The summer before ninth grade, I toted a Modern Library edition of The Complete Novels of Jane Austen everywhere. It weighed a ton, but fit in my basket purse. I read Sense and Sensibility on the steps of MacBride Hall on the Pentacrest in Iowa City, Pride and Prejudice at The Mill, where you could sit for hours over a Diet Coke, and Northanger Abbey after everyone else fell asleep at a slumber party. One friend’s mother, a Smith alumna, said “You’re gonna love it.” I did love it, though at that age I didn’t differentiate between Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Goudge.
Fast forward to college and Emma was the funniest book I’d ever read. I have read Emma many, many times, and my Modern Library edition disintegrated long ago. And so I could not resist the new 200th Anniversary Annotated Penguin Deluxe Classic edition of Emma. This handsome orange paperback has a cover design that blends the contemporary with traditional illustrations. (The figures of 19th-century-style men and women are cleverly displayed inside the figure of the heroine, Emma.) The colors remind me of Klimt’s painting, The Kiss. And the high-quality paper makes this an excellent reading experience.
This is an edition for the common reader, says Juliet Wells, the editor. It has an excellent introduction, notes, maps, illustrations from early editions, and contextual essays on dancing, food, health, love etc.
Juliet Wells explains,
It’s a reader’s edition, not a scholarly one. In other words, the information you’ll find here is intended to support your understanding and appreciation of Emma rather than to instruct you in literary terms, theoretical perspectives, or critical debates. In choosing what to include, I’ve borne in mind what I’ve heard from students and others over the years about what has intrigued, and frustrated, them in reading this novel.
This is perfect for the common reader: I love reading this well-made paperback. If you need something more scholarly, the Norton edition includes critical essays as well as basic background. And I have a copy of The Annotated Emma, annotated and edited by David M. Shapard (Anchor Books). (I use that for notes rather than reading, though. I find it distracting to have the long notes on the sides of the pages of text.)
Surprisingly, Emma is controversial. Readers argue over whether this brilliant comedy is an essentially conservative novel, reinforcing the values of a classist society, or a satire. It is both, I think. Not all online Janeites chortle over Emma’s wicked wit, ridiculous misunderstandings, and boredom with the very talented, musical, but prim Jane Fairfax, a young woman she very much dislikes. Some criticize her outrageous observations (who hasn’t had them?) and a strong will they mistake for selfishness. They overlook Emma’s kindness to her valetudinarian father, the card parties she arranges for him, her devotion to her nephews and nieces, and charity to the poor. She is the most hated (the only hated?) Austen heroine!
I love Emma. At the beginning of the novel, after her ex-governess’s wedding to a country squire, she tells Mr. Knightley, her brother-in-law, that she made the match four years ago. She says she intends to make more matches. Knightley is characteristically grim in response to her liveliness, and her hypochondriac father discourages her: he pities “poor Miss Taylor” for marrying and moving half a mile away. But Emma continues to tease them:
“I promise to make none for myself, papa; but I must, indeed, for other people. It is the greatest amusement in the world! And after such success, you know!–everybody said that Mr. Weston would never marry again.
Emma is half-serious about match-making. She fantasizes that her new friend Harriet, an orphan awho is the “natural” daughter of no-one-knows-whom, is of gentle birth, and needs a gentleman husband. The new clergyman Mr. Elton would be an appropriate match, she thinks. Unfortunately, Emma does not understand men. She misreads Mr. Elton’s sexual signals: she is horrified when she discovers he is courting her, not Harriet. Eventually Emma realizes her all-too-human mistakes: she has hurt feelings without intending to; she has encouraged Harriet to aspire too high (shame, shame!); and she has not found a husband for herself. Finally Emma gets Knightley: of course I loved him as the logical mate when I was very young, but he is 14 years older and so controlling and critical: will the strong Emma prevail?
In The Annotated Emma (Anchor Books,) Shapard describes Emma as Austen’s “most flawed heroine.” He says Emma drives the plot more than any of the heroines of Austen’s other novels. And he points out her good points.
A significant reason for Emma’s greater ability to drive the plot is that the other Austen heroines are all in a state of dependence, inhabiting households run by others an dsubjec to tothers’ wills. furthermore, they all suffere because of people around them sho scorn or neglect or mistreat them in some way. Emma, while severely restricted geographically by her need to care constantly for her father, is mistress of all she surveys (within her limited field). She is completely in charge of her household and able to guide her fatehre, restrained only by her own concern for him, in those areas where he retains nominal leadership. She is also in a supreme position socially.
I love Emma’s strength, though I am concerned about her future as a wife.
Margaret Drabble’s narrator, Jane Grey, in The Waterfall, also particularly dislikes Knightley.
How I dislike Jane Austen. How deeply I deplore her desperate wit. Her moral tone dismays me: my heart goes out to the vulgarity of those little card parties that Mrs. Phillips gave at Meryton, to that squalid rowdy hole at Portsmouth where Fanny Price used to live, to Lydia at fifteen gaily flashing her wedding ring through the carriage window, to Frank Churchill, above all to Frank Churchill, lying and deceiving and proffering embarrassing extravagant gifts. Emma got what she deserved, in marrying Mr. Knightley. What can it have like, in bed with Mr. Knightley. Sorrow awaited that woman: she would have done better to steal Frank Churchill, if she could.
I do know exactly what she means about Knightley.
But if this is not a happy ending, what is? Clearly Austen thinks it is happy.