In our Art for Trying Times series, authors nominate a work they turn to for solace or perspective during this pandemic.
That we are all spending more time at home these days goes without saying; for those of us in Melbourne, our four walls feel restraining when most ways of leaving them are proscribed. So let me persuade you of a marvellously legitimate alternative to breaking the law, sorting your messy passwords, or rearranging your higgledy-piggledy books into some kind of order. It’s called vicarious escape.
Oddly enough, if my bookshelves had been in proper order I might have missed out on this experience. During the first lockdown I was looking for inspiration among the over-familiar titles when I discovered a book I had bought but not read, and then forgotten I owned. In triumph I carried it as far as the couch, stretched out (the sun was streaming through the windows), and turned to page one.
This was not a cop-out, you understand, for the book was Literary Criticism. It would be instructive, even demanding; it could almost count as work. It was a book born of impressive knowledge but written in a lively, deceptively simple style; it offered new and clever perceptions about a writer of whom you might think everything had long been said. It plunged me back into the beloved novels of Jane Austen, and I read it with delight.
By the time I had reluctantly reached the last page, the next lockdown was imminent, and I rejoiced that one effect of my excellent discovery was to know exactly what I must do next. I would reread one, two, or all of Jane Austen’s major works, beginning with Sense and Sensibility, the first of the six to enthral an unsuspecting 19th century English audience.
Published anonymously in 1811, its first run had sold out. What I did not anticipate was the light this book could throw on life under COVID-19.
The novel concerns two sisters, Elinor and Marianne. The contrasting natures of the two girls provides Austen’s title, but there is also a younger daughter, Margaret, and an older stepbrother by the mother’s first marriage whose new wife forces the mother and daughters out of the large family house into a cottage in a small village in another county.
It is this move that puts the sisters in a situation that has parallels with ours. The tiny village of Barton could offer no social life. A little like people obliged to work from home, the girls found themselves with no external stimuli, other than Nature, with which to fuel their inner thoughts and mutual exchanges.
Thrown back on their own resources then, the two older sisters work on their existing accomplishments. Elinor sketches and paints, Marianne practises her piano-playing; they walk daily, sew and read. Their every activity seems to the modern reader almost weirdly extended: a short stroll will occupy two hours; Marianne, at least in intention, will read for six.
Now that lack of time is no longer an excuse, we might even think of emulating them, but there is one great difference (at least for me). Each sister has in the other, on tap, a daily companion who provides companionship and stimulation. There is no mention of boredom or restlessness; depression results only from romantic mishaps. How? Their neighbour Sir John turns up, some social life takes off, and Marianne falls in love. Well, this is a novel.
I briefly put aside the Dashwood sisters to consider darker examples of literary isolates. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man leapt to mind. He lives utterly alone in a basement; his first words announce that he is “a sick man… a spiteful man … an unattractive man” whose liver is diseased. As a solitary he qualifies, but he’s hardly an example to follow.
Back to Jane. But could even she help someone without a sister? Someone whose props, given the age we live in, are texts and emails, both of which seem determined to shorten our exchanges. “U?” is all we need say to seek an opinion by SMS.
The phone seems currently the only resource by which we Melburnians could copy the sisters’ ability to introduce, develop, and thoroughly draw out a conversation. But even that we can’t count on. Usually our life-saving story isn’t nearly finished before the friend we’ve rung rudely interrupts with what she wants to say.
No. The only escape must be vicarious, and preferably delivered by the divine Jane, with her potential Mr Rights completely taken in by her unscrupulous Miss Wrongs; where Incomes (salaries are for the middle classes, wages for the servants) can suddenly become desperately insufficient or dangerously excessive; where heart-stopping vicissitudes abound. All related in elegant prose that flashes with pointy wit and lashes with quiet disdain.
The lockdown does permit you to lose yourself in a beguiling other world – if you have a Jane Austen on hand.
The latest film adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic “Emma” is a visual feast of color, pattern and texture.
It’s also a bit too perfect.
The colors are too vibrant, the skin too clear, the homes too opulent, the landscapes too gorgeous, the fabrics without any stain or wear. Every frame of director Autumn de Wilde’s version feels like a still-life painting or Instagram-ready photograph.
Perfection features explicitly in both de Wilde’s film, which has been given an early digital release as theaters close due to coronavirus concerns, and Austen’s novel. In making Emma too perfect, the film becomes Emma’s fantasy of her own life rather than Austen’s more balanced portrayal of her heroine’s many faults.
And, in truth, readers often find Emma’s general snobbery and cruel treatment of her friend Harriet difficult to forgive.
Emma’s social superiority in de Wilde’s film is conveyed visually. Hardly a scene passes where Emma does not claim center stage. She is generally framed by perfectly symmetrical glittering candelabras or colorfully fringed symmetrical curtains, if not actually by the two halves of her name as in the opening titles.
Her perfect mastery of the family estate Hartfield expresses itself everywhere. Servants enter and leave in pairs, puppet-like, moving in choreographed synchrony. Emma’s invisible hand extends with tyrannical accuracy over the domestic scenes, and there is little relief from the perfection that she craves. Even her matchmaking stems from her own contrivances: “There is such symmetry between us,” she remarks about herself and potential suitor Frank, suggesting that her decisions are guided by aesthetics rather than feeling.
The perfection built up to surround Emma in the film is external. It evokes the worshipful, cowed sense that her friend Harriet feels on her first visit to Hartfield. The viewer of Emma remains an outsider, like Harriet, a spectator of the sumptuous visual displays.
An imperfect insult
In the novel, Emma’s failings are plentiful.
In one scene in both film and book, Emma insults her old and impoverished friend Miss Bates at a picnic. In the awkward moment after the insult, a fellow guest offers a riddle: What two letters spell perfection? The answer, as any Austen reader knows, is M.A. – pronounced “Emm-a” – an ill-timed compliment to the heroine, who has just demonstrated how imperfect she can be. The script stays remarkably true to the novel in this scene, but the response by Emma’s suitor, George Knightley is different. In the novel, he remarks that “perfection should not have come so soon.” In the film he says, “Who can improve upon perfection?” The distinction is subtle, but important: The film’s Mr. Knightley seems more disposed than Austen’s to attribute perfection to Emma.
Likewise de Wilde’s film minimizes Emma’s reckless toying with her friend’s heart. Emma still browbeats Harriet into rejecting the suitor she loves. Yet in the film, their friendship is stronger and persists in a way not possible in the novel. By the end, de Wilde’s Emma cares enough about Harriet to reject Mr. Knightley’s proposal. The novel’s Emma could not indulge in such “generosity run mad,” and the friendship subsequently subsides.
Morals or macaroons
The film constantly distracts us from moral lessons or deeper human connections, focusing instead on macaroons, hair ornaments, waistcoats and other tokens of superficial beauty. De Wilde’s Emma sacrifices complex personality and playfulness of spirit to the subtle tyranny of synchrony, symmetry and surface order, which Emma uses to her advantage.
Even when given the chance to explore Emma’s failings, the film version hesitates. The novel provides a potent rival for Emma in Jane Fairfax. In the book, when the two face off in dueling piano performances, Jane’s playing and singing are “infinitely superior” to Emma’s. Yet the film translates this superiority into harsh, virtuoso piano skills that startle the audience out of their pleasant somnolescence. Jane’s skill at Mozart’s Sonata in F shocks and amuses but isn’t pleasing enough in the film to mortify us on Emma’s account. De Wilde allows Emma to reign supreme.
Given the way Emma has been developed to embody soft tyranny and perfection, it is all the more striking when at the climax — the moment of Mr. Knightley’s proposal — de Wilde disrupts Emma’s visual and external perfection. When Mr. Knightley asks Emma to marry him, we all hold our breath. In the book, Austen doesn’t allow us to hear Emma’s acceptance. “What did she say?” taunts the narrator, “Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” At the moment when we readers most crave sincerity and direct expression from Emma, when we want her to just be a rational creature speaking the truth from her heart, she remains “a lady” and seems to conform to social conventions in superficially perfect expressions.
De Wilde uses a striking visual choice to humanize this moment. We’re all curious – waiting to hear Emma say “just what she ought.” Instead, we’re greeted by an exceedingly ill-timed nosebleed.
Nosebleeds and nudity
The brilliance of the proposal scene nosebleed is that it highlights the relationship between Emma as “lady” and Emma as “woman.” In this key moment, Emma’s humanity bleeds through her perfectly coiffed, ironed and embroidered facade. The brilliant red trail of blood stands out in remarkable contrast to the virginal, delicate white fabrics and blossoms surrounding her and Mr. Knightley. Their intimacy does not advance through words but instead through physical contact. A closeup of a gloved hand gives way in a subsequent scene to a thinly laced glove and skin on skin at the marriage altar.
De Wilde’s other bold move is to include nudity in the film. Mr. Knightley is introduced in the buff, and we also see Emma’s bare bottom warming at the hearth. De Wilde uses nudity and nosebleeds to create chinks in Emma’s armor.
Austen informs us that Emma “was not loth to be first.” De Wilde indulges Emma in her wish for preeminence. The film begins as Emma, head lying on a silk-trimmed pillow, just opens her eyes; the film ends as her lace-covered eyes close upon the audience. Emma’s vision literally brackets the film itself.
As the period in the title suggests, Emma is a sentence unto herself. She is alpha and omega to this film adaptation. None may question her absolute dominion. And yet, perhaps, perfection should not have come quite so soon or quite as completely. With such perfections, only broad visual strokes, such as nosebleeds and nudity, can bring her down to human proportions.
In revealing the charms and follies of genteel English society, Jane Austen has few competitors. Yet as Britain limps towards Brexit, I can’t help wondering why there are no foreigners in her major fiction. Many thousands of continental Europeans settled in Britain after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic wars. Couldn’t just one of the Bennet sisters have fallen in love with a charming Belgian or a wealthy German? Wouldn’t the well-travelled Frederick Wentworth of Persuasion have a dear friend from Spain or Italy?
Such questions may seem trivial, but they gain significance at a time when we expect a lot from Austen. In the past few decades, scholars have regularly turned to her novels for insights into the larger issues of her era (women’s education, slavery, war) and our own (climate change). Some even want to see her as a radical.
I’m not so convinced by this progressive – or even subversive – Austen. She was unquestionably sensitive to the epoch-defining events taking place around her. Two of her brothers were officers in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars; another was a banker who was ruined in the post-war financial crisis. Certainly, there are moments in the novels when these larger events make an appearance. How could they not?
But are such moments enough to make Austen’s works a source of great insight into the social issues of her era? In matters of love, friendship and the societal expectations of the landed gentry, Austen is always astute and entertaining. But consider all the elements of her society that Austen left out.
Are there, for instance, any Catholics in Austen’s novels? Any Jews? Mark Twain wrote that Austen’s novels made him feel like a “barkeeper” surrounded by “ultra-good Presbyterians” – but are there any actual Presbyterians in her novels? So far as I can tell, all of her principal characters are Anglican.
Are there any foreigners – a Frenchman, say, or a visiting Spaniard? Nope. Northanger Abbey mocks the English affection for gothic novels set on the continent, but no one from the continent appears in the novel. In a scene from Emma that Priti Patel might applaud, Frank Churchill rescues Harriet Smith from a group of “loud and insolent” Romany children.
How about representatives from other parts of the UK? In Austen’s novels, Scotland is mainly a place to which giddy young women elope. As for Wales, well, there’s a “Welch cow” in Emma. Ireland does a little better: in Pride and Prejudice, Mary Bennet annoys her sister by playing Irish songs on the piano; and in Emma, an honest to goodness Irishman, one Mr Dixon, plays a minor role – though, like so many other male characters in Austen’s novels, he isn’t important enough to earn a first name.
Home and away
Austen is deservedly recognised for bringing greater realism to the Anglophone novel and for presenting a new psychological depth in her characters. Yet this position should not be confused with the idea that Austen somehow tells us more about Regency England than any of her contemporaries – or that her works contain all the complexities of her era if only we look closely enough. They tell us very little about the way the English looked on their British and European neighbours.
I hear you ask, well come now, you don’t really expect a Regency-era author to include foreigners, revolutionaries and exiles in her novel, do you? Well, yes, actually I do. Many of Austen’s forgotten contemporaries – writers like Charlotte Smith, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth – did just that. Another more famous contemporary, Mary Shelley, created the era’s greatest study of an outsider ostracised by society, Frankenstein. If we imagine that Austen provides a complete picture of Regency life, these authors prove us wrong with their more international and political perspectives.
This is not to say that they are better writers than Austen. Reading Austen’s contemporaries illuminates what makes Austen a great (in many ways superior) writer. Austen is utterly in command of the order and organisation of her best narratives – every character, every encounter, every character foible is there for a well-planned purpose.
Similarly, Austen’s protagonists are true to themselves. It is rare indeed for a reader to feel that her characters act in ways that were not foreseeable from the start. Her narrators keep a respectable distance from the action of the story: they provide enough information to leave readers feeling secure, but they rarely call attention to themselves or comment at length on the unfolding action. In all of these aspects, Austen has no Regency-era peer.
Doing the continental
Nevertheless, some of these forgotten works illustrate the storytelling pathways that Austen never attempted. If I were to choose one work from Austen’s time that speaks most clearly to our own moment and showcases all that Jane left out, it would be Jane Porter’s novel from 1803, Thaddeus of Warsaw. Porter’s novel was a great success when it first appeared, and it remained in print for most of the 19th century.
Thaddeus – an early 19th-century forerunner to Walter Scott’s Waverley and William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – tells the story of Count Thaddeus Sobieski, who escapes to Britain after his homeland falls to Russian invaders. Penniless, he hides his identity and makes his way among the rich and poor of London, finding work where he can, and coming to the aid of those less fortunate than he. He is befriended by a group of women, who assist or punish him, according to their impulses.
Imagine a Jane Austen novel with a Polish protagonist. Imagine an Austen novel where British women welcome an immigrant into their lives. Imagine an Austen novel where a character goes looking for work.
The passages in Thaddeus that resonate the most today, however, are the commentaries by British characters who are troubled by the presence of Polish exiles, like Thaddeus, among them. One character announces, “it is our duty to befriend the unfortunate; but charity begins at home … and, you know, the people of Poland have no claims upon us”. Another declares, “Would any man be mad enough to take the meat from his children’s mouths, and throw it to a swarm of wolves just landed on the coast?” No question that these characters would have voted “Leave”.
Today there are almost one million people living in the UK who were born in Poland. No matter what happens with regard to Brexit, these people have already changed their adopted homeland. While writers like Agnieszka Dale and Wioletta Greg create a new body of Anglo-Polish literature, Thaddeus of Warsaw reminds readers of the long links between the two countries.
It also reminds us that a satisfying romance, whether it concerns Emma Woodhouse or Thaddeus Sobieski, needs to please its readers. It won’t be giving too much away to note that, at the conclusion of Thaddeus of Warsaw, the meeting of wealth and love allows for a happy ending. That was one lesson that Jane Austen taught us a long time ago.
When I was asked a few years ago if I would like to edit one of Jane Austen’s novels, I quickly answered that I would be happy to, and especially if I could edit her greatest novel.
“I’m sorry, Rob,” was the reply. “Someone is already editing Pride and Prejudice.”
“That’s ok,” I said, much relieved. “Pride and Prejudice is not Austen’s greatest novel. Jane Austen’s greatest novel is Persuasion.”
It is – among many other things – the most moving love story she ever told. Anne Elliot is the second daughter of the absurdly vain baronet Sir Walter Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Frederick Wentworth is an officer in the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars.
Eight years before the novel begins, Wentworth proposes to Anne and she accepts him after a brief and intense courtship, only to be persuaded by her father and her older friend Lady Russell to break off the engagement. Wentworth, angry and badly hurt, goes back to sea, where he conducts a successful series of raiding expeditions on enemy ships, and amasses a fortune in prize money.
When Napoleon abdicates for the first time in April 1814, Wentworth returns to England and soon pays a visit to his sister, who now lives near Anne. Throughout his absence, meanwhile, Anne has found no one who compares to him, and has pined away to the point where now, at 27 years old, her bloom is gone and she has begun the descent into spinsterhood.
Many critics have argued that, as a result of suffering and regret, Anne is already “mature” when the novel opens, while the rich and carefree Wentworth has a good deal of growing up to do before he recognizes – or, rather, re-recognizes – her worth.
On the contrary, for all that divides them when he returns, Anne has as much to learn about love as Wentworth does, and her journey toward their reconciliation contains as much confusion as his. Indeed, part of the enormous appeal of Persuasion is Austen’s ability to convey the ways in which Wentworth and Anne are moving steadily toward one another even as their various missteps, flirtations and assumptions seem to be driving them still further apart.
Their reunion is the finest scene in all of Austen, and in it they do not even speak face to face, for Austen understood that mediated and misdirected messages frequently carry a far greater charge than explicit declarations.
Anne and Wentworth are both in a room at the White Hart Inn in Bath. He is sitting at a desk writing a letter. She is nearby speaking to a mutual friend, Captain Harville, about men, women and constancy.
Harville believes that men feel more deeply than women. Anne takes the opposite view, and while she does not mention Wentworth or her own circumstances, everything she says is clearly with him in mind.
She has spoken to no one about her grief over Wentworth, and it is not long before eight years of pent-up anguish flood out of her. “We certainly do not forget you, so soon as you forget us,” she tells Harville. “It is, perhaps, our fate rather than our merit. We cannot help ourselves. We live at home, quiet, confined, and our feelings prey upon us.”
Wentworth, still writing his letter, overhears Anne’s comments and knows immediately that she is speaking about their relationship, and about all that has been lost.
Seizing another sheet of paper, he begins a second letter in which he records his feelings toward her as she utters hers toward him, and which he leaves behind on the desk for her to read.
Ralph Waldo Emerson objected to Austen’s novels because he found them “imprisoned in the wretched conventions of English society, without genius, wit, or knowledge of the world.”
But Austen knew that love is the very largest concern of life, then as now, and in Persuasion she makes Anne’s whole world hang on a single letter. It is a moment that demonstrates both the superb compression and the enduring appeal of her art.
If Wentworth loves Anne, she has a future that stretches as far as the seas. If he does not, she has only a past that will increasingly consume her. She reads the letter. He does love her. Her joy is inexpressible. So is ours.
What’s more, Austen has contrived to tell both Anne and the reader at the same time, and her passionate affirmation of personal preference and individual desire far transcends the “wretched conventions of English society.”
“You pierce my soul,” Wentworth’s letter reads. “I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago.” Anne is overwhelmed.
During the novel she has been transformed, from faded to blooming, from nobody to somebody, from “only Anne” within her family to Wentworth’s “only Anne.”
Persuasion is Austen’s last published work. She began it when she was nearly 40 years old, and when she finished it she was within a year of her death. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is one of her shortest – and it is certainly her saddest – novel.
But it is also her subtlest and most impassioned. “After a long immersion in [Austen’s] work,” British novelist Martin Amis writes, “I find that her thought rhythms entirely invade my own.”
For me, nowhere are Austen’s “thought rhythms” more haunting than in Anne’s conversation with Harville, and Wentworth’s response to her in his letter. More broadly, in its blend of the public and the personal, Persuasion explores both the torment of silence and the value of hope.
Two prominent writers died in July 1817. The first was arguably the most famous woman in Europe. The other was a country clergyman’s daughter whose life had revolved around her family and her home county.
Germaine de Staël travelled widely and her work had been translated into several languages. She was the only daughter of wealthy Swiss banker Jacques Necker, who became finance minister to Louis XVI, and was brought up in the stimulating environment of Parisian society. She published major treatises on the influence of passions on individuals and nations, on literature and its relationship to society, not to mention on Germany (1813). She wrote on Marie Antoinette’s trial, on peace, on translation, on suicide.
Her novels Delphine (1802) and Corinne or Italy (1807) were bestsellers throughout Europe. She was also a commentator on, and historian of, the French Revolution in texts which only appeared after her death. Most periodicals felt that anything she penned, fact or fiction, political or philosophical, was worthy of a mention – whether to praise or to condemn it.
Unlike Staël’s father, George Austen encouraged his daughter Jane’s literary pursuits: he bought her notebooks for her early stories, gave her a mahogany writing desk and attempted (unsuccessfully) to get her work into print in 1797. Jane Austen’s first published book, Sense and Sensibility, “a new novel by a lady”, which came out in 1811, bore no author’s name on its title page. The same would go for the other novels published in her lifetime – all sold well and brought a welcome income but, to the outsider, nothing could connect them with the discreet woman who, through her richer brother’s generosity, lived with her mother and sister in a cottage on his estate.
Staël’s death in Paris was widely reported. The Monthly Magazine, before commenting at length on the funeral arrangements, opened a “Further Notice of Madame de Staël” with the following assertion:
To speak of the literary celebrity of Madame de Staël, of the elevated talent which distinguished her, of all the talent which placed her among the first writers of the age, would be to speak of all things known to all France and to all Europe … To speak of her generous opinions, her love for liberty, her confidence in the powers of intelligences and of morality, confidence which honours the soul which experiences it, would be, perhaps, in the midst of still agitated parties, to provoke ill-disposed impressions.
Staël had been reviled for her political ideas, caricatured by the gutter press for her unconventional looks and lifestyle, exiled by several regimes, and treated by Napoleon as a personal enemy, to the extent that it was said that the emperor recognised three powers in Europe: England, Russia and Madame de Staël.
When the unmarried “Miss Jane Austen” died in Winchester four days after Staël, the announcement her family (probably) wrote recalled she was the daughter of a clergyman and acknowledged that she was the author of Emma, Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. It added:
Her manners were most gentle, her affections ardent, her candour was not to be surpassed, and she lived and died as became a humble Christian.
Future biographical notes, including the one penned by her nephew – A Memoir of Jane Austen – developed this image. He wrote of his aunt:
Of events her life was singularly barren: few changes and no great crisis ever broke the smooth current of its course. Even her fame may be said to have been posthumous: it did not attain to any vigorous life till she had ceased to exist. Her talents did not introduce her to the notice of other writers, or connect her with the literary world, or in any degree pierce through the obscurity of her domestic retirement.
To this day, in the only authenticated portrait of her – a sketch by her sister Cassandra – she looks the part in her simple cap and dress, so unlike Staël’s flamboyant turban and scarlet gown. More than “Miss Austen”, she is “Jane Austen”, someone to whom we feel we can relate. Her admirers, readers but also cinephiles who have enjoyed the adaptations, come from all the corners of the earth, are known as “Janeites”.
Many of Staël’s works have long been out of print or available only in pricey scholarly editions. She is recognised as one of the forerunners of 19th-century liberalism but does not have the common appeal and widespread recognition that time has brought to Austen.
The seeds for the “fickle fortunes” – to borrow the title of the current exhibition at Chawton House (the “Great House” lived in by her brother Edward Austen-Knight which is now home to a library of early women’s writing) – of the international literary superstardom of Austen and the waning of Staël’s fame are partly present in these obituaries.
Austen’s family cleverly crafted a reputation for demureness and devotion to both God and family as a way of deflecting from the sometimes ambiguous contemporary attitude towards women authors. Her life was presented as quintessentially English and uneventful and her character as modest and self-effacing – in many ways the opposite of Staël’s.
In a late addition to his biographical sketch about his sister, 15 years after the death of both women, Henry Austen claimed that when invited to a party Staël was due to attend, Austen “immediately declined”.
This probably imaginary anecdote illustrates an essential reason for Austen’s success: yes, she is a great writer, but so too is Staël. Austen’s existence threatened nobody. Staël’s championing of republican ideals, consideration of the role of emotion in politics and use of fiction to promote geopolitical and societal reflections meant her life could be discussed and her works forgotten. Considering them jointly can help us question what shapes our canon of great writers.
Pride and Prejudice (1813) is by far Jane Austen’s most popular novel but, for literary critics, Emma (1816) is more often ranked as her greatest achievement. Or – in an era in which phrases such as “great books,” like “great men,” are apt to make the most hardened aesthete blush – her most intelligent.
Yet, at the time of publication, Emma’s longevity was far from guaranteed – reviews were few and far between, sales figures were less than promising, and the novel’s young and artistically obscure author soon fell into a mysterious decline, dying of an unnamed illness eighteen months later.
So how did this, Austen’s fifth novel, make the epic 200-year journey from the dusty bin-ends of John Murray’s publishing house to endow its author with the mantle of extraordinary and apparently inexhaustible celebrity?
Emma tells the story of the novel’s eponymous heroine, a young and slightly conceited resident of the English village of Highbury of whom Austen famously wrote “no one but myself will much like”. Emma is desperately immature, frequently misguided, and meddles in the lives of the characters around her, often to terrible effect.
Though Emma is more affluent than most Austen heroines, being “handsome, clever and rich”, like all Austen novels the book explores the economic precariousness of women’s lives in the early 19th century – its plot turns on questions about whether the characters should marry for love, necessity, practicality, or indeed, money.
The 21st century has seen what might be called the Harlequin-isation of Austen – the reinvention of Austen as the queen of the rom-com – but Austen is in fact an uncompromising if cheerfully ironic moralist. It is Austen’s peculiar brand of acid-bath realism, and her eye for the minutiae of social and class hypocrisy, which constantly catches the attention of critics.
Emma is also the novel in which the inimitable Jane Austen persona appears at its most arch, and pyrotechnically accomplished. It is justifiably celebrated as the text in which a new kind of writing called “free, indirect discourse” is virtually invented, although this style of writing can also be glimpsed in the earlier works of authors such as Goethe.
In this kind of novelistic narration the voice of the author and her characters appear entwined – that is, the elements of authorial narration and internal monologue are mixed – giving rise to a new use of language that paved the way for modern writers to paint their compelling images of human consciousness.
Emma drew unmitigated praise from Sir Walter Scott, who, in 1816, saw it as the harbinger of a new kind of literary realism:
We, therefore, 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 …
“In this class,” Scott added, “she stands almost alone.”
But it was not until the publication of George Lewes’ 1852 essay The Lady Novelists that Austen was marked as an author not to be neglected. Lewes singled out Emma, alongside Mansfield Park (1814), as the pivotal work that consolidates Austen’s position as a “writer’s writer” – that is, a writer who, though not yet widely read, was nonetheless appreciated by those “cultivated minds” best placed to “fairly appreciate the exquisite art of Miss Austen”.
Lewes’ review also signalled the themes of gender and class that were to enthral Austen fans and critics for the next 200 years. He sketched in Austen’s signature “womanliness”, but without a “woman’s mission” (in more contemporary terms, without the ideologies of a blue-stocking feminist), her single class perspective as a “gentlewoman”, which he significantly qualified with the phrase “English gentlewoman” – betokening the critique of Englishness that has been a regular feature of Austen scholarship since Edward Said first analysed Mansfield Park as the exemplary novel of British “unconsciousness” about Empire.
Lewes’ essay is a signal contribution to what might be called an extraordinary history of reading Emma. He wrote just before the popularity of Austen took off, rising incrementally to the astonishing peak of what is sometimes called Austen-mania today.
He readily acknowledged that Maria Edgeworth was far more widely read. But he also pointed forwards – in an almost uncanny way – to a future moment in history when “Miss Austen, indeed, has taken her revenge with posterity”.
Emma was published late in 1815, though the date on the first edition appears as 1816. John Murray ordered 2,000 copies and sold them at 21 shillings for a three-volume set. Austen made about £221. Maria Edgeworth earned twice as much for a book published in the same period. In 1821, 539 copies of Emma were remaindered at 2 shillings each.
Although Emma was temporarily shelved in England, on the strength of Scott’s review Matthew Carey published it almost immediately in Philadelphia.
Unlike all the other Austen novels published by Carey in the ensuing decades, under the imprint of Carey and Lea, Emma was the only text to escape the watchful eye of the East Coast censors.
In American editions of Austen’s other novels, expressions of extreme distress, surprise, or thankfulness – “Oh God!”, “Good God”, “Thank God”, and even “by G––”, were vigorously expunged to protect religious sensibilities. Not even Tom Bertram’s “By Jove” – uttered in Mansfield Park – escaped excision.
In Emma, as Austen scholar David Gilson painstakingly established long before the invention of digital word-searching, God is invoked on at least eight occasions, the Heavens is invoked on four, and even Emma sinks so low as to exclaim, “Lord bless me!”.
But in deference to Emma’s status as a model of English decorum – perhaps – these exclamations miraculously escaped the gaze of the Philadelphia puritans, both on the book’s initial and subsequent printings.
Also in 1816, mere months after its initial release, a French translation – La Nouvelle Emma – appeared in Paris. The long introductory essay gives clues to the kinds of readers the publisher expected.
It comments, for example, on the virtues and attributes of the true English “gentleman”, and concludes with the advice that the novel contains suitable subject matter for women, asserting that,
mothers can give it to their daughters.
It was the 1833 reprinting of Emma as part of Richard Bentley’s Standard Novels series that first brought the book to the attention of a wider reading public. Bound in dark cloth, all the Bentley novels carried an engraved frontispiece featuring a scene from the book in question, with a matching vignette on the title page, and were sold at a price that made them affordable for a middle-class audience.
The frontispiece of Bentley’s edition of Emma depicts Mr Elton gazing rapturously at Harriet across the drawing room, but with his hand meaningfully placed upon Emma’s sketch of her. The caption underneath artfully draws attention to the ironic perspective generated by Austen’s characteristic use of free, indirect discourse:
There was no being displeased with such an encourager for his admiration made him discover a likeness before it was possible.
It is of course Emma – and perhaps her fortune – that is the real object of Mr Elton’s attention.
Bentley’s editions, engraved by William Greatbatch from drawings by George Pickering, inaugurated a 19th-century tradition of Austen illustration. The theatrical poses, the aesthetic correspondence to commercial fashion plates, blend together with what might even be called an emerging tradition of adapting and updating the story.
It is striking that the characters’ clothes are more reminiscent of the fashions of the 1830s than the Empire lines of Austen’s own day.
Once the copyright on Emma expired in 1857, there were more editions and, by 1880, Emma was continuously in print. There were famous editions by George Dent and Macmillan, and an edition by Simms and M’Intyre that changed the line “sign of sentiment” (chapter 32) into the more Victorian “sigh of sentiment”, according to Gilson.
Austen’s widening popularity eventually saw Emma included in the Railway Library series published by Routledge in 1870. This “yellowback” edition was the product of George Routledge’s venture into cheap series book publishing.
The Railway editions – intended for travel reading – commonly featured a wood-engraved illustration on the front cover and a back crammed with advertisements telling readers to purchase “Fry’s Pre Concentrated Cocoa” or “Use Pears’ Soap for the Skin and Complexion”.
By mid-century, Austen’s Emma was also making an appearance as far away as India. A quick glance at the British Library archives reveals an 1857 advertisement in The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce for copies of Jane Austen’s Emma, “Just Received Overland – Per Steamer ‘Bombay’”.
In 1886, The Times of India advertised Emma as part of the Bentley’s Favourite Novels series, “the only complete edition other than the [famous] Steventon edition”.
Macauley’s Education Minute set out the British plan to create a class of Anglicised Indians who would serve as cultural intermediaries between themselves and the subjugated Indians, primarily through the introduction of subjects such as English literature (at the time, only Classics were taught in the schools and universities of the English metropolis).
This suggests that there may be a need for a scholarly history of the colonial reception of Austen that has, to date, only been partially written.
Despite the reclamation of Austen’s work in feminist literary studies, there is no doubt that Austen was often packaged historically as “suitable reading” for young women, and as a corrective in female conduct.
In 1884, for example, The Times of India reproduced an article from The Guardian praising Austen’s heroines as models of dutiful daughterly conduct. Even Emma – “the most independent of them,” according to the author – should be praised for her utter absence of opinions, notions or ideas “beyond home duties and occupations”.
Chocolate Box Emma
From the late 19th century onwards, marketing Austen’s novels to young women undoubtedly shaped the idea and image of Austen. The novels were increasingly sold as gift sets, with lavish gilt-edged pages and chocolate box illustrations, and these sometimes expensive but also moderately priced editions leave the critic wondering if they were not so much for actual reading as for browsing or display.
In 1898, JM Dent issued a set with colour plates by Charles Brock and his brother Henry Brock, featuring a well-known set of illustrations that were reprinted on a number of occasions in the United States, often in cheaper editions, with shallower colour-plates.
The Brock illustrations, together with the editions illustrated by Hugh Thompson, provide most frequently reproduced visual interpretations of Emma in this period.
In 1948, a new illustrated edition arrived on the market. Philip Gough’s illustrations epitomised the popular Emma. Perhaps it was no coincidence that he was also commissioned to illustrate the Regency novels of the bestselling romance writer, Georgette Heyer.
From the Penguin edition to the post-colonial
In the 1960s, covers of Emma began to shift away from the vogue for illustration. The covers took on a thoughtful quality, reflecting, perhaps, the new seriousness accorded Austen’s work by influential scholars F.R. Leavis and Ian Watts, and, of course, the appearance of R.W. Chapman’s authoritative versions of the text earlier in the century.
The trend was set by the famous Penguin edition that has continuously adorned the schoolrooms of the United States and Australia, and which emphasised historical and social perspectives on the work through reproductions of contemporary paintings and portraits.
The 1966 Penguin Emma was represented by Marcia Fox, painted by Sir William Beechey, the artist appointed court portraitist by Queen Charlotte – the same portrait that more famously adorns the cover of both Pride and Prejudice, and Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2009), decades later.
David Gilson’s monumental 1982 Austen bibliography indicates that there was a further internationalisation of Austen in the 20th century. For the period of the 1960s, he lists an Arabic Immā (1963), two Chinese I ma (1958 and 1963), as well as a Serbo-Croatian (1954), a Turkish (1963), and a Tamil one (1966).
But perhaps the most striking feature of the massive 20th-century diffusion of Austen is the suspicion that it may have been fuelled as much by Hollywood as by Austen’s canonisation by F.R. Leavis and the Leavisites.
More recently, Emma has featured as a Marvel comic book (2011), adapted by Nancy Butler. It has appeared in updated form in a recently released novel by Alexander McCall Smith who joins novelists Val McDermid and Joanna Trollope as a writer in a HarperCollins venture called The Austen Project.
Unforgettably, in 2014 Emma was transformed into the ultimate in digital chic – a multi-platform web series by the production company Digital Pemberley titled Emma Approved and featuring another modern Emma gainfully employed as a Life Coach who is confronted with the need to, in new-age Life Coach speak:
make amends for the wrongs I have done [and] put the needs of those I care about before my own.
But perhaps the most intriguing of the recent updates are the post-colonial Emmas who collectively signal a cultural reinvention of Austen far beyond the Anglophone world. Hanabusa Yoko produced a Manga version of Emma, distributed by Tokyo-based Ohzora Publishing under their Romance Comics imprint. And in Aisha (2010), Indian director Rajshree Ojha relocates Highbury to Dehli to generate yet another contemporary Emma seemingly afflicted by the problem of “Austen-tacious” consumption, pursuing, among other things, an obsession with western fashion labels from Prada to Dior.
Aisha, wrote Dehli-based film critic Kaveree Bamzai in 2010, is “all about money”.
Not vulgar money […] But older money, which comes with a Delhi Gymkhana membership and yoga lessons with an accented coach.
Austen too, is all about money – or what literary critics have more delicately called the “money plot”. Her novels are essentially about young women, who, in socially constricted circumstances, need to find a way to get along.
Ultimately, perhaps, what the many Emmas of the last 200 years reveal is that Austen’s idea for a novel based on “three or four families in a country village” is shaping up to be immortal.
And the reader might conclude that wherever you stand on the politics of Austen – and the wildly disparate uses to which these Emmas have been put – she is, indeed, a writer of seldom paralleled wit and brilliance.