On an Austen anthology

I recently reread all of Austen’s novels for a special author module I was taking in my final year. i had the privilege to delve into Georgian England, peaceful garden walks and a hell of a lot of contemporary drama. Austen really is one of my all time favourite authors. But what hit me the most was her current audience. On a course of 45 students, there were 2 males. The first time this has ever happened in a long history of the course running.

I didn’t really think about it initially, I was just glad that I had been offered a place on the module. But as the weeks continued and the discussions began to turn towards Austen’s contemporary and modern audience, adaptations and afterlife of the author I began to realise that there was something quite severely wrong.

In her day, her novels were read by whoever could get their hands on them, largely men. These are not romantic novels, they are social satires. This, it seems our modern world seems to have forgotten. Yes, there are marriages, and romances, but this does not solely classify the novel as romance. Her witticisms are subtle, nuanced and her style varies throughout her anthology.

Her later novel Persuasion is more apparently a social critique of the changes occuring in British society. Anne and Wentworth are the only realistic couple, I feel, in the entirety of her lovers. (It may seem like this is blasphemy, I am still very much in love with Elizabeth and Darcy so don’t fret!!) They meet and are kept apart by family, only to meet again in the future when their situations are different, they are more equal but they have loved each other continuously despite their separation regardless.

I am hoping to conduct a summer experiment on my sister this year who has yet to read any Austen literature. She will start with Persuasion first before moving onto read the rest in chronological order or however she would rather do it. My aim, is to investigate whether she will see Anne and Wentworth as being romantic lovers or practical lovers. I feel that for many people, Persuasion is a novel that many people read last because it was the last to be finished by Austen. They therefore bring their memories of lovers being drawn together despite all the odds to their reading of Persuasion and come off slightly disappointed. We all know from the outset that Anne and Wentworth will marry. It is destined.

But is this because we have Austenian presuppositions? I will hopefully find out this summer!

On Austen’s Emma and why I just couldn’t warm to it

My summer reading list for my English course starting next Thursday has finally been completed. I successfully managed to read the list in time, whilst simultaneously enjoying my holiday and reading the other books that I wanted to get through. I don’t want to make the reading task sound like a chore, because it wasn’t, it really wasn’t. In fact a lot of the texts that I read I really enjoyed and were already on my ‘To read’ list anyway; so two birds were hit with one stone.

Emma by Jane Austen was the last one to be crossed off, and I am really unsure what I quite make of it. I love Austen, I really do and I find it quite shocking that I have only just read Emma. But there is something about the book that has really perplexed me; and it really is starting to become a nuisance. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the plot I will summarise. Emma is a beautiful and rich girl who adores arranging marriages for her friends, but never seems to be very good at it, to the extent where she causes much more harm than good.

Cover of "Emma"

Cover of Emma

Now, the main problem I had with the novel was that seemed to be it. There was hardly any plot or real storyline. We sit back idle as we watch Emma make blunder after blunder not only for herself, but particularly for Harriet (her friend) who does not possess the same qualities or birth right as Emma and as a result is fairly helpless. But it happened time and time and time again and I couldn’t work out why Austen would have not altered the plot. The conclusion seemed to me, to have been apparent from the beginning of the novel. The marriages that end the novel, were fairly obvious at the outset, it just took them a long and drawn out road to get there.

What also really shocked me about this book was that I simultaneously loved and despised the protagonist Emma. She meant no harm through her little match-making schemes and yet she didn’t stop once they started inflicting pain on her nearest and dearest. At times she acts very much like the spoilt brat that she probably would have been, but then at others she was very genuine and lovable. There seemed to be a lack of continuity in the characterisation. The other characters however, seemed to stay put. They were either hero or villain, never the twain shall meet. So yet another confusion added to the mix.

I even went as far as watching a film adaptation of the novel to see if it improved my opinion. It didn’t. I watched the Kate Beckinsale ITV film version which seemed to only further my opinion on the matter. Emma is both fickle to her friends and family as she is to herself. Her opinions and ideas change and swing back and forth so rapidly it is often like watching a tennis match. She manipulates her father and her friend Harriet, abuses her power of authority in society as a role model for young ladies and ultimately has a few too many unattractive qualities.

I cannot entirely criticise the novel because there are a few things which I found very agreeable indeed. Firstly, the relationships between the families and the differing social situations was very interesting to look at through fiction if one was gathering information on that historical time period. There was a great that could be taken from that novel in relation to social norms and societal expectations, which were very interesting. The balls and the dinner parties offered a great insight into what ladies and gentleman did both for leisure and as a means for courtship. The language and the prose is up to the standard expected of Austen and so it is an enjoyable read on that front. However I personally could not get over the vanity of Emma to really warm to her as a character and therefore the book on the whole. Of course I would recommend this book, however I feel it is just not one of the best.