During a June 2015 visit to Jimmy Kimmel Live!, English actress Emilia Clarke wowed Kimmel and the audience with her flawless, Southern California accent. When asked what inspired her, Clarke, stayed in character and responded, “I like, love Clueless.” I had not seen Clueless in a long time, and while doing some research, realized to my shock that I was probably the only Gen Xer alive who didn’t know that the film, directed by Amy Heckerling, was loosely based on a 19th-century Jane Austen novel. So when I was given the opportunity to review Penguin Classics’ 200th-anniversary edition of Emma, I jumped at the chance.
Does a novel written in December 1815 still hold up? That was the simple task I gave myself when I decided to review this novel. Let me also say that this was the first time I had ever read the book – I know, I know, shame on me – but it had just never sparked my curiosity. Even when I lived in India and was positively inundated with British fiction – Dickens, Blyton, Cronin, Bronte, Doyle, Orwell, Stevenson – it just didn’t seem worthwhile to indulge in the fanciful life of what I perceived to be a spoiled brat, Miss Emma Woodhouse.
Fast forward 25 years, and British culture is still pervasive not only in my life, but from the looks of it, in much of American culture as well. From Downton Abbey to Doctor Who, from BBC America to Sir Ian McKellen reciting Shakespeare in Marc Maron’s Highland Park garage, America seems to have never fully disengaged itself from British popular culture, and it’s hard not to see the attraction. Americans are obsessed with all the British cultures, and the English, Irish, Welsh, and Scots know it … and love it.
This 200th anniversary edition of Emma is in paperback, but is pure heft: at close to 500 pages, it can appear positively daunting, but it shouldn’t be. Although it’s long, Emma is one of those 19th-century novels that’s actually enjoyable to read.
But a word to the wise: I learned the hard way that starting and stopping, especially in the first 20 pages, is a bad idea, because there are so many characters’ names and identities to learn, that you might spend half an hour re-acquainting yourself with the cast each time you pick the book up. Sure, Emma and her father, Mr. Woodhouse, are easy enough to identify again, but what about Mr. Knightley and Mr. John Knightley, who are not the same person? Or Emma’s sister, Isabella, who is also Mrs. John Knightley?
My favorite one of these character-naming shenanigans is Miss Taylor, whom we first learn is Emma’s best friend and long-time governess. But then we read that she recently married Mr. Weston, who becomes Captain Weston, so that his wife is now Mrs. Weston (also known as Miss Taylor). A better strategy for first-time readers is to get at least 50 pages in at each read. Trust me on this.
The extremely simplified storyline might go something like this: Emma Woodhouse is an attractive, 20-something, who has no real occupation, but believes she has a penchant for matchmaking. According to Austen, “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”
Since she believes she was instrumental in introducing Miss Taylor to her now husband, Emma convinces herself that other people in her town are dying for her assistance to find their soulmates. Uncomfortable situations, and occasional bouts of regret ensue. Oh, and she ends up marrying the one man who challenges her on her behavior.
Indeed, Emma’s future husband, Mr. ___ was actually my favorite character throughout the book. He was the only person strong-willed enough to call her Emma on her bullshit. His rage and angst are totally heartfelt, and I feel that he was Austen’s best vehicle for her writing.
By modern standards, the storyline seems amateurish at best, yet I had to keep reminding myself that this book came out 200 years ago; from that perspective, all modern romance tropes have followed Austen’s storyline. It’s difficult to definitely say how influential the book and its author were on future genres, but reading it made me realize how many pop culture genres were probably influenced by its content. Think of every movie set in high school with a meddling protagonist or psychological manipulator trying to create drama where none – or less – existed and you have a better understanding of Emma’s influence. What about Arab soap operas and Indian movies? Same thing. Hell, I saw the influence of this book on Ian McKewan’s 2001 novel, Atonement, and the character of Briony Tallis.
Lest die-hard “Janeites” feel left out, this annotated version has a host of treasures for even the most hardcore Austen fan. Juliette Wells, an associate professor of English at Goucher College and world authority, edited this anniversary edition, and added much to the original novel. Besides her introductory essay, she also included six addenda at the end of the book including one on Austen’s original spellings versus current usage (e.g. “dropt” versus “dropped”); a five-page glossary covering early 19th-century phrases like “cockade”, “coxcomb”, “ostler”, “espalier”, and “twelvemonth”); contextual essays covering topics from dancing and family relationships to politics and social classes; maps; reprints and engravings; and lastly, a section on Emma in popular culture. Her efforts have resulted in an edition that can be accessed from the new reader, like me, to the most scrupulous of researchers.
So, does a novel published in December 1815, just a few months after the Duke of Wellington’s victory over Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo, hold up over 200 years of politics, history, war, and a total evolution of British popular culture? Can a novel published at a time when its author had to remain anonymous till after her death still hold up? With absolute certainty, I would say yes.
Emma is not one of the best novels I’ve ever read, and it will surely appeal to some people more than others, but its cultural influence is impossible to dismiss, as its writing, while heavily focused on the dalliances of those of means, still provides insight into a particular people at a particular time. That Emma is often considered only the third best Jane Austen novel — after Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility — is testament to her extraordinary skill as a writer, and why her characters endure to this day.