Emma by Jane Austen

Published 1816

(Reviewed as part of the Classics Club Challenge)

Claire, who writes the excellent Word by Word, described one of her recent reviews as “… more like a journal than a review”.  I have never thought of myself as writing reviews. I write my responses to what I read – which seem to me much more like a journal than a review: a reading journal perhaps. I can’t take out the personal element because where I am in my own life and my own reading will impact on a response to a book and vice versa.

I mention this by way of preamble while I get around to saying that I did not enjoy Emma.  I began reading or re-reading Jane Austen a couple of years back.  Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility were enjoyed as much as they were the time first time around.  Northanger Abbey was a delight.  Now there is Emma.  So, what have I missed?

Jane herself had misgivings and concerns about how Emma might be received.  She wrote:

“My greatest anxiety at present is that this 4th work should not disgrace what was good in the others. But at this point I will do myself the justice to declare that whatever may be my wishes for its’ success, I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those Readers who have preferred Pride & Prejudice, it will appear inferior in Wit, & to those who have preferred Mansfield Park, very inferior in good Sense.”

(Extract from correspondence between Jane and James Stanier Clarke (representing the Prince Regent), taken from a fascinating post by Janeite Deb on Sarah Emsley.)

James Edward Austen Leigh, in his Memoir of his aunt, Jane Austen, published in 1870 some fifty years after her death wrote:

“She was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon her being a general favourite;  for when commencing that work, she said, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’”

And for me at least, Jane succeeded.  I did not like Emma.

I plodded through the book, the longest as it happens, of Jane’s novels.  It certainly felt like that.  The story seemed painfully slow.  I found myself irritated by how little went on in the daily lives of the characters.  And irritated by Emma herself.  For all her confidence, all her deliberations with regards to the lives of others, she was so utterly blind to her own character and inclinations and she made mistake after mistake.  Yes, I was painfully irritated by Emma the character and by Emma the book.  It can be no surprise that having finally got to the end of it, this novel languished at the bottom of my Austen leaderboard.

But I was intrigued as to why this should be.  I’ve read Mansfield Park since finishing Emma and enjoyed it immensely, as I have with Jane’s other books, so it’s not that I’d had a surfeit of her prose.  I usually do know the plot beforehand with many of the classics, so that wasn’t the issue either.  I tried reading using a variety of formats in case the medium was the problem, but to no avail.  I finished Emma feeling as I had felt all the way through – irritated and wanting to shake her.  And now I want to understand why – because clearly I am in the minority here.  Our reactions to books are personal of course, and it’s fine if I didn’t enjoy Emma, but for me, reading is a learning experience.  I hoped a little time given to appreciating what others can see in this book might be time well spent.  It was.

In 1814, as I discovered from  John Mullan, writing in the Guardian, Jane Austen sat down to write a revolutionary novel.  Emma, Mullan tells me, was to change the shape of what is possible in fiction.  He had my attention.

Thankfully, for my own self-esteem, I am not alone in failing to notice Jane’s achievement.  From the same article I learned that Charlotte Brontë, no less, found only ‘neat borders’ and elegant confinement in Jane’s fiction.  D H Lawrence called her ‘English in the bad, mean, snobbish sense of the word’.

Some of the great modernists were equally perplexed. ‘What is all this about Jane Austen?’  Joseph Conrad asked HG Wells, ‘What is there in her? What is it all about?’.  ‘I dislike Jane … Could never see anything in Pride and Prejudice,’ Vladimir Nabokov told the critic Edmund Wilson.

Henry James viewed her work as ‘instinctive and charming’.  He also said: ‘For signal examples of what composition, distribution, arrangement can do, of how they intensify the life of a work of art, we have to go elsewhere.’  In other words, Jane hardly knew what she was doing, so, implicitly, an innovative novelist like James had nothing to learn from her.  I must confess that until I began reading about Jane’s work more widely in order to understand Emma, that’s more or less what I thought too.

Jane’s novels deal with small, commonplace concerns between a few genteel families within a small village.  Marriage and match-making loom large.  She creates memorable comic characters and often memorable comic dialogue.  And that was about it.

Thankfully others saw and understood rather more than Henry James, Joseph Conrad and me.  Virginia Woolf was an admirer.  She wrote that if Austen had lived longer and written more, ‘She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust’.

By the time she came to write Emma, Jane was writing in unknown territory.  Her earlier books were a response to the prevailing literature that pre-dated her own.  When she set out to write Emma she was writing in a dialogue not with those earlier works, but with her own previous books.  Mansfield Park, published as Jane was working on Emma, had at its heart a quiet, diffident, compliant and generally powerless heroine in Fanny Price.  Emma as a heroine is Fanny’s antithesis: headstrong, assertive and dominant on every page of the book.

But it is the technique that Jane used in writing Emma which was revolutionary – a technique that was to be nameless until the twentieth century when it became known as the ‘free indirect style’.  As John Mullan explains, before Emma, writers chose between first-person narrative (letting us into the mind of a character, but limiting us to his or her understanding) and third-person narrative (allowing us a God-like view of all the characters, but making them pieces in an authorial game).  Austen wrote Emma in the third person, yet we are privy to Emma’s thoughts and reasonings:  Jane tells the story largely through these streams of consciousness as Emma dissects the actions of others, determines their fates as she sees them, and rationalizes her decisions and her judgements.

Jane effectively and seamlessly combined the internal and the external.  Research has found no consistent use of this approach before Jane.  Now it is commonplace.  Although she was pioneering something new, Jane used this technique with such assurance that it’s scarcely noticeable.  David Lodge (still in Mullan’s article) observed how odd James’s condescension is, given that he came to specialise in the very technique Austen had pioneered: “Telling the story through the consciousness of characters whose understanding of events is partial, mistaken, deceived, or self-deceived.”  Mullan explains that it has been easy for sophisticated readers to miss her sophistication.  At least I’ve been in good company!

John Mullan’s article in the Guardian has helped me to see what I would otherwise have missed in this book, and what I have been missing in my reading of Jane’s works in general.  He makes a much longer and wider case for Emma than I have included here.  (And has prompted me to order his own book on Austen: how much more have I missed?)

I’m not sure that Emma will ever become a favourite Austen for me, but can see myself reading it again – perhaps in a year or two – and when I do I shall proceed with my mind opened.  I think I’ll find it a very different experience second time around.  And I’m grateful to Emma and her infuriating conviction that she knows best.  Had she not got under my skin I may never have embarked on a journey of all that there is to discover in the remarkable life and works of Jane Austen.

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25 thoughts on “Emma by Jane Austen”

  1. I loved Emma because I feel like she is going to grow up to be Lady Catherine de Bourgh — and that that’s the point. Emma has all this intelligence and business sense, and nothing to do with it, so she gossips and bullies, and then she marries a guy much older than her. She’s PROBABLY going to be left one day a rich widow with nothing to do. I feel like the novel looks like a conventional love story and is actually saying GIVE THIS WOMAN SOMETHING TO DO. IF YOU DO NOT, SHE WILL REEK HAVOC. 🙂

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    1. I hear what you’re saying, Jillian. But I never much liked Lady de Bourgh either! That said, there’s so much more to be said about Jane’s works – not least her views on women and how she chose to express them (subversively I think). She remains a fascinating writer and one I need to learn more about.

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  2. Yes, Emma is the book I warm to least. But now I’ve read your post, I may give it another go. After Northanger Abbey though, because I’ve just read Val McDermid’s take on the plot – quite an interesting re-write for the 21st century, if you don’t know it. And you read Word by Word too? Small world!

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  3. It’s probably my least favourite too and I know what you mean about wanting to shake her. In a few years I might join you in your re-read of it though. I think the Val McDermid re-write is the best of those ones.

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  4. What a fascinating, thoughtful and insightful post – thank you so much! It is ages since I read Emma – I think I might have enjoyed it because I was much younger? I plan to work my way back through Austen’s work next year, so will be really interested to compare my response to Emma with yours. 🙂

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  5. [J] An avid Austen reader even from my early teens, I’ve come to know her characters well. I’m always interested in a new interpretation on film or TV. That said, I’ve never yet warmed to Emma the character. And the book is not my favourite. But I’d still read it again.

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    1. I enjoy the many film and tv adaptations of Jane’s books too, Jonathan. Strangely though, when I came to think about Emma I couldn’t specify a single adaptation. I’ve seen more than one but clearly none have registered fully. Looking at pictures though, Ramola Garai’s Emma looks as I would expect. I’ll try to watch that one soon!

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      1. BBC TV’s Persuasion, 1995, with Amanda Root as Anne. Ciaran Hinds as Cpt Wentworth. I rarely recall details like that, especially from 20+yrs ago, so you won’t be surprised to learn that it is my favourite. Amanda Root is Anne, and Anne is an alter ego of Jane herself. But that’s another subject!

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      1. Thanks also for sharing the insight about Jane Austen’s innovation in third-person narration. I didn’t know she was the first to do that.

        Thank you for your kind thoughts. Life has been good but very busy and has kept me from my literary studies until recently. It’s good to finally catch up with what you’ve been reading and writing.

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  6. How wonderful that we’re all so different! Your word ” irritated” resonated with me, partially because I have always searched for a word to describe my reaction to Austen generally- and this is it!- and partially it was used 16 times in a recent Book Group review, in an amazing monologue, reminiscent of Alan Bennett, to describe so many facets ( and no! it wasn’t Austen!) of the book under discussion! It is a word I shall keep locked away to use again.
    I envy your tenacity, Sandra, in seeking the reasons behind your views.
    pat xxxx

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    1. Oh Pat, you made me smile! I’m picturing you mentally counting how many times the word was used in that book group review 😀 (I need to take a look at said book!) I repeated it deliberately – though I did take a few repetitions out! 😉

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  7. I’m flattered that you think I did the mental arithmetic, Sandra! Much as I should love to take the credit, it was dear Barbara who took stock, in spite of being in tears of laughter at Gitta’s kind but wickedly funny critique! xxx

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    1. Ah yes now I see! Barbara at her best! The tidbits I’ve had of this meeting are tantalising – I have an email brewing, in which I shall beg for more information. Meanwhile, Rough Music is coming along nicely 🙂

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  8. The interesting thing about Emma is that she is quite a flawed character. Many books have a central heroine, perfect like Little Red Riding Hood, to whom bad things happen, and her goodness prevails. Emma is a bit of a pain in the backside. I didn’t think marrying Mr Knightly was such a great idea though! It’s rather like marrying someone your dad likes from the pub.

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      1. They didn’t seem suited at all. More like another dad. Maybe Jane just couldn’t figure out what to do with Emma? The solution for Emma, IMO, was for her to learn from her experiences and become a much more rounded but still vigorous personality in her middle age. I suppose marriage was the only way Jane’s readers expected a novel to end, so she had to do something.

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  9. Apologies for the delay Kaiti 🙂 I agree that Mr K seemed rather staid and very much a father figure. He was lacking in personality for me – unlike Mr Darcy or even Edmund in Mansfield Park. Austen novels always seem to end so abruptly – and inevitably in marriage. Though I can never shake the thought that Jane presents these ‘tidy endings’ with a twinkle in her eye and a surreptitious wink!

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