & supported as in any, & from being more everyday ones, the more entertaining. - Did not like the Heroine so well as any of the others. Miss Bates excellent, but rather too much of her. Mr & Mrs Elton admirable & John Knightley a sensible Man. -
Mrs B. Lefroy - rank'd Emma as a composition with S & S. - not so Brilliant as P. & P - nor so equal as M P. - Preferred Emma herself to all the heroines. - The Characters like all the others admirably well drawn & supported - perhaps rather less strongly marked than some, but only the more natural for that reason. - MrKnightley MrsElton & Miss Bates her favourites. - Thought one or two of the conversations too long. -
Mrs Lefroy - preferred it to M P - but like M P. the least of all.
Mr Fowle - read only the first & last Chapters, because he had heard it was not interesting. -
Mrs Lutley Sclater - liked it very much, better than M P - & thought I had "brought it all about very cleverly in the last volume." -
Mrs C. Cage wrote thus to Fanny - "A great many thanks for the loan of Emma, which I am delighted with. I like it better than any. Every character is thouroughly kept up. I must enjoy reading again with Charles. Miss Bates is incomprable, but I was nearly killed with those precious treasures! They are Unique, & really with more fun than I can express. I am at Highbury all day, & I can't help feeling I have just got into a new set of acquaintance. No one writes such good sense. & so very comfortable."
Mrs Wroughton - did not like it so well as P. & P. - Thought the Authoress wrong, in such times as these, to draw such Clergymen as Mr Collins and Mr Elton.
Sir J. Langham - thought it much inferior to the others. -
Mr Jeffery (of the Edinburgh Review) was kept up by it three nights.
Miss Murden - certainly inferior to all the others. -
Capt. C. Austen  wrote - "Emma arrived in time to a moment. I am delighted with her, more so I think than even with my favourite Pride and Prejudice, & have read it three times in the Passage."
Mrs D. Dundas - thought it very clever, but did not like it so well as the others.