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May 30, 2020

IMG_3984 (1)The Kenyon library sponsored several online book groups in April and May, and I participated in the one discussing Jane Austen’s novel Emma. Ron and I had recently watched the new film version, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, and I was interested in re-reading the novel to see if my thoughts about what the movie changes are accurate.

From readings of Emma earlier in my life, I don’t remember being quite so irritated with Emma’s father as I was this time around, being closer to his age. The book group talked several times about the narrator’s claim that everyone liked Mr. Woodhouse, that he was “universally civil,” while on the other hand he displays “habits of gentle selfishness and of being never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself.” A reader might suspect that Emma chafes a bit more than she is aware from what she says to her friend about a possible suitor: “the older a person grows, Harriet, the more important it is that their manners should not be bad—the more glaring and disgusting any loudness or coarseness or awkwardness becomes.” But Emma is unfailingly dutiful and loving to her difficult father, whose money and position make it possible for her run her own household rather than have to become someone’s wife. Even when she considers a suitor, she considers that “in spite of her previous and fixed determination never to quit her father, never to marry, a strong attachment certainly must produce more of a struggle than she could foresee in her own feelings.”

Emma is also unfailingly conscious of class distinctions and her responsibility to provide a good example to those who might blur them, even going so far as to tell Harriet that she could not visit her if she marries a local farmer, to which Harriet replies “no, to be sure you could not; but I never thought of that before.” In the book group meeting we talked about how strange these class distinctions are to a twenty-first century American, but we also came up with a few examples of rules that a previous generation was taught were important and how strange they seem to us now, only sixty or seventy years later (Emma was published in 1815).

Emma habitually analyzes her actions so that when she makes a mistake she will never do it again, showing us how little wiggle room she has between remaining an example of a proper young woman and becoming an warning to others. When she analyzes her attempt at matchmaking for Harriet and Mr. Elton she thinks “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.” It does seem that everything that ought to be simple is quite tricky, for Emma and any other woman of marriageable age trying to make her way in this society.

How tricky it is becomes apparent on the picnic at Box Hill, when Mr. Churchill proposes that Miss Woodhouse “desires to know what you are all thinking of” and Emma, “laughing as carelessly as she could,” declares that would be “the very last thing I would stand the brunt of just now.” In the newest film version, Emma’s insult to Miss Bates is a shocking moment, whereas in some of the previous versions the others in the party, like Miss Bates herself and possibly the reader, “did not immediately catch her meaning.”

The trickiness of Emma’s position is also apparent when she forces herself to listen to Harriet’s hopes for Mr. Knightley’s affections; she finds the “resolution to sit and endure farther with calmness, with even apparent kindness.” Her self-discipline is especially impressive because it immediately follows her sudden realization that “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” Even at the moment when Mr. Knightley has finally declared himself to her, Emma must still keep herself under strict control: “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does. She said enough to show there need not be despair—and to invite him to say more himself.”

Eventually, the strict rules of her society require that Emma must give up her attachment to Harriet. The narrator explains that “their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill” because it is discovered that she is not secretly the daughter of a nobleman. But the narrator does get in a dig at the strictness of the rules by commenting on the discovery that Harriet is the illegitimate child of a tradesman, saying “such was the blood of gentility which Emma had formerly been so ready to vouch for! It was likely to be as untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman.”

These kinds of gentle reproofs are all through the novel, for the early nineteenth-century reader to notice and enjoy. Modern readers and movie-goers will have a hard time not noticing how uncomfortable are the strictures and inconsistencies of Emma’s society, as we watch her struggle to satisfy each requirement.

The main changes in the 2020 film version do correspond with what I remembered of the book. The age gap between Mr. Knightley and Emma, so proper in 1815, is narrowed in de Wilde’s film. Casting Bill Nighy as the father helps to soften anything objectionable in his character into lovable eccentricity. And Anya Taylor-Joy plays Emma as a woman working within a difficult form, like a Hollywood actress who keeps her body smaller than it can be in order to make her career as big as she wants it to be.


17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2020 6:59 am

    Emma was one of my A-level texts and it was taught by a really dreadful teacher. As a consequence it took me almost a year to read it which became a standing joke in the family

  2. May 30, 2020 7:00 am

    Sorry, pressed the button too soon! What I was going to say was that consequently I have never gone back to the book, although I have seen the various film and television versions. It’s the one Austen that I simply can’t warm to.

    • June 1, 2020 12:20 pm

      Terrible teachers can really take a toll, as my family can also personally attest (for us it was a terrible math teacher who crushed my kids’ interest in math despite our efforts at regular supplementing with better materials recommended by my friend who teaches college-level math and intervention with the teacher).
      Emma is a good novel to re-read, though, especially for women, who may have very different reactions to her character as young women than they do as old women!

  3. May 30, 2020 8:51 am

    It’s interesting to revisit the classics, I should really re-read Emma. I think when I read it in my late teens I thought she had a lot of agency, because she was rich and meddlesome, but as you point out, she has so many restrictions as a woman at that time in society.

    • June 1, 2020 12:22 pm

      As an older woman, I reacted to how she had to work to preserve her agency.

  4. lemming permalink
    May 30, 2020 9:57 am

    I read Emma while trapped in a 700 square foot apartment with two other adults, a toddler, and a baby, during a blizzard. It made me laugh, but I didn’t care for the book. I should probably try again, but not in current conditions, either…

    • June 1, 2020 12:24 pm

      Maybe wait a few years and see if what struck you as funny when you were in more of the situation of Emma’s older sister strikes you the same way as an empty nester.

  5. May 30, 2020 12:30 pm

    I regret to say that in my limited experience that class divide is as strong as ever in the UK, and Austen’s gentle criticism is sadly as relevant as it was two centuries ago. And, to be briefly political, the UK’s government (or I should say, misgovernment) is biased in favour of those with connections to aristocracy and money, as it often is, not towards the general electorate.

    Back to Emma, however. I must say I did enjoy this novel in a way that I wouldn’t have if I wasn’t of mature years, but I did find Emma’s dad irritating and her concern for him, despite his whinging selfishness, her most redeeming feature all through most of the novel. Anyway, I enjoyed it enough to not only review it but also discuss it in follow-up posts, which you might find vaguely interesting:

    • June 1, 2020 12:52 pm

      That surprises me, that the class divide is as strong as ever. I wonder if Americans just don’t understand what is meant by “class” in the U.K. because, as recent events indicate, we definitely have divisions in our society.

      • June 1, 2020 2:31 pm

        I get the impression that in the US the class divide largely comes with money, whether acquired in the recent past or by virtue of being born into money.

        In the UK there is that to some extent but these types also ally themselves to those who trace their ancestry back a thousand years, have large estates and went to schools like Eton and Harrow

        Of the present rightwing UK government, two thirds were privately educated, and 45% went to either Oxford or Cambridge University. The PM’s chief adviser is married to the daughter of a baronet, who owns a medieval castle. It’s dubious whether the cabinet count as a meritocracy, they behave more like an oligarchy who feel they’re entitled. But I mustn’t start on politics…

        • June 1, 2020 3:11 pm

          I think on either side of the pond, it’s complicated. I had a conversation with another American less than a year ago who thought privileged Americans (like the ones who belong to the DAR, Daughters of American Revolution) shouldn’t talk about being able to trace their ancestry because less privileged ones, like people whose ancestors were enslaved, are not. I said that some of my family’s ancestry is through the state of Georgia and that’s likely to have meant through the penal colony. Money is definitely a factor, but we also have the nouveau riche.

          • June 1, 2020 3:32 pm

            I think a common factor in both systems is the sense of entitlement. We all have a sense of entitlement, of course, largely based on basic human rights or a nation’s enshrinement of particular values; but, to misquote George Orwell, some groups feel more entitled than others, that ‘entitlement’ coming from money (inherited or otherwise) or a flaunted and much vaunted pedigree, all cemented by political influence. That, I think, is the main class divide that knows no national boundaries.

  6. May 30, 2020 7:52 pm

    I need to reread Emma! The last time I reread my way through Jane Austen, Emma was neck and neck with P&P for my favorite Austen book. But that was years ago, and I wonder how I’d feel about things now.

    • June 1, 2020 12:54 pm

      I’d be interested to hear. My favorite has always been Northanger Abbey, because I love the jokes about the gothic, with Pride and Prejudice second.

  7. June 3, 2020 8:25 am

    I listened to an audio version of Emma after seeing the new movie, as I’ve read it multiple times, and I was most struck this time by how insufferable the Eltons are, Mrs. Elton in particular. I wonder if that’s a dig at the nouveau riche? Of course in the beginning Emma is also annoying, but I suppose she’s meant to be that way. Still a great novel, though my favorite Austens are a tie between Persuasion and P&P.

    • June 3, 2020 8:54 am

      Yes, definitely the nouveau riche because they (as represented by Augusta) think that money makes them better than others, like when she keeps talking about the particular carriage her relative drives (the baroche landeau) and also because they are over-familiar, calling each other by pet names (Mr. E) and calling their “betters” by first names without being invited (Jane) or by last names without a title (Knightley).
      Augusta’s behavior makes me think of the hauteur my mother would draw herself up with when someone who didn’t know her would read her name off a card and address her by first name only. She would icily inform that person that her name was “Mrs. ___.”

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