Saturday, May 1, 2010

Emma by Jane Austen

512 pages
Reprinted by Penguin Classics, New York, NY in 2003
Originally published by John Murray in December 1815

It seems fitting that after having recently reviewed an Austen-themed chic-lit novel I now review what is claimed to be the best of Jane Austen's novels: Emma.

A Little Background:
Oddly enough I didn't discover Jane Austen until I was 16. I remember trying to read Pride and Prejudice but having difficulty grasping the story -- there was so much happening and the 19th century dialogue was nothing like the novels I'd read during most of my high school years. And then I discovered the 5 hour A&E film adaptation and immediately fell in love with the story. After watching the movie I picked up the book again and was successful in finishing it. And so began my journey with one of literature's most beloved authors.

Since that time I have listened to audio versions and watched numerous film adaptations of all of Austen's works, but until this year I'd never actually read Emma...

It seems unlikely that there are readers out there who do not already know something of the novel Emma, but just in case here is a short summary without spoilers:

The Plot:
"Beautiful, clever, rich - and single - Emma Woodhouse is perfectly content with her life and sees no need for either love or marriage. Nothing however, delights her more than interfering in the romantic lives of others. But when she ignores the warnings of her good friend Mr. Knightley and attempts to arrange a suitable match for her protegee Harriet Smith, her carefully laid plans soon unravel and have consequences that she never expected. With its imperfect but charming heroine and its witty and subtle exploration of relationships, Emma is often seen as Jane Austen's most flawless work." (Summary courtesy of the publisher)

My Thoughts:
I'm not exactly sure why I waited nearly 15 years to read this novel, perhaps it has something to do with the fact I just didn't like this heroine as well as the others. I find that Emma is for most of the story too snobbish and scheming for my taste when compared side-by-side with the sparkle and wit of Elizabeth, or the sweet and faithful Anne, or the steadfast and sensible Eleanor. And yet, Emma is definitely a worthwhile read. A classics must.

Emma is unique amongst Austen's novels in the fact that unlike all the other heroines, Emma is rich and beautiful and not troubled by her family about finding a wealthy and suitable husband. There are no silly sisters and no dramatic elopements. It is a completely different setting and a very interesting study of character.

I began reading Emma around the same time that Masterpiece Classic on PBS released their 2009 adaptation of the story (Jan-Feb 2010). I found this adaptation very well made. The actors were good (for the most part), the costumes and sets beautiful, and the script was nearly word for word from the book. If I had to make a complaint with the film it would be with the actress who played Emma. Certain mannerisms and aspects of her acting annoyed me. I found myself irritated with Emma for half to two thirds of the film.

Interestingly enough I found myself equally irritated and annoyed with Emma in the book for the same length of time, so perhaps it wasn't so much the actress as it was the character? At any rate by the last third to half of the story Emma begins to improve. Slowly like a flower blooming her character grows, matures, and by the end I found my regard for Emma had likewise grown until she had redeemed herself and I found myself happy with the story's end. Emma is a classic example of a coming-of-age story.

If you have never read Jane Austen, Emma may not be the story to begin with. It is Austen's longest work at over 500 pages and the story plot takes a little longer to unfold than some of her other novels. If asked I think I'd suggest a newcomer to Jane Austen read Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Mansfield Park in that order. Of course it definitely helps the reader who struggles with 19th century writing style to watch a film adaptation or listen to an audio version first. For those unwilling to purchase a copy of any of these books they are readily available at any public library and are also available online in various forms. Kindle even offers a free copy of Emma through Amazon that can be downloaded to Kindle devices, Kindle for PC, Kindle for iPhones, and Kindle for Blackberry.

Here are a few other links you might find interesting:

Online Resources:
Cliff Notes: Emma
Reading Group Guide to Emma
Project Gutenberg: Emma (audio/online text)

Kindle: Emma ($0.00)

Masterpiece (PBS) 2009 adaptation: Emma
1996 film adaptation (Gwyneth Paltrow): Emma
1996 BBC TV adaptation (Kate Beckinsale): Emma


Anonymous said...

I read Emma a long time ago and remember liking it the least of the Austen novels. I'd have to read it again to know why, or if my perspective has changed. I've got it on my list of reads for the year, also inspired by the recent adaptation.

Marie said...

Emma is actually my second favorite Austen after Persuasion. I just loved it. I read it in high school and again in college and it got better for me each time.

Anonymous said...

I've always enjoyed Emma. She's got attitude but she's charming and witty, if a little nonsensical. I know it's sacrilege for me to say this but I even enjoyed it more than Pride and Prejudice.