The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik
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October 10, 2010


When I started re-reading Emma (for the first time in a long time, though) I was a tiny bit disenchanted, only because I’ve seen so many film and TV adaptations that the story and the characters seemed a little too familiar. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it, very very much and more and more, but I had to work at it just a little, just at first.

So it was interesting to look for places where the book and the adaptations met, and where they went their separate ways. Some of the characters — especially the ones who provide the comic or bittersweet notes in the book — were very much as expected: Mr. Woodhouse, Harriet, Mrs. Elton, Miss Bates. Emma was the most different: in the book, she’s much less ditzy, and more thoughtful – but still clueless, which is a nice combination. As I noticed before, she’s given an earlier warning about Mr. Elton’s feelings for her, and Frank Churchill’s feelings for Jane Fairfax; she thinks both through, and still gets them wrong.

Other dramatic licenses are taken, too. I was surprised that in the book the Westons' ball (where Mr. Knightley rescues Harriet, and then dances with Emma) takes place before the picnic at Box Hill. I’ll have to watch again to make sure, but doesn’t it happen the other way in the films? It makes sense, plot-wise; Emma behaves badly toward Miss Bates, and is forgiven.

I’ve always thought (and still do) that Mr. Knightley is a good guy, but a less-than-truly-romantic hero. He doesn’t come to the fore in the book either, but I still (and always will) fall for him when he says this:

I cannot make speeches, Emma: ... if I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.
Knowing how everything ends, I was curious to see how the relationships between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax would come across in the book. We see that Jane is upset and Frank is angry (as in the films), but Jane Austen uses the interesting device of letting us read Frank’s letter to Mrs. Weston to explain the ‘misunderstandings’ and lovers’ quarrels that play out at Donwell and on Box Hill. Since I love to read mysteries, I’m charmed again now by the comparisons of this book to a mystery, with clues set out for us to follow, or to miss.

When I started reading, I played a little game with myself. In her biography of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Jenkins said that Emma ‘ in her wrong-headed folly spins six separate, interlacing, circles of delusion,’ and I set down what these might be:

1. Emma thinks Mr. Elton is falling in love with Harriet.

2. Emma thinks Frank Churchill is pursuing her {meaning Emma}.

3. Frank Churchill makes fun of Jane Fairfax, but is secretly engaged to her.

4. Emma thinks Harriet is in love with Frank Churchill.

5. Mrs. Weston thinks Mr. Knightley is wooing Jane Fairfax.

6. Emma does not know Mr. Knightley’s true feelings.

I was close, but not quite there. Here’s my new, improved list.

1. Emma thinks Mr. Elton is falling in love with Harriet.

2. Emma thinks she is in love with Frank Churchill, and that he returns her feelings.

3. Emma thinks Jane Fairfax is in love with Mr. Dixon, her friend’s husband.

4. Emma thinks Harriet is in love with Frank Churchill, after he rescues her from the gypsies.

5. After Mrs. Weston suggests it, Emma fears that Mr. Knightley is wooing Jane Fairfax.

6. Emma does not know Mr. Knightley’s true feelings.

What do you think? Am I right? {I have a feeling I missed one.}

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Next stop, another Emma. I’m going to read Madame Bovary, in a new translation by Lydia Davis, in a group read assembled by Frances at Nonsuch Book. This will be my first time reading the book, and I’m looking forward to other readers’ thoughts on the translation. Part One (58 pages) is due on Thursday. It’s funny … with so many books beckoning, it’s good to have an assignment! (It was also nice to find the book waiting for me when I got home, and to see what a beautiful book it is.)

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Joan Hunter Dunn said...

Reading your thoughts on Emma has made me want to re read an Austen. Not sure which one...

Marie said...

Then there's Harriet's crush on Knightley but that's not in Emma's imagination. :-) I'm glad to see you're participating in the Madame Bovary readalong, speaking of literary Emmas. Can't wait for everyone's posts!

Vintage Reading said...

Enjoyed reading your perceptive analysis of Emma. I'd forgotten that 'if I loved you less' line. Mr Knightley is one of may favourite Austen heroes - almost as good as Captain Wentworth!

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