Thursday, November 12, 2015

The 200th-Anniversary of "Emma"

The 200th-Anniversary Annotated Emma, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition

"I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she certainly ought to refuse him."
-- Emma

It's hard to believe that next month Jane Austen's Emma will be 200 years old. In fact, the book was published just before Christmas of 1815. There's something appropriate about that date since Emma feels like a gift. There is so much about it that is delicious. It has the humor and wit of the earlier novels and a deeper wisdom about human nature. It is my favorite book by Jane Austen and one I reread every year or so because it takes me to a cozy place. It is a guaranteed mood lifter.

Let's face it, no matter how badly she behaves, we love Emma. Her heart is in the right place. And don't we all know someone like Emma? A busybody who thinks she knows what's best for everyone? One of the greatest pleasures of the book is watching Jane Austen poke fun at so many character types we all know in our own lives: a Mr. Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, or Harriet Smith. And no one does romance better than Austen. Who can resist the moment when Emma, after learning the error of her ways, finally realizes she is in love with Mr. Knightly? 

Here are some fun facts about Emma, many of which I discovered in another beautiful edition of this bookEmma, An Annotated Edition that came out a couple of years ago. A few of the following details also came from the many lectures I have gone to on Jane Austen given by UCLA professor Lynn Batten.


Jane Austen wrote of Emma: "I am going to take a heroine whom no one but me will much like." And at the beginning of the book, this is true. But we may forget that when the novel begins Emma is just 21 years old. Her biggest problem is that she has no problems. She is surrounded by adults, including her father and governess, who never tell her the truth. The one exception is Mr Knightley. By the end of the novel, she is educated and repentant. And at this point we love her.

Emma was written in a quick burst of intense creativity, between January 21, 1814 and March 29, 1815. Jane Austen was at the height of her powers, having already written five other novels. She had  published three of them -- Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park. The remaining two, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, were completed but not published until after her death. She died in 1817 just two years after the publication of Emma.

She wanted a different publisher for Emma and chose the prestigious John Murray of 50 Albermarle Street in Mayfair. He was also the publisher of  Sir Walter Scott and Lord Byron. The anonymous author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Mansfield Park was now linked with two of the biggest literary names of the day. Walter Scott became aware of her books and wrote a glowing review of Emma.

By the time Emma was published, Jane Austen had gained a cult-like following. People were in awe of this mystery writer. In the manner of her other books, the title page of Emma described the writer as "The Author of Pride and Prejudice." She chose to remain anonymous throughout her lifetime. Even so, she had become a literary celebrity.The Prince Regent was one of her biggest fans. On her visit to London at the end of 1815 to finalize the publishing arrangements for Emma, she was invited to Carlton House, the Prince Regent's London residence. The purpose of this visit? He asked her to dedicate the book to him and she agreed.

The confirmation of Austen's identity as a novelist appeared only after her death in Henry Austen's "Biographical Notice," appended to the posthumous first edition of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion in 1818.

In Jane Austen's novels the "the militia" is frequently mentioned. Mr. Weston is described as a member. He plays an important role in the book when he marries Emma's governess and companion Miss Taylor, leaving a void which Emma quickly fills with Harriet Smith. He is also the father of Frank Churchill, whose relationship with Emma is important to the plot of the book. Mr. Weston is described as having "satisfied an active cheerful mind and social temper by entering into the militia of his country, then embodied." The English country militias, according to the annotated edition of Emma, provided a supplement to the standing army for the specific purpose of defending the "home front."

And what about Highbury where the characters live. Is this a real place? No, the novel takes place in an imaginary town called Highbury. Austen seems to be having some fun with the location of Highbury since she presents it as a place that might exist, surrounded by places in Surrey that do exist. But it is nonexistent. Scholars have pointed out that it is impossible to achieve any precise mapping for it since nowhere could be sixteen miles from London, nine miles from Richmond, and seven miles from Box Hill.

Another pivotal character in the book is Mr. Elton. As vicar he needs to marry a person of wealth. That is one of the reasons he would never marry Harriet Smith. After discovering that Emma is not in love with him, he goes to Bath to find a wife. There he meets Mrs. Elton, the daughter of a wealthy man. You might wonder how widespread the knowledge of a woman's dowry was in those days. It was very much public knowledge. Apparently when the wedding banns were announced in the newspaper, the bride's financial worth was published. Marriages were financial transactions at the time. In an ideal world, they would also include love. Jane Austen has created that world. The reason her novels are so satisfying is that her heroines all manage to hold out for love.

Have you read Emma? Which is your favorite book by Jane Austen? 


  1. I have read Emma and love it. Pride and Prejudice is still my favorite, but I've read it so many times (often at this time of year) - and I think I'll reread Emma instead. I love research you've done on it, and I know it'll add to my enjoyment and give the book a slightly different "take". Thanks Sunday!

  2. Sunday...Thank you for the information on "Emma". Jane Austen novels are some of my favorite novels and I so appreciate your added insight. Do you have any notes on her other novels? I would love it

    1. Judie, yes I have notes on most of her books from the Jane Austen lectures. Let's get together for tea and Jane Austen!
      xx Sunday