I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like: Reading Jane Austen's Emma
Not my nature to fall in love
The following contains affiliate links. I may be compensated if you purchase from them. All opinions are my own.
As a bookish tween in the mid-nineties, I had two very different exposures to Jane Austen’s Emma. In fact, you could argue I am in the weird generation where people my age were more family with this work than any of her other ones. Why? Because the summer I was 10, Clueless was released and was a cult hit. It was the first time I heard of Jane Austen and about matchmaking women and falling in love in spite of yourself. This trailer only touches on some of the stuff in the book. Also, saving yourself for Luke Perry total Midwest dreamboat, sigh…
Then came the Miramax version of the book with Gwyneth Paltrow. Young people, listen up, OK so Gwyneth Paltrow was like the kind of actress/person I wanted to be. She was in serious films. She dated Brad Pitt. She wore an insanely gorgeous Ralph Lauren baby pink spaghetti strap dress to the 1999 Oscars. I don’t what happened to her to make her a purveyor of pseudoscience on her blog and be a poster woman for obliviousness. In the mid nineties she was it. My Mom worked at a book store and got me the book of Emma with Gwyneth looking absolutely lovely sipping a teacup. It was a gorgeously designed book. I never finished it. But I did love the movie and it was very hard for me to read the book without imagining Gwyneth in a regency dress making quips. Here’s that trailer. It’s like a cavalcade of stars! Alan Cumming, side note he was a celebrity host for the AIDS Walk in Ohio and I got to have his body lotion “Cumming: All Over”! Toni Colette (AHHHHHHHH!)! Ewan MacGregor! Anyway here’s the trailer:
So I had visual representations of what the book was. Here’s the thing I’ve noticed with 19th-century literature since so many of them were written as serials they are like good tv shows. The writing tends to be fast paced and you get lost in the story. I mean you get your heart ripped out a lot. See me sobbing reading Vanity Fair. But Emma needed to be visualized for a different reason, there is not much plot. It’s all character and a ton of it is in the protagonist’s head. It is a really slow read. It’s hard to explain the plot to people because, to be honest looking at these two adaptations is there anything similar in them? Why did Clueless become a classic? Because of the characters. This book is a character study and has a ton of layers.
“Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable.”
The plot of Emma is that a 21-year-old woman who has everything she will ever need loses her best friend to marriage. She has not spent time with people her own age and is a total snob. Her whole world is a group of rich people that live in a small town outside of London. She befriends a woman with little connections and tries to set her up with people. The story is basically told by season and each season introduces new characters into her small world and she has to adapt to it. She vows she will never marry and has a brief flirtation with her friend’s stepson. She eventually learns she has been in love all along and everyone winds up happy. The book is over 400 pages long. One thing that did not age well is that her true love is 37 and knew her since she was a baby. He said he fell in love with her when she was about 13. Nope. But Emma, much like myself around that age, believes she will never fall in love or marry because it isn’t her nature. Ha! I was like that because I had been really burned when I fell for someone. I don’t know why Emma was like that. They allude to the fact she was basically her father’s caretaker. I read the Penguin edition because as I said, the notes are amazing.
Here were my favorite characters in no particular order:
Mr. Woodhouse, Emma’s father. He was a truly anxious person and always assumed the absolute worst. In the book, it’s considered comical with how much he hates change and how micromanagey he is. But the truth is he is treated with love and care and respect. Yes, he complains about the wedding cake being too rich a food. But when he worries about the weather and people catching a cold, he is truly scared. They acknowledge his fears and work around them. The coolest thing about Mr. Knightley is that when he and Emma get engaged he makes sure that they live at her house to not distress her father too much. He spends a lot of time with her father and they respect his wishes. He was really enjoyable to read about.
Mrs. Elton, Mr. Elton’s wife from Bristol. I read this really interesting article that described her as “magnificently ghastly.” She is totally gauche and totally not self-conscious at all. She’s absolutely fascinating. Everything she says is wrong but she says it with such authority she is mesmerizing. She uses terms of familiarity that apparently were considered really rude. At first, I thought Austen was being too harsh on her but then I realized it was like when people who don’t know you call you nicknames or “honey’ (shudder.) I love how Austen described everything related to her, which as someone who makes everything related to me I am totally guilty of. She grew up in a huge neighborhood called Maple Grove. Anytime anyone says anything like “he had to go up to Manchester”, she’ll add “that’s such a long way from here why that’s fifty miles from Maple Grove!” She makes every situation more awkward and it is a deep character study. She never really redeems herself but again she lives in her own miserable world so it’s her perception of the world. Austen likes to write about people growing and being aware of the world around them. The harshest judgments are for people who are self-centered.
“Why not seize the pleasure at once? -- How often is happiness destroyed by preparation, foolish preparation!”
Why is this incredibly slow book a classic then? Why is the plot so meandering that even describing it can be boring? So it features a bunch of unlikeable people living in a small town and no one gets their comeuppance? True. This is very true. However, the nature of the book is on several levels. So the edition I read the notes were by a woman named Fiona Stafford. She argues that there a million layers to the book, not the least in the names. The obvious one being Mr. Knightley as he represented a chivalric past and the ideal English gentleman (weird obsessions with underage girls notwithstanding). The other thing people have noticed is him in contrast to Mr. Churchill who is THE WORST. I mean Ewan MacGregor plays him in the movie but let’s be real, he is not charming or interesting. He’s hurtful. Stafford said since the book was written in the year of Waterloo it’s interesting to note how Knightley views Churchill as someone who is too French because he is flippant. Again, you would not know about the Napoleonic Wars reading the books. Even though in just about every other book I’ve read in this time people are obsessed with the “Corsican Monster” no one brings him up in Austen books. Someone write a dissertation about that!
Another thing that was noted was all of the wordplay in the book. There is lots for people to read into and lots of little in-jokes that Austen made in her text. She loved acrostics and charades. The scene where Emma and Harriet try to decipher Mr. Elton’s terrible poem and find out he is interested in “courtship” is particularly funny. When Emma agrees to marry Mr. Knightley she says “M takes N” as a joke on the phonetic spelling of their names. Maybe a precursor to the wedding hashtag? Also, the book is written almost 100 years ahead of its time because it’s modern in the sense of modern writers like Woolf and Joyce. So much of the book takes place in Emma’s head and there is a great scene where she is attempting to make sense of Mrs. Elton and it’s just ramblings that make no sense. So much of the book has a linear plot and is almost ethereal it seems like something written much later. It is considered Austen’s masterwork but I can certainly see how her contemporaries did not like the book much. To be honest, I wouldn’t really suggest it to most people unless they really liked characterization and wordplay. But it is a book that has stuck with me and it was a nice little escape. The thing with Austen is that it’s not just her words, it’s the images it conjures, and it’s the idea of a small safe world with small stakes. Again, these are interesting in so many levels and I feel like I’m learning a lot about day to day life in the time. If you just need a break with happy endings these are ideal. If snobbish people are on your last nerve then this is not the book for you. I think there is a little bit of a cult around Austen with people who want to go back to a “simpler” time but if you closely read the books there is a lot that resonates. There is a lot about latent sexual desire that transcends a lot of tradition. Oh, I found this really interesting graphic when I was looking up open access pictures and it’s a woman in the rain and someone scolding her. I also found an image of a woman in a regency dress from that time and you could see through her shirt (because it was raining-again ugh! Male gaze!) Apparently, women wore a lot less underwear and it makes sense right? But people were obsessed with how much you could imagine under the dresses. Fascinating right?
I’m reading Mansfield Park and I also found a bunch of pictures from an 1895 edition of this book at the British Public Library. Enjoy! Do you have any opinions about this book? Were you surprised to see how different the book was from the movies? Do you have a certain kind of woman you imagine like Emma? Have you read the book? Have you found your interpretations of Austen change over time?