‘Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief.’
I first read Emma in my early 20s (I’m now in my early 40s) about the time that the Gwenyth Paltrow adaptation came out. That period in the late 1990s saw quite a few classic adaptations, in particular the novels of Austen, Dickens, and the Bronte sisters. I’ve always been a sucker for a re-jacketed classic, so during these years, I read a lot of classics. I’d read the ones that had been adapted into movies or TV series and then if I’d enjoyed that author, I’d read the rest of their books. I read all of Austen’s novels and enjoyed each of them, some more than others, but all of them enough to consider myself an Austen fan. Over the years since, I haven’t actually re-read any of them, but I’ve watched the various adaptations many times, considering them comfort watches.
Recently, we decided to have a Jane Austen buddy read over in my Facebook group, but we were split on which one to read. It came down to Emma or Pride and Prejudice. So instead of choosing one, readers were given the option to read one or the other. I went with Emma this time as I seemed to remember enjoying this book the most for its humour value. Only by a sliver though, as Pride and Prejudice offers so much in terms of satire as well. But anyway, Emma it was.
The biggest thing I’ve realised coming out of this buddy read is that I actually prefer the adaptations now to the actual novel. You can toss me out of the Austenhood for this if you like but reading Emma again was quite tedious! It’s so drawn out and things just take so long! Every thought, every action, every conversation: blah, blah for pages and pages. It’s all very entertaining, yes, and Austen did indeed have an eye for demonstrating so much through these character interactions, but I feel like my reading has evolved into a place where I no longer have any patience for it. And I can’t help but ask the question: did no one ever edit her manuscripts prior to publication? Everyone worships Austen as literary royalty, and I’m happy enough to nod at her genius, yet I can’t deny that she used the maximum words she could in every single sentence. Concise and Austen are not synonymous.
After finishing the first volume of Emma, I tuned in to watch the most recent movie adaptation. That was a pure delight! Here it was, everything I loved about Emma on display, the conversations, the social interactions, the wit and sarcasm; this was a wonderful adaptation that captured the spirit of Emma so intricately. Of course, it ruined the rest of the novel for me. In comparison, the novel seemed to drag even more, particularly as I could recognise entire conversations that took two minutes in the film but were taking thirty pages in the novel. I’ve come to the conclusion that I love the story and characters of Emma, but I prefer to enjoy them on the screen. I know, it’s a literary betrayal, but there you have it. I have no doubt that I’d likely feel the same about each of her novels if I put in the time to do a comparison – which I have no intention of doing.
When this latest adaptation of Emma was initially promoted, I saw plenty of people on social media asking if another one was necessary. In light of my experiences here, I’d now firmly say yes, I think new adaptations can constantly be released, again and again from generation to generation, offering a fresh look at the original classic text. In fact, I think they are vital, in order to keep these stories alive. Reading Emma again was a mixture of entertaining and tiresome, yet watching the latest adaptation was utterly delightful. All of the best was there with a great deal of the waffle gone; almost like an edited version of the novel!
I’ve read a few novels this year about Austen herself and this did enhance my reading of Emma. In particular, this quote gave me pause:
‘Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! 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 as 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 illiberal and cross.’
Given what we know of Austen herself, in that, she never married and lived out her life ‘by the pen’, even though this required a lot of charity from her brothers and other family members, this passage from Emma on remaining single struck me. Now, she wrote this early on in her career, given that Emma was her second novel. My impressions of this is that Jane was possibly testing the waters, throwing an idea out there about a woman choosing to remain single. She had the power to leave Emma single but instead married her off, conforming to society’s expectations of a woman’s role and means to a happy ending. Much in the way Louisa May Alcott did with Jo in Little Women. But this speech from Emma hints that Jane at least thought about it, but perhaps felt in the end that society was not yet ready for that sort of happy ending. Would it have been so very terrible for Emma and Knightley to have remained as friends and neighbours only? Maybe Jane thought that nobody would buy any more of her novels if she did that. Or maybe she truly believed that the true path the happiness always ended in matrimony. I’d prefer to believe the former.
One of my favourite series of scenes within Emma is the one where the entire party visit Box Hill and Emma openly mocks Miss Bates, leading to a serious dressing down from Knightley later on. It’s such a terrific part of the novel for several reasons. Emma is forced into a self awareness that sees her shocked at her own behaviour, along with the reckoning of Knightley’s consternation and the place of this within her own sense of self as his favourite. This entire scene, from the arrival at Box Hill through to departure, has always played out so well, not just on the page but in every adaptation thereafter.
‘While waiting for the carriage, she found Mr. Knightley by her side. He looked around, as if to see that no one were near, and then said, “Emma, I must once more speak to you as I have been used to do: a privilege rather endured than allowed, perhaps, but I must still use it. I cannot see you acting wrong, without a remonstrance. How could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates? How could you be so insolent in your wit to a woman of her character, age, and situation?—Emma, I had not thought it possible.” Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off.
“Nay, how could I help saying what I did?—Nobody could have helped it. It was not so very bad. I dare say she did not understand me.” “I assure you she did. She felt your full meaning. She has talked of it since. I wish you could have heard how she talked of it—with what candour and generosity. I wish you could have heard her honouring your forbearance, in being able to pay her such attentions, as she was for ever receiving from yourself and your father, when her society must be so irksome.” “Oh!” cried Emma, “I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her.” “They are blended,” said he, “I acknowledge; and, were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done indeed!—You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some ,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.—This is not pleasant to you, Emma—and it is very far from pleasant to me; but I must, I will,—I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now.” While they talked, they were advancing towards the carriage; it was ready; and, before she could speak again, he had handed her in. He had misinterpreted the feelings which had kept her face averted, and her tongue motionless. They were combined only of anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern. She had not been able to speak; and, on entering the carriage, sunk back for a moment overcome—then reproaching herself for having taken no leave, making no acknowledgement, parting in apparent sullenness, she looked out with voice and hand eager to show a difference; but it was just too late.
Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life. She was most forcibly struck. The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!—How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of gratitude, of concurrence, of common kindness! Time did not compose her. As she reflected more, she seemed but to feel it more. She never had been so depressed. Happily it was not necessary to speak. There was only Harriet, who seemed not in spirits herself, fagged, and very willing to be silent; and Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.’
I’ll leave it here with the sharing of some other stand out quotes. In conclusion though, I’d rate Emma at four stars today rather than my five stars of twenty years ago. The film though? Well it gets the extra star!
“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen—I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding. Where Miss Taylor failed to stimulate, I may safely affirm that Harriet Smith will do nothing.—You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished.—You know you could not.”
‘Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old, she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured: Isabella slow and diffident. And ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all. In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her.’
‘I think her all you describe. I love to look at her; and I will add this praise, that I do not think her personally vain. Considering how very handsome she is, she appears to be little occupied with it; her vanity lies another way.’
‘That is the case with us all, papa. One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.’
‘The first error and the worst lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more.’
‘Till now that she was threatened with its loss, Emma had never known how much of her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection.—Satisfied that it was so, and feeling it her due, she had enjoyed it without reflection; and only in the dread of being supplanted, found how inexpressibly important it had been.’