This month sees the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Emma. Not only is this my favourite book by Jane Austen, but it’s my favourite book by anyone. My only regret is that I can never read it for the first time again. I can still remember where I was and what I felt when I realised that Frank Churchill wasn’t going to marry Emma. There’s no one else, I thought, who’s she going to marry? So cleverly had Austen woven her tale that I couldn’t see the obvious answer. Clearly Emma had to marry someone, this was a Jane Austen novel after all. Emma had avoided the very unsuitable vicar, but had been avoided by the very suitable Frank Churchill, although, now that I thought about it, he wasn’t that suitable after all. Perhaps he had been a bit weak what with going off to have his hair cut and forever promising to visit his father and never quite managing it and he was paying rather a lot of attention to that rather dull, but talented, Jane Fairfax. Surely Emma couldn’t be going to go through life a spinster, spending her evenings with her father and the well-meaning, but not always complimentary Mr Knightley.
I came late to Jane Austen, which is probably a good thing. Other girls at school had Persuasion on the syllabus. My class, however, stuck resolutely to twentieth century literature: Nineteen Eighty-Four (still in the future in those days), Poets of the Twentieth Century and Over The Bridge, thank you very much. If you’ve heard of Richard Church in any context other than an exam syllabus you’re doing better than me. I’d never come across him before I read his memoir for O’ Level and I’ve never come across him since. I resented the fact that other girls were reading Jane Austen and Shakespeare while I was reading people I’d never heard of (George Orwell excepted), although I confess that I came to love Louis MacNeice, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke, among others.
It took me a very long time to get round to Persuasion and longer still before I liked it. The jury is still out on Mansfield Park. Apparently people who like and understand Jane Austen are divided into two camps: those who think Emma is the best thing she wrote and those who think it’s Mansfield Park. I’m obviously not in the Mansfield Park camp, but I’m beginning to appreciate just how sly Austen was being when she wrote it. I think my very first feeling of connection with Austen came when I read in Mansfield Park that Fanny called the Isle of Wight ‘the Island’, which is how I, and everyone who lives on the Hampshire coast, refer to it, so it does have a special place in my heart, even if I don’t love it as much as I should.
What of Emma then? Famously Austen wrote that she was going to “take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”, but everyone thinks that she was joking. Emma isn’t terribly self-aware at the beginning of the novel, but that changes, with a little help from Mr. Knightley. She might be spoiled and she might be lord of all she surveys, but she has a good heart and has been brought up by people with good hearts and wisdom. I include Mr. Knightley among the people who brought her up, despite the distasteful twenty-first century supposition that he was ‘grooming’ her to be his bride, which I don’t think is the case.
Maria Edgeworth, who had been sent a complimentary copy, thought there was no story in it, which rather misses the point. Edgeworth wrote, and presumably liked, stories with morals. Emma has no moral; it’s a story about growing up, realising who you are and marriage.
I have to confess that I love the 1996 film of the book, although you only have to see Jeremy Northam to know that Mr Knightley and Emma were made for one another, which rather ruins the twist. I’m also very fond of the 1972 BBC serialisation in which Mr Knightley is played by John Carson, despite being far too old for the rôle. The portrayal of Emma in that adaptation comes quite close to making her unlikeable.
1815 was the year of Waterloo, the end of more than twenty years of war with France. For all of Emma’s life England had been at war, but you’d hardly know it from Emma, for all it can be read as a celebration of what it is to be English. The only reminder of the war is Colonel Campbell, who takes in the orphaned Jane Fairfax because he was a friend of her father, Lieutenant Fairfax, who died in the wars. Austen herself knew what it was to be at war; with two brothers in the navy, she could hardly be unaware. When she was living in Southampton, she had seen warships being built. Being at war was just like breathing; it simply happened.
It was the move to Chawton in 1809 that finally gave Austen the means to write and to write well. The cottage she lived in with her sister and her mother is now a museum and you can see the room in which she sat and wrote, unless visitors came or there was work around the house to be done or a brother to be visited.
When I first read Emma I didn’t realise that it was about Highbury as much as it was about Emma. Much as I love my home town and love to think of Austen walking its streets, I know that she was much happier in small country villages. Bath and Southampton must have killed her creativity stone dead.
Anyone who has read Emma knows what it was to live in a small village two hundred years ago. It was a very small, suffocating community, where everyone knew everyone else and their business. An intrigue such as the one between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax would have kept the village talking for months, if not years.
Emma is a great novel, because it rewards those who reread it. If you want to understand how truly awful Mr. Elton is, why not reread it paying particular attention to him and his wife. Or have a look at Miss Bates, who is so aware of her precarious position as a poor spinster that she can’t stop talking. She is far more intelligent than she seems at first. Or read it to see how Mr. Knightley is patiently and gently guiding the ungrateful Emma to be all that she can be… so that she can marry someone else. Is he jealous of Frank Churchill? Only on a second reading. It passed me by completely the first time, as it did Emma.
Many times Emma has been named the greatest novel in English. I’m a big fan of the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe hates Emma because it’s the book that forces him to admit that a woman can write as well as, if not better, than a man. There must be many in his position. Whenever there are lists of the ‘One hundred books you must read before you die’ Emma is there in the top five, unless it’s been supplanted by Pride and Prejudice, which I can never understand.
There are many books that I return to time after time: East of Eden, Madame Bovary, La Porte Etroite, To Kill a Mockingbird and all the novels of Jane Austen, but it is Emma that gives me the greatest pleasure and the greatest reward.
Emma has moments of great cruelty and great comedy. There is a lot of cruelty in Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith. Emma almost robs her friend of the opportunity to marry Robert Martin, the man who is perfect for her, by her constant sneering at his efforts to woo Miss Smith. Mrs. Elton is a comedic creation whom no one is meant to love, with her ‘caro sposos’ and ‘barouche landaus’. The reader knows that they’re meant to laugh at her, and they do.
Marriage is one of the key themes of the book. ‘Poor Miss Taylor’ needs to marry, and it is her wedding that sets the events of the novel in progress. As Emma’s governess she can only expect a barren future as Emma’s companion if she does not marry. Jane Fairfax, as if in her image, is a companion whose life can only go downhill after she becomes a governess, as it seems likely she must. Harriet must also marry. There is no future for her if she does not, as she isn’t even clever enough to become a governess; there is no indication how long the support of her unknown father will last. Emma might not need to marry from a financial point of view, but she needs a husband in order to fulfil her rôle in society. Mrs. Elton is an example of a woman on the shelf who grabs her chance to avoid spinsterhood by marrying the appalling Mr. Elton. Miss Bates is, of course, the future that awaits any of them.
It was as a homage to Mr. Knightley that I called my first Regency hero George, and in recognition of Emma as my favourite book that Lady Anna in The Heart that Lies has three suitors, only one of whom is perfect for her.
Emma is my favourite book, what more can I say? Two hundred years ago, in a cottage less than thirty miles away from here a woman a few years younger than I am now, sat down day after day and wrote the greatest novel in the English language and she never knew what she’d done.