Wednesday 11 May 2011

The Classics Circuit: Emma by Jane Austen

This is the second Classics Circuit tour I've participated in.  The first was the Lost Generation Tour, and I really enjoyed reading Tender is the Night, so when I heard about this one, it seemed like a great chance to finally read Emma!

My first thoughts on hearing about this tour, were that pitting Dickens and Austen against each other is impossible. They write in such different styles, on such different subjects. And of course, as with all reading, it's 90% a matter of personal preference anyway! Aside from the fact that they're both English, and were writing in a similar period, there's not very much to compare about the two, really. 
I discovered both Austen and Dickens in college, and my first reading of Pride and Prejudice was, in many ways, the antidote to my struggle with Hard Times. It was required reading for my English Literature course, and the first half of it was so immensely dull that there were moments when I actually felt like sawing my fingers off so as to have an excuse not to read it (dramatic, me? Never!). Then it suddenly got a lot better, very quickly, and I was forced to revise my opinion. If I'm honest though, I'm really not the sort of person who likes to go through that much effort, and frankly pain, to enjoy a book. I do recognise the genius and intricacy of his description, though, and love the vividness of his characters, among many other things, and hope I'll read and love more Dickens in the future. However, at the end of the day, and no matter how much I love singing along to Oliver!, Dickens depresses me. Austen, on the other hand has a far more positive effect. 

Emma was Jane Austen's fourth novel, published in 1815. It is a comedy of manners, and shows the dangers involved in matchmaking. For those who haven't read it (and I really do feel you should), basically, Emma Woodhouse is a rich young lady, living in a very big house with her neurotic father. When the novel begins, Emma's governess, Miss Taylor, has just got married to Mr. Weston. Mr Knightley is a close neighbour and old family friend of the Woodhouses', and Emma's sister, Isabella, is married to Mr Knightley's brother, Mr. John Knightley. As usual with Austen's novels, Emma focuses on a particular 'set' of society, and the ins and outs of their daily lives. Near the beginning of the novel, Emma befriends Harriet Smith, a young woman of unknown parentage, and begins to try to make her an 'eligible' match. At first, she attempts to set her up with the vicar, Mr. Elton, to no avail, as Mr. Elton is actually in love with Emma, and thinks that marrying Harriet would be totally beneath him. She also convinces Harriet to turn down an offer of marriage from Robert Martin, a farmer, with whose family Harriet had spent the summer. Emma thinks a lot of herself, and her level of perception, but she often misses things which are entirely obvious, and causes lot of unnecessarily painful situations, either by causing others to fall in love, or by believing herself to be in love, without really knowing what love is.

As with all of Austen's novels, Emma took me a little while to get into, mostly because I've read the first half before, and so wasn't giving it my full attention. After a while, though, I began to really enjoy it. Emma Woodhouse, to me, was a much more rounded and believable character than Austen's heroines often are: I really liked her. She's a total snob, with very firm (and very often misguided) opinions, and can often be a little bit of a bitch. For those who feel that this is too strong a word, I mean it in the most positive way. Emma is flawed, which is the thing that makes me like her more than any other Austen character. She often says things without properly thinking them through, or because she wants to be the centre of attention. Her redeeming feature, though, is Mr. Knightley, who isn't afriad to tell her when is in the wrong. I liked that she reacted to his criticism with thought, and the desire to change.  And yes, throughout the novel, my brain was playing Clueless in the background. I think it helped that I'm a big fan of it! 

I love Austen's novels for the fact that nobody is ever bored for more than about a second: they are always using their time in productive ways, going out and taking walks, talking to each other about deep and meaningful things, drawing each other, playing music, playing cards, dancing. They didn't have TV or internet, and yet they still survived!! I often think modern society could do with taking a few leaves from the pages of Austen's world (not literally, obviously). 

I also enjoy the secrets and intrigue Austen creates. During the course of Emma, there are two rejections, one secret engagement, many flirtations, and a declaration of love. Mr. Knightley's declaration of love to Emma was admittedly nowhere near as awesome as Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, but I liked Mr. Knightley a hell of a lot more. I really appreciated how he was just totally straight about everything, and wouldn't hesitate to tell Emma when she was doing something stupid or beneath her. I feel that he helped make her a better person, and if I'm honest, that, to me, seems much more like true love than 'I just saw you and think you're pretty and now I must have you'. Having known someone all their life, and knowing all of their faults and the things you dislike about them, and still loving them anyway? That's romance.

If we're going to put them up against each other, Austen gets my vote, primarily because she was less appreciated in her own time. Henry James has ranked her as one of 'the fine painters of life', along with Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Henry Fielding (my reliance on Wikipedia for obscure facts is terrible. I really must stop). That's some tough competition, and Austen is the only girl! Undoubtedly, Dickens is great - a great social commentator and reformer as well as a great writer, and I do feel a little bit hypocritical defending Austen over him, as I live literally just around the corner from the actual Bleak House, and the house in which Dickens used to spend his summers, but really, Austen makes me happy. She writes about the kind of England I'd love to have lived in, from the perspective of the class of person I would want to be, had I been alive at that time. Let's face it, nobody would want to be in the class of person Dickens writes about - workhouses? Disease? Dying young? Yes please!... :-/ Dickens is great, but he's such a struggle to read, and I don't always want that, whereas I can always be in the mood for some Austen. She goes hand in hand with sunny summer days and picnics, and equally with rainy, cold winter nights curled up in a blanket with some hot chocolate. Sorry, Mr. Dickens, but the ladies win for me!

In order to placate his ghost, which Broadstairs would undoubtedly love to claim for itself, here are some pictures of both Bleak House, and the Dickens House Museum, where he spent summers with his aunt. This is my little town in England's claim to fame!

 Bleak House, Broadstairs, Kent, UK
The Dickens House Museum, Broadstairs, Kent, UK


  1. Great Post! Stopping in from your interview at the Book Blogger Directory!! Looking forward to your post!

  2. lol about the comparing the two authors: you are right, they are totally different. But we wanted to do a tour of these bigger authors, and it's a bit more fun seeing which author each person chooses and why. Plus we normally try to choose more "neglected" classics and both authors tend to have plenty of blog time...

    Anyway, I actually found Emma TOTALLY annoying. I think I'll like it better on rereading. I too thought of CLUELESS the whole time I read it! And I loved that movie. Not sure why this book didn't work...

  3. I can understand why you found Emma annoying, I think she's meant to be. Austen even said she had written a character nobody but herself would ever like! After I posted this I did go and watch Clueless again though!

  4. The photos are amazing, I'm so jealous that you live so close to Bleak House and the Dickens museum. I love both authors but I can't really compare them as they're so different.

    And I agree with Rebecca, I love the book but Emma made me throw the book across the room, she is an insufferable snob. Of course Mr. Knightley puts her in her place.

  5. I think Mr Knightley might be my favourite Austen hero. I actually don't mind Emma - she learns her lesson!

  6. The only thing I knew about Emma before reading this post was that the movie Clueless was based on it-- but now I really want to read it for its own merit. It seems like such a fun book! I really like unusual protagonists and I think I'll like Emma, so I'm definitely reading this soon-ish.

  7. I really enjoyed your post on the Classics Tour--just catching up on everyone else's post because I had to read Hard Times and write about it by today! I loved your description of reading the first part of HT--I kept on counting pages until I was done with Book 1 so that I could take breath and read something more interesting.

    Emma is one of my favorite Austen novels--the secrets are delicious, and Austen was very clever in hiding facts from the reader that were in plain sight.