Book 339: Emma – Jane Austen

Austen, Jane - EmmaFor book two of our Jane Austen Book Club, my friends and I decided to conquer Emma (Amazon Affiliate link). It has always been my least favorite of the six and reading Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education both confirmed that and helped me get around this problem. His talking about Emma and it’s belief in the importance of every day trivialities, as well as Margaret Drabble’s excellent introduction led me to think about the book differently.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still boring as anything in most points, but Austen wrote it this way. According tot Drabble, Austen wrote this novel in such excruciating detail in direct response to the detractors of her previously published novel Mansfield Park, which I love. Drabble says, “This is domestic realism almost with a vengeance.” (xix) AND it is! The hyper focus on every detail, the incredibly limited scope of setting, characters and even conversation topics is overwhelmingly mundane. It is an assault on the senses, and as a fellow JABC member said “i’m diagnosing myself with ’emma-induced narcolepsy.'” (Thanks Dalton!)

I did struggle to read this and I will always struggle to read this, but I understand why I struggle to read it now and that makes it even better. From how spoiled Emma is with throw away comments like

“The very want of such equality might prevent his perception of it; but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior.” (133)

(Emma really is by far the most spoiled and obnoxious character Austen wrote and that’s saying something when you add in people like Mr. Lucas or the Miss. Steeles.); to how downright controversial Austen is,

“‘There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—offices for the sale not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect…I did not mean—I was not thinking of the slave-trade,’ replied Jane; ‘governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different, certainly, as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.” (264)

comparing governess employment to the slave trade, the novel is still a fascinating work. Drabble goes so far as to connect Jane Fairfax’s potential alternate future to “something belonging more to the Brontës:

“It is notable that throughout the novel Jane Fairfax is seen in long shot, almost as though she were a character from another story. She could, one feels, become a figure in the Brontës’ world of thirty years on, which was peopled by governesses in deep, and on some levels successful, rebellion against society, by women who were unable and unwilling to accept their fate stoically.”

I can’t wait to check out Jane Fairfax, the only Austen fan-fiction mentioned by name in my versions of the novels; and James Fairfax, the only LGBT Austen adaptation that I’m aware of to-date, which I plan to read later this month.

Emma is one of the greatest examples of Austen’s art and ability to manipulate her readers in that we are so bored and destitute that when Volume III begins with the minimalist of changes, we grasp on to it as if it were our last breath! Seriously, I read the final Volume in less than a fifth of the time it took me to read the first two and that has nothing to do with its shortness and everything to do with the excitement all the incremental changes brought to Highbury

The novel does end, as all her novels do, with happily ever after, but in this instance I was very glad it did. I remembered about a third of the way through which couples ended up together and I can’t wait to see what everyone else in the group has to say about it.

I also appreciated Austen’s dig at Churchill, even though the real reason behind it we don’t find out until later.

“Emma listened and looked, and soon perceived that Frank Churchill’s state might be best defined by the expressive phrase of being out of humour. Some people were always cross when they were hot. Such might be his constitution; and as she knew that eating and drinking were often the cure of such incidental complaints, she recommended his taking some refreshment; he would find abundance of everything in the dining-room; and she humanely pointed out the door.” (315)

I think from now on when I get grumpy because I’m hot or hungry, or just being a grumpy ass I will refer to myself as “being out of humour,” it just has a much more glamorous and worldly feel to it than just admitting I’m being an asshole.

Recommendation: Definitely read it. If you find yourself falling asleep reading it, break it into three sections, like any of the classic tomes, it will help in the fatigue and ultimately you’ll be glad to have read it.

Opening Line: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Closing Line: “But in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.” (Whited out.)

Additional Quotes from Emma
“A single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be a sensible and pleasant as anybody else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first, for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small and generally very inferior society, may well be a illiberal and cross.” (93)

“Could she but have given Harriet her feelings about it all! She had talked her into love; but, alas! she was not so easily to be talked out of it. The charm of an object to occupy the many vacancies of Harriet’s mind was not to be talked away. He might be superseded by another; he certainly would, indeed! nothing could be clearer; even a Robert Martin would have been sufficient; but nothing else, she feared, would cure her. Harriet was one of those who, having once begun, would be always in love.” (171)

“I know no man more likely than Mr. Knightley to do the sort of thing—to do anything—really good-natured, useful, considerate, or benevolent. He is not a gallant man, but he is a very humane one; and this, considering Jane Fairfax’s ill health, would appear a case of humanity to him; and for an act of unostentatious kindness there is nobody whom I would fix on more than on Mr. Knightley. I know he had horses to-day for we arrived together; and I laughed at him about it, but he said not a word that could betray.” (203)

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28 thoughts on “Book 339: Emma – Jane Austen

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  2. I haven’t read Emma since high school and I remember really liking it at the time. In the years since I’ve read many similar reactions to yours and wonder if I’d feel differently if I read it again…Having read all of her novels now I wouldn’t say it was my favorite but probably not my least favorite either.

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  3. Oh, I really enjoyed Emma because of its minutiae detail. I love seeing how people really lived back then, as you got to see a whole different side. So often it is just rich people swanning around and you get a picture of the past looking clean and romantic.

    I also really liked Emma but really couldn’t stand her father who seemed the most selfish sort of person ever – who put his feeling above everyone, wanted to be nursed by Emma all the time despite being in better health. UUURRGH.

    Emma was naive and sheltered – thanks to her butthead of a father. I liked how she grew as a person, silly as she could she really meant well and I didn’t really find her that arrogant.

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    • I definitely think I’m enjoying it more now that I know she wrote it to focus on the details and it wasn’t just me hating all the details. And I agree 100% about Mr. Woodhouse, but it’s funny for some reason I imagine him only a little bit older (10-15 years) than Mr. Knightley and still hyper focuses on health (like Austen’s mind turned in her later years).

      You’re right about the naivete and shelteredness, but I felt this one did an excellent job of showing how arrogant the upper class can come across (i.e. Mr. Darcy) and Emma is just another example of this.

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  4. Haha, I think I liked this book a lot better than you did. I found the main character in Northanger Abbey more annoying and the main character in Mansfield Park much more boring. I actually liked Emma’s well intentioned silliness pretty well 🙂

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    • Who knows‽ The funny thing is that I appreciated it so much more this re-read than the first. I’m not surprised you didn’t like Fanny Price, learning Emma was a direct “in your face critics and readers” response to her made so much sense to me.

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  5. As always, a thorough and thoughtful review. I read your review while I was still in the middle of reading, and after that, I snickered each time someone was described as being “out of humor”

    Liked by 1 person

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