Classic #1: EMMA, by Jane Austen

The first classic up to bat in my project for 2011 was Emma.

I haven’t read a ton of Jane Austen. I haven’t read the big ones. I’ve read Pride & Prejudice and Mansfield Park. I remember gushing about MP and saying that even though I hadn’t read Austen’s other works, this particular one was probably her best. I don’t know what gave me the idea that I could say that since I hadn’t read anything other than P&P. I guess it was just that much better than the one book. However, even though I now don’t remember in detail the plot of Mansfield Park or the individual nuances that made me gush about it after I read it a few years ago, I can safely say that Emma didn’t make me feel the same way. In short, Emma is a book I enjoyed but not a book I loved.

For those who haven’t read it (and/or haven’t seen the 1995 movie Clueless), Emma is the story of a spoiled debutante shamelessly intent upon matchmaking her acquaintances and friends, even to the point of humiliating disaster.

Luckily, Emma is not a flat character, so my progressive reactions to her throughout the novel were interesting to experience. First I was awed by her overtly pretentious nature; then amused by her ignorance of reality; then saddened by her stubborn refusal to be more inclusive of others (mentally and otherwise); then annoyed with her petulant attitudes, mentalities, and ceaseless attempts to make romantic matches despite the fact that she broke her “friend” Harriet’s heart more than once. Then I was embarrassed to notice similarities between Emma’s immature personality and my own. Finally, I was relieved and proud to see that she is redeemable and that she ultimately comes around to be a rather pleasing character in the end – which, of course, made it much easier for me to be happy for her when she and Mr. Knightley finally get their ducks in a row and decide they want to get married (an event I am proud to say I predicted on page 112 [of 387]).

Not all pieces of the plot are as predictable as Emma’s eventual marriage to Mr. Knightley, though. There are a few intrigues and twists that keep things interesting along the way (and which would certainly benefit from a second read), although I have to say that Austen has a knack for increasing the yawn factor right in the middle of her books. Though I don’t remember specific nuances and details, I do remember particularly feeling this way in both my reads of P&P and Mansfield Park.

This is a surefire indication that she was in need of a good editor. Of course, my friend Katie unearthed an article awhile back (wish I could find a link to the actual article, but I can’t) that discussed some early manuscripts of Jane Austen’s that had been found and which indicated – by their being riddled with errors and poorly fleshed-out ideas and being vastly different from her published works – that Austen did indeed have a good editor. So I suppose I merely conjecture that she needed a better one – one who wouldn’t have made bones about cutting text, perhaps. (What is it, by the way, with authors of “classics” needing to be so long winded? This is why I haven’t read your books, you dummies! And yes, I realize the hypocrisy of my criticisms in light of the fact that I write such long blog posts.)

The reason I kept reading until the end, then, was twofold: 1) Emma matures and changes throughout the novel; 2) I find pieces of myself in Emma that, while sometimes embarrassing, are also identifying and understandable. And I think these two reasons are as good as any to finish a novel. After all, isn’t connecting with an author via a tangible character one of the highest pleasures of reading in the first place?

One comment further in relation to character development: One thing (among many) that Jane Austen does well is develop her principal characters in a way that, as I wrote in the margin of my copy of Emma, “is logical and consistent. Their actions make sense in conjunction with who they have been presented to be.” Austen expertly balances her characters’ level of humanity (a reader’s ability to relate to them and identify with them) and predictability (their actions are not surprising based on what the reader knows to be true about them), while also leaving room for a believable amount of maturation and redemption. She also does a good job of showing the progression of said maturation so it feels natural to the reader (maybe this is why the boring middle parts of her novels are necessary; the character progression would perhaps feel too sudden otherwise).

Predicting the end of the book wasn’t difficult, so it’s lucky that my reason for reading any book has never been “to see how it ends.” Otherwise I would’ve been disappointed to be right. My disappointment with the ending did come, however, for the same reason that Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park disappointed me. We spend so much time falling in love with these men alongside the principal characters (Mr. Darcy and Edmund in P&P and MP and of course Mr. Knightley in Emma), and then we are finally rewarded with marriages, but then the books end.

I know this is “normal” and formulaic, but I guess I’m waiting for something to come along that doesn’t end at happily ever after. I like to know how things worked out once the sought-for conclusion does arrive, but I guess nobody writes about that because nobody truly believes in happily ever after, and perhaps marital spats and trouble with disciplining children and financial troubles and identity crises and crises of faith – maybe nobody wants to hear about any of these things because they are too real, and we read to “escape,” right? Not to be reminded that life is life and that sometimes it sucks.

However (and maybe I’m merely going through a phase right now), the realness of these struggles and truths is exactly why I do want to hear about them. It gives me more of a reason to identify with the characters and more of an opportunity to. I can’t identify with someone who has never experienced hardship or heartbreak or struggle because I myself am and have been broken.

In any case, I don’t regret having read Jane Austen’s Emma (not sure if I could say I regret having read any piece of literature, even those I didn’t like – being exposed to variety is the spice of life, after all). And I’d like to leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the book because, as any seasoned Austen reader knows, Jane has mastered sarcasm, almost to a fault:

“Highbury, the large and populous village, almost amounting to a town…”

Mr Knightley to Emma: “Better to be without sense, than misapply it as you do.”

Emma to herself: “Humph—Harriet’s ready wit! …A man must be very much in love, indeed, to describe her so.”

Emma, explaining why it’s better to forget about the poor rather than dwell on thoughts of their plight: “If we feel for the wretched, enough to do all we can for them, the rest is empty sympathy, only distressing to ourselves.”

“She believed he had been drinking too much of Mr. Weston’s good wine, and felt sure that he would want to be talking nonsense.”

Miss Bates about Mrs. Bates: “My mothers [sic] deafness is very trifling you see—just nothing at all. By only raising my voice, and saying anything two or three times over, she is sure to hear.”

“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.”

“It may be possible to do without dancing entirely. Instances have been known of young people passing many, many months successively without being at any ball of any description, and no material injury accrue either to body or mind.”

“…Curiosity could not be satisfied by a bride in a pew, and it must be left for visits in form which were then to be paid, to settle whether she were very pretty indeed, or only rather pretty, or not pretty at all.”

“…How peculiarly unlucky poor Mr. Elton was in being in the same room at once with the woman he had just married, the woman he had wanted to marry, and the woman whom he had been expected to marry.”

Jane Fairfax: “The post office is a wonderful establishment! The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!” [This quote only included because it reminds me of my good friend Reese, who feels this way both about the post office and about airline travel.]

“It was well that he took everybody’s joy for granted, or he might not have thought either Mr. Woodhouse or Mr. Knightley particularly delighted.”

“Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty upon Mrs. Elton’s beginning to talk to him.”

“Emma perceived that her taste was not the only taste on which Mr. Weston depended, and felt, that to be the favourite and intimate of a man who had so many intimates and confidantes, was not the very first distinction in the scale of vanity.”

“Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private.”

“Indeed, the truth was, that poor dear Jane could not bear to see anybody—anybody at all—Mrs. Elton, indeed, could not be denied—and Mrs. Cole had made such a point—and Mrs. Perry had said so much—but, except them, Jane would really see nobody.”

“…It was really too much to hope even of Harriet, that she could be in love with more than three men in one year.”

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10 Comments

Filed under books, classics, reviews

10 responses to “Classic #1: EMMA, by Jane Austen

  1. This sounds too complicated for me to delve into for escape. Though, the reference to ‘Clueless’ (a secret favorite of mine) brought it to life for me. Thanks for the analogy.

    Lemme’ know when you read something smutty. >;-) Or are you to educated for smut?? Is that just an older, married lady thing? :-P

  2. [Too; not to. I’m sure the typographical errors are a thorn.] ;-)

    • It’s not that complicated, really, but I understand if you’re not a fan of these types of books. I myself have trouble sometimes with the archaic-sounding language, and the slowness of the plot gets to me too. But, Clueless was based on this book, so that movie being what it is, the book can’t be considered TOO smarty-pants! I read fluffy stuff from time to time . . . but I don’t know that I’d review those books on here. Don’t know that I’d think they were worth reviews! And your typos don’t bother me. Only my own typos bother me. :)

  3. Katie Knapp

    I’m not sure how much this applies to Jane Austen because I foolishly have never read a biography of her, or watched “Becoming Jane”, but a lot of “classics” writers wrote their novels serially, and got paid by the word, so they tried to make them as long as possible to make the most amount of money. Also, some authors, i.e. Charles Dickens, took suggestions from their readers about what should happen next in the story. I imagine that took some lengthy writing sometimes, just to make the new characters, events, and details fit in with the rest of the story. So I am guess this is why classics are so long-winded. This is also why I have no qualms about reading an abridged version (see: Les Miserables).

    • “Foolishly,” Katie? I disagree. But then, I don’t read biographies of many people. I guess I should. They are usually not disappointing. I just haven’t done it. I have watched Becoming Jane, though. :) (Not sure of its accuracy.)

      Anyway, I was aware of the serial thing and getting paid by the word but had only thought about it in reference to American authors because many of them (like Twain) published their works in the newspapers, a chapter or whatever per issue. I wasn’t aware the Brits did it too.

      And as for Dickens . . . yuck.

      I actually just bought Les Miserables! It’s abridged and it’s still very long. Eesh. Don’t know when I’ll find the pluck to get through it. But I am not against abridged versions either. I’ve thought before that it would be fun to be an abridger. Don’t you think that’d be fun? Especially on books whose authors are long dead. They can’t argue with you about what to cut. :)

      -audra-

  4. Reese

    Well, of course I loved the reference to the post office/airline travel. Because I DO feel that way. Also, I enjoy your reviews. You describe them well and often are my feelings exactly on said subject. I also liked but didn’t love Emma, and I get bored in the middle of all the Austen books. But I power through because 1) I don’t want to quit 2) I’m still (even if mildly) intrigued.

    • Reese, I am glad you found the reference to yourself, even though the shout-out was kinda buried in all those quotes. But seriously – I wrote your name in the margin of my book when I came to that passage! And I’m glad you enjoy my reviews. For some reason people seem to think it’s easy for me to write them, but it’s actually not. So I appreciate the support!

      -audra-

  5. b longfellow

    Mansfield Park was one of my favorites as well. Pride and Prejudice is still my favorite though (by kind of a long shot). Talk about “happily ever after” in that one. Golly. Two pages of marriages. The End.

    I wrote a paper on P & P called “Not So Happily Ever After,” in which I argue Jane and Bingley’s marriage may turn out to be rather mediocre in its satisfaction for the parties involved. I think I remember Prof. McCallum saying something about Austen’s novels ending with happily-ever-after marriages more as a dissembling device than anything else. If I remember his theory correctly, J.A. was much more concerned with using her stories to address evolving proprieties and the gradual redistribution of wealth and class capital to care much about her endings. Her real work was already finished by the time she got to that point. In a some way, her happy marriages serve as a kind of disguise for her clever indictments and social critiques.

    Anyway, I’ve always been proud of that paper title and its kind of radical argument, though as a whole, it mostly sucks and I don’t say much. Ask me about my favorite research paper title sometime.

    • Brian,

      I’d love to see that “Not So Happily Ever After” essay. I was a big fan of writing against-the-grain essays in my day. In high school I wrote one defending the Confederacy. :) I completely agree with your professor’s opinions about Austen’s intentions, and her sloppy endings and long-in-the-middle tendencies completely support this theory. And I support her attempts to make fun of the ridiculous actions of those around her. It’s just too bad that the books and fictional characters have to suffer as a result, eh?

  6. Pingback: I Can’t Help it if My Personality is Chocolate | A Literary Illusion

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