Emma by Jane Austen

Guild Publishing, 1980, 442 p, plus i p Contents, i p Note on the Text, ii p Chronology of Jane Austen. First published 1816.

There are supposed to be only seven types of plot employed in works of fiction. This novel falls into the last category, rebirth, or less pithily, the getting of wisdom, which, taking into account Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, is something of an Austen theme.

Emma Woodhouse starts off the book cock-sure of herself and of her capacities and continues to be so for a long time. She has to her satisfaction just made the match of her governess Miss Taylor to the long-widowed Mr Weston, whereon she presumes to guide her low-born friend Harriet Smith (the “natural daughter of someone,”) in her marriage choices, pointing her away from Mr Martin’s proposal to the prospet of Mr Elton, whose admiration of her painting of Harriet Emma misconstrues. Only old family friend Mr Knightley, who has known Emma since she was born, ever casts doubt on her judgement and actions.

While only a microcosm of the Regency world (the book was dedicated to the Prince Regent) Emma’s cast is fairly wide; though – an incident with gypsies apart – resolutely avoids contemplating the lower orders and Emma’s consciousness of the gradations of social status is never far from the narrative.

The text bears the marks of its time when leisured reading was the norm. Unfortunately that means there are some tedious conversations about nothing very much and a few overlong monologues. I suppose these could be argued to be revealing of character but they certainly slow the pace.

Emma herself is a frustrating main viewpoint character and not really very likable. She right royally messes up Harriet’s affections, is insufferably rude to Miss Bates at a picnic and is blind to Frank Churchill’s subterfuge. (To be fair, though, just about everyone else in the book is also misled in his case.)

There were only two instances of what one might call Austenisms. The first, “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of,” certainly remains true of the latter circumstance. The second is not original to her, “Goldsmith tells us that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame.” Austen adds about Mrs Churchill’s death, “Mrs Churchill after being disliked at least twenty-five years, was now spoken of with compassionate allowances.”

The familiarity of Austen’s novels via the innumerable instances of film and TV adaptations blurs and distances the text itself. The act of abridgement involved in adaptation narrows the scope for longueurs. Actors’ expressiveness can impart extra meaning. This may be why the book of Austen’s I liked best remains Northanger Abbey which she wrote as a spoof of the Gothic style of writing – a form now much less prevalent in the present day literary consciousness – and a book adapted to a much lesser extent.

Pedant’s corner:- the usual Austen spellings – stopt (though we also get ‘stopped’, wrapt (but there is a ‘wrapped’ later) dropt, chuse, extasies, doated, doating, doat, every body, any body, every where, foretel, your’s, her’s, our’s, hazle, recal, cellery, beet-root, Surry, fidgetiness, sopha, beaufet (buffet,) waving (waiving,) dulness, unexpensively, palateable, headach, scissars, Swisserland, secresy, plaister, ridicule (reticule.) Otherwise; quitted (quit,) “the Miss Martins” (the Misses Martin,) a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 4,) “could sometimes act an ungracious” (as ungracious,) drank (drunk,) “‘I could have born anything’” (borne,) “the Bates’s” (it was a plural; Bateses,) “the Miss Coxes” (the Misses Cox,) “had entirely born down the first” (borne down.) “It’s tendency” (Its,) “she waves her right of knowing” (waives,) Madame de Genlis’ (de Genlis’s.)

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