The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Emma by Jane Austen

The edition that I read of this classic was a lovely Hamish Hamilton Novel Library edition that was published in 1952. It was in a box of second hand books that a friend gave to me some time ago, and has a fresh green cover not unlike the one to your left.
As I have mentioned previously about my Jane Austen holiday coming up in August, this is one of the books set for the trip. It is my fourth Jane Austen (I have previously read Mansfield Park, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey), and also completes my personal directional reading challenge for this year to 'read another Jane Austen'.
For those of you who are not familiar with the novel and have not seen any of the film or TV adaptations, this tells the story of the well-to-do families residing in the fictional town of Highbury in Surrey in the earlier part of the 19th century during the period of one year. The main character of the title, Emma Woodhouse, is 'handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition...and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.' So says the first sentence in the whole book. The trouble is, Emma has a high opinion of herself and fancies herself as a bit of a matchmaker for those around her.
For herself she claims she will never marry, but as we are introduced to the other members of this genteel society, Emma, with kindness in her heart, tries to predict matches and cajole them into reality. In doing so, she gets herself and others into pickle of dashed hopes and unpredictable preferences.
We accompany Emma on her journey from bright and intelligent young girl, oblivious to her own vanities, to a more mature and balanced young woman who retains all of her warmth and generocity but in a much more balanced and attractive way.
We are also introduced in detail to the other friends and residents of Highbury, not only by character, but their all important social standing within this close knit society. The many characters and their interactions are the bulk of this story. We rarely step outside the comforts of this. It is their subtleties of manner and interaction that drive this novel, centering around Emma.
Austen's style is known well enough for her books to be a surprise these days. Many love her enclosed worlds of the higher classes of early 19th century England, the measured behaviour, the concentration upon marrying the right man and bettering your position. You can read between the lines about gender roles and the essentials of health and securing your future, but rarely does anything more topical or gritty infiltrate her stories, and this is her strength for some, and her weakness for others.
Personally I welcome the little holiday from the harsh realities of life that her stories provide. I know that there are wars, poverty, prostitution and child cruelties all just beyond the covers of the novel, and widely covered by other great novelists, many of whom I also love reading. But sometimes Jane Austen provides an enjoyable alternative. Her books are not without talent or importance, and the concerns of her characters are very real.
I really enjoyed reading Emma. I found her suitably naive and slightly annoying at first and therefore enjoyed her development. I grew fond of many of the other characters too, the dependable Mr Knightley, the warmth of the Westons, the intrigue of Jane Fairfax, the ridiculous Eltons, the comedy and sadness of Miss Bates. As the preface of my edition says, 'Jane Austen's laughter is of the quiet and private kind, mocking but sympathetic, sometimes genteel, often sly, seldom unkind and never cruel. And of all her books Emma has the most of this gentle gaiety'.
I have certainly found it the lightest of Austen's novels that I have read.
Jane Austen herself said, 'I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.' I think many, including myself, have and will enjoy reading about her, as well as indulging their need to enter Emma's world for a while. I am looking forward to discussing this book with my friends on holiday to Hampshire in August.
A reading group guide to Emma can be found by clicking the link.
To read an essay written by the Australian Jane Austen society entitled Emma -Understanding Jane Austen's World click the link.


Cinthia said...

FYI, Jane Austen was not a Victorian, not even earlier as you mention. The Victorian era began in 1837, when Victoria became queen and the writer had been dead for more than a year (July 1817) when Victoria was born in 1819. Jane Austen was a Georgian and her novels were published under a Georgian subperiod called the Regency.

You might want to check this link which gives a better understanding of Jane Austen's period:


Leah said...

Thanks for that Cinthia

Anonymous said...

pleasure to find such a good artical! please keep update!!

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