Book Review : Emma by Jane Austen + What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Critical Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

I had a hard time getting into Emma. As in, every time I listened I would become physically upset. All my hackles would raise. A main character that knew everything and who shoved her opinions onto everyone else: gross. So imagine my horror when I discovered that she was me.

You see, I had told myself that I had to read Emma before I could dive into What Matters in Jane Austen? {heretofore referred to as WMIJA}. I had heard about WMIJA on Heather Ordover's CraftLit and it promised to give me the same things that Heather's podcast gave me: the historical and cultural context that so often hung me up when attempting to read classics. 

In fact, CraftLit was how I listened to my first three Jane Austen novels. Heather's former life as a theatre and literature teacher gave her the base knowledge, accompanied by what I assume to be curiousity and research skills, to help me, and the rest of her listeners, distinguish the difference in 3 and 30 pounds sterling*. 

*I just made up that reference but I think you get my drift.

It's the details like that which matter. Putting things into a modern day perspective helps a current reader understand a work more fully. It's the difference between thinking, "I guess that means that character is wealthy," and thinking, "What a horrible human being!!! With money like that and he's basically leaving his three younger sisters to care for themselves! Ridiculous!" 

Yes, that was a lot of exclamation marks. But that's what true knowledge does: it incites true feelings. 

All that to say, I wanted to read WMIJA because I thought it would be interesting to supplement my Jane Austen knowledge. "But," I told myself, "before you read WMIJA you should read at least one more of her books." {I had started listening to a bit of WMIJA and quickly realized that it was full of spoilers. It's a book about books, that's how it works. But I wanted at least one more where I went through the story all the way before WMIJA ruined the surprise.}

But for Emma, I didn't have the CraftLit podcast to hold my hand. I had to use my previous knowledge I had gleaned from three other novels. And sure enough, that knowledge was enough to get me started. The difference in language wasn't a terrible barrier and the references to whist didn't throw me like they would have before. 

No. The thing that most bothered me was the main character. A well brought up young lady who shepherds a young naive woman away from her true feelings because of her own prejudices. I didn't want to spend time in the presence of this chick.

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I eventually realized that I had stopped listening all together. As a voracious reader this isn't something that happens terribly often soni went to the closest thing I could find to a support group for a book lover who's having a hard time getting through a book: The CraftLit Facebook group. 

It was there that I found a bit of solace. 

"Yes! I know exactly what you mean. I dislike Emma too!!" 
"I can't even finish the book. And I've tried." 

But in the midst of my fellow haters {because hating on poor Emma we were} there were a couple supporters.  

"Keep going." 
"Yes, she's annoying there at the beginning but push through."  

And the encouragement that most propelled me was one that, at first, I didn't think would effect me. "Did you know that the movie Clueless was based on Emma?" As soon as I read that, my 16 year old circa 2000's era self who wore belly shirts while listening to Brittany Spears and The Backstreet Boys, decided to read on. If it was good enough for Alicia Silverstone it was good enough for me, gosh darnnit. 

And, sure enough, that 16 year old wisp of a memory was the one who needed to read it. And the 33 year old that she's a part of. 

The quote I plucked from WMIJA sums up both Emma and my teenage self perfectly: The truth is hard. Especially when one's had an exceedingly amazing life and people shield hard things from you. It is much easier to displace a partial truth with a full blown fairy tale. With just a touch of imagination one adds missing details to an mysterious woman who soon becomes a witch {with an inappropriate love affair in her past} and a young man with an easy smile becomes a shiny knight surely in love with you. 

The full story of Emma fully explains to me, in the non-preachy way that Jane Austen excels at, that we who prefer fairy tales to truth are missing out. Life, real life, is much more varied than the black and white of a children's story, but that variation makes it that much more rich and wonderful. 


Emma

Highly recommended for:

  • Dreamers who get stuck in the worlds they create in their own minds. Belly shirt optional. 

Drawbacks:  

  • As noted, the beginning is tough. Push through.  

Best Bits:

  • I viewed this as love story second. In the fore front it was about the comings and goings of the privileged few of a particular small town. {Which is actually a pretty accurate description of my high school.}
  • The ending. It was long and satisfying in a way that very few stories I have read are. Because the focus of the book isn't romance forward it's makes sense that Jane Austen gets to take a long leisurely stroll "around town", tying up loose ends and explaining pieces and parts that had been dangling out of sight. 

What Matters in Jane Austen

Recommended for: 

  • True Austen-philes who will automatically understand every reference the author mentions before he has finished the description.
  • OR someone, like me, who is simply curious about gleaning more context about the time period. 

Drawbacks:

  • While the author keeps it flowing nicely, like any non-fiction part history part literature based book it gets a bit dry at times.  

Best Bits:  

  • The knowledge of context as explained above. Stuff like this makes you a more interesting dinner guest.  

Read either of these? Let me know what you though.