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5. Jane Austen (1816), Emma.

Read partly because I love Clueless, of course, but also because I very much enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice at school, and have enjoyed the odd film or TV adaptation of her books here and there since.

Like Pride and Prejudice, what I liked most about it is the range of character types depicted, and the way their interactions allow Austen to demonstrate and explore her themes of character and society. I guess you could argue that some of them are a bit one-dimensional in both novels - like the flirty Lydia in Pride and Prejudice or the aunt who can't shut up (Miss Bates) in Emma. But they're also very comically drawn, which makes up for it, and in any case the principal characters (again in both novels) are much more complex, and really do change and grow over the course of the stories.

My Mum was pretty surprised when, as a teenager, I expressed enjoyment over reading P&P (by contrast, I hated Jane Eyre). She'd had to read it at school too, and couldn't believe how vapid the concerns and conversations of all the characters in it were. She's forgiven Jane Austen more recently, and started reading some of her other books (I forget which), but reading Emma with that perspective in mind gave me a wry smile every now and then.

There's one chapter, for instance (ch. 34), almost entirely devoted to a conversation between several of the female characters about how Jane Fairfax should not risk her health by walking to the post office in the rain. (You would be amazed by how much conversational mileage they manage to get out of this topic.) Now, obviously, from a modern point of view that sounds ridiculous. A typical woman (or indeed man) today might very well walk to the post office in the rain, give a lecture, chair a meeting, write a report, deal with a friend's personal crisis and go out to a party in the evening, all on the very same day. But I think it was supposed to seem just a little absurd to Austen's contemporary female readers as well. It's a comic parody of gossipy socialite conversation, it reveals quite a lot about the characters of the people having it, and it also actually does have quite important plot resonances later on, when you discover the 'twist' about Jane Fairfax.

Talking of the plot, it was of course also interesting to read in the light of Clueless. The plots of the two aren't exactly the same, and nor is the cast of characters, so knowing the one gives you a rather bizarre half-knowledge of the other. I could tell as I read that Frank Churchill in Emma had been the inspiration for Christian in Clueless, for example - but I was pretty sure he wasn't going to turn out to be gay! On the other hand, I was instantly struck by how much the light, breezy narrative voice-overs from Alicia Silverstone in Clueless actually do match the tone of the authorial voice in Emma. OK, so what they're talking about is a little different, and Jane Austen is remarkably free of Californian high-school lingo. But sometimes, it really was as though I could hear Alicia Silverstone reading the words to me in my head.

In short, an excellent read, which has also made me appreciate Clueless all the more. I've got Sense and Sensibility waiting on my bookshelf, so I think it won't be too long before I'm pursuing my Jane Austen trail a little further.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
mrkgnao
May. 14th, 2007 10:07 am (UTC)
Ooooh...but Frank Churchill / Mr Knightley action would be well hot - and they're always being snippy at each other, mainly because Knightley sees right through of him, of course, but I think you could read it it as kinky homosexual longing. Or maybe not :/

I really like Clueless, too, mainly because it's so charming but Emma is one of the most claustrophobia-inducing books I've ever read -the chapter you mention is a perfect example of this. It's like every time Miss Bates opens her mouth I die inside.
strange_complex
May. 14th, 2007 11:33 am (UTC)
Churchill / Knightley slash! You bad girl. ;) It might happen, but Mr. Knightley would feel deeply ashamed about it the next day. Frank Churchill would be beaming about it for days, though.

Interesting that you found Emma claustrophobic. I can see why, but that didn't strike me at all. Maybe only because I knew Emma would sort herself out and marry an interesting and stimulating chap at the end of it, though.
mrkgnao
May. 14th, 2007 01:08 pm (UTC)
Gosh, it's almost tempting ... I imagine it would be kind of coerced, you know with Frank being all silver tongued and manipulative and Mr Knightley being confused until ... whoops ... there they are having sex. God, I can't believe I'm thinking about this *must amputate brain* It would also go some way to explaining why Mr Knightley seems unable to look Frank in the eye or exchange any words with him for the majority of the book... so I even have textual support for my hot-gay-action theory.

Hmmm... I guess when I read it I thought most of Emma's problems were due to lack of stimulation and I'm not sure Mr K is really the man to stimulate her. I think she's a woman made for adventures and you just know she's going to spend the rest of her life trapped in that stultifying little village, dividng her time between being a nursemaid to her father and a wife to Knightley. I mean her father won't even let her leave the country for a honeymood, that's an indication of the narrowness of her future life. It's better than the alternatives, of course, but it still sucks.


strange_complex
May. 14th, 2007 01:17 pm (UTC)
Well, yes, she's definitely bored. And yes, her father is certainly a millstone round her neck (if a rather sweet one - I really liked him, actually). But Mr. Knightley seems a man of the world (even without near-canonical hot gay action), and her father won't live forever. I imagine they'll do some travelling after he's dead - perhaps go on a Grand Tour, maybe. Sure, I admit, her life could be more exciting from our perspective. But she does actually really like her father, and they seem to have no shortage of visitors even before Mr. Knightley brings his own social and business circle to the household. So I think she'll be happy enough.
mrkgnao
May. 14th, 2007 01:34 pm (UTC)
I hope you don't think I'm randomly yelling at you or anything - I was really interested by your post which I why I commented, I didn't mean to drag you into a massive debate on Emma or anything like that.

Hmmm...I have always found her father disgustingly selfish and horrendously emotionally manipulative, but I think I'm always liable to read the worst in parent figures when I encounter them. I agree she loves him very much but I also think he takes shameless advantage of that. They're a rich, well-to-do family but he hasn't allowed her a London season or anything that might have bettered or widened her life and he even curtails her activities in Highbury - think off the fuss involved in getting a carriage to the Westons.

The book is full of tiny incidents blown out of proportion, like the chapter about Jane taking a walk. I mean, there's a whole chapter on preparing for a ball which practically throws Emma into a paroxysm of excitement - I think the implication is that she's terribly bored and terribly lonely. Her father barely lets her go out or do anything, nothing happens in Highbury and apart from Knightley there isn't anybody capable of meeting her on equal intellectual footing. I suppose that's an argument for her marrying Knightley but he just seems so rooted into smalltown life.

Oddly enough I do *like* the book, despite my ranting. I just find it hard to read as a romantic comedy, unless Clueless which is *adorable* from start to finish. And much much better than the awful simpering Gwyneth Paltrow Emma which makes me want to throw things.
strange_complex
May. 14th, 2007 02:15 pm (UTC)
I hope you don't think I'm randomly yelling at you or anything

No, no, no! I am really enjoying discussing it with you. Although the main reason I started making these film and book posts was so I'd have my own record of my reactions to what I'd seen / read, I'm increasingly finding that the fun of getting into conversations like this one is a major secondary benefit of doing it.

I do take what you're saying about Mr. Woodhouse, but what made me like him is that although he is totally self-obsessed, and incapable of empathising with others enough to realise that they might not be fussy old men like him, he is entirely well-intentioned and well-meaning. He only insists that other people eat gruel with him, or fusses over what Emma does to the extent of preventing her having any fun, because he cares about them and genuinely believes they will be happier if they stay in, sitting quietly by the fire. And to some extent, it's even perfectly understandable, because although we don't hear much about it in the book, he obviously has lost his wife at some point in the past, so he may simply be excessively paranoid about that happening again with his daughter.

...the awful simpering Gwyneth Paltrow Emma...

This I haven't seen - and it sounds like I should stay that way! We're clearly on the same page regarding Clueless, so I'll trust your judgement, there. BTW, have you come across an American TV show called Miss Match? I found it while channel-hopping randomly a few weeks ago, and it's about a character played by Alicia Silverstone who is basically Cher from Clueless all grown up. Quite sweet, and I did intend to watch more of it, although I haven't yet. Can't remember what channel it was on just now, but definitely not a terrestrial one. Anyway, you might like it.
mrkgnao
May. 15th, 2007 09:39 am (UTC)
That's okay then! I did want you to feel like I was using your LJ as sounding off space or something - I, too, am very much enjoying the discussion.

About Mr Woodhouse - I never really saw that kind of loving care in him but that's just because it's an interpretation I'd never really considered, although it's plausible. I just find it hard to reconcile his behaviour with anything other than selfishness - it's like the fact he mourns Miss Weston's marriage even though it's clearly a much better, happier life for her than the one she would have spent with them. Basically his life and his views are narrow and he tries to make everyone else's the same.

I'm afraid I may have been injust about movie!Emma, I wouldn't like to put you off it in case you liked it but it does feel very much like "inspired by an original idea by Jane Austen" rather than actually a coherent interpretation of the text. I think it has Prunella Scales in it as Miss Bates though and she's perfect. Perfect. Although they butcher her dialogue.
strange_complex
May. 15th, 2007 10:43 am (UTC)
Prunella Scales in it as Miss Bates

Oh wow, yes - she'd be ace. I guess I'll keep an eye out for it on TV, but I won't go into it with terribly high expectations, then. And anyway, there'll always be Clueless...
ms_siobhan
May. 14th, 2007 02:16 pm (UTC)
But in those days if you were of the moneyed class you were in fact terribly susceptible to rain and the slightest drop could risk the development of bronchitis, pneumonia and any other number of ills *grin*

Pandy never gets the joke when I say to him 'darling its raining we'd beter call for the barouche' he just says 'best get your brolly ready then'
strange_complex
May. 14th, 2007 02:30 pm (UTC)
Oh, yes - indeed. No wonder we are now living in a so-called 'classless society'. It's because all those poor delicate 19th-century flowers simply died out.
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