The Jane Austen Society NL celebrates 200 years Emma
FALLING IN LOVE WITH EMMA
It’s hard to remember a time when Emma was not a part of my life. When I was a child, and my mother had to wait for me to finish ballet classes, or Brownies, or seeing friends, she would sit in the car with a small dull-red copy of her favourite novel. When I climbed into the car to join her, she would sometimes say …
“I’ve just been reading the ball scene at the Crown Inn”, and there would be a big smile on her face. Or perhaps she had been going over for the hundredth time the infamous picnic at Box Hill …
“Oh, I do wish Emma hadn’t said what she did to Miss Bates”, she would comment, looking perturbed.
Whether she was making a visit to Donwell, or dining at the Coles, or encountering gypsies, my mother always knew that Jane Austen’s Emma would keep her happy while she waited, happy that night when she could read more fully in bed, happy throughout all of her reading life. I became familiar with the characters well before I knew the book. A family friend who rarely stopped talking, was always referred to by my mother as ‘Miss Bates’, while another with hypochondriacal tendencies was always ‘Mr Woodhouse’. I was sometimes puzzled by these names, but now I know exactly why she once described a used-car salesman as ‘a Frank Churchill’.
She started off my Jane Austen journey with Pride and Prejudice and I vividly remember her reading it aloud to me, stopping to laugh frequently, and then discussing with me the various characters after each day’s reading session. To my regret, she never read me Emma but left me to discover its riches for myself. I was in love with Pride and Prejudice and couldn’t see how any novel could surpass that, and Emma didn’t. It would take time and many re-readings for that to happen. As a teenage reader, I was put off by Mr Knightley’s age. How could any girl in her right mind, I wondered, fall in love with a man in his mid thirties?? He was ancient! Sadly, I have overtaken Mr Knightley in years and his age seems highly desirable now, but I wasn’t to know that then.
Emma is a novel that demands to be reread. Only many readings can make you aware of its utter brilliance, its subtleties, the consummate skill in its construction and characterisation. I think also it takes some maturity to come to appreciate Emma herself. It is so easy to love Elizabeth Bennet – she charms you from the beginning, she is popular and happy, energetic and witty. But Emma has more faults – she is a snob (though considering her position in Highbury, that is hardly surprising), she does meddle in the lives of others, and she is horribly rude to Miss Bates. But consider her difficulties in life - she has an excellent brain and no opportunities to use it; she is sociable, yet in the course of a year, she has about five social events to look forward to (what 20 year old do you know who would be content with five outings in a year?), she is stuck with a father who hates parties, fresh air, and any food except gruel, and her best friend has just moved out. The older I get, the more I love and sympathise with Emma. I too have met Miss Bateses and been tempted to be rude; I too have said things and instantly regretted opening my mouth; I too have been on outings where no-one ‘gelled’ socially. For me, the wonder of Emma is that she is as happy and as nice and as devoted a daughter and sister as she is – I’d have cracked long ago!
I get impatient with those people who tell me that they never reread novels. They are cutting themselves off from so much. I ask them if they own any CDs of music? Invariably they answer ‘yes’. So why, I ask, do you go back to that same piece of music again and again? Surely it is because you get something new from it each time, because familiarity with the brilliance of a Beethoven symphony or a Mozart sonata gives you a deeper appreciation of its richness? And it’s the same with art. Don’t you go back for another look at that Vermeer or Monet because it still has things to tell you, to teach you? It should be the same with Emma. You never stop learning from this brilliant novel, and only repeated visits to its pages will achieve the appreciation it deserves.
So make this anniversary year the one when you turn once again to Emma and revel in every superb word of the world’s greatest novel.
All rights reserved by Susannah Fullerton
President, Jane Austen Society of Australia
Author of Jane Austen and Crime, A Dance with Jane Austen, Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice