Jane Austen’s life was cut tragically short at the age of 41. If you’re a huge fan of her work, like me, then the six completed novels she finished, whilst perfectly demonstrating her genius, will never be enough. I’m always torn when it comes to deciding which is my favourite, and I love them all for different reasons. Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion vie for the top spot, but I also love Emma. This December will mark 200 years of its publication, and it was with this book in mind that I started to think about the present novel I’m working on.
Emma was written as Jane was beginning to be recognised as a talented writer, and whilst she was still not making much money from her writing she knew her work was being well received by critics and the public alike. Emma was her first heroine to be wealthy and privileged; perhaps living not far from her brother Edward’s house at Chawton and seeing first-hand the lives of his daughters, which were in great contrast to her own, gave her some of the inspiration for her writing.
Emma is portrayed as a match-maker and someone who thinks she understands human nature, including her own, and the joy of the book is discovering not only how far the truth is from her real understanding of the people around her, but also seeing her growth and the changes she makes as a character. Before she started writing Jane Austen wrote, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like …’ But, although there are traits of Emma’s personality that we may not like to start with, in the end we can forgive her mistakes, and it’s her faults that even help to make her likeable.
|Chawton House where Jane's brother Edward lived|
It's not possible in a short blog post to write everything that could be included about this wonderful book, but essentially Emma is a book about courtship and marriage, and we see how very different the prospects of the main female characters are dependent on their status in life. Emma is rich, and she protests at the start of the novel that she doesn’t see the necessity of marriage, though she’s happy to meddle in other people’s relationships imagining that she’s helping to bring them along. She thinks she will be able to elevate the status of her young friend Harriet who is an illegitimate girl living in a nearby school. As the novel progresses we see her view of marriage gradually change. Austen uses charades very cleverly to show Emma’s misguided efforts to bring the wrong people together. When her friend Harriet declares an interest in a poor farmer, Emma can only persuade her to consider the vicar who has better prospects. Mr Elton presents a ‘courtship’ charade when Harriet is visiting which leads Emma to think he is serious in his regard for her friend. When Emma realises she’s been blind to the fact that Mr Elton is actually in love with her, we understand that the charade was never meant for Harriet. The many misunderstandings concealed in charades and riddles keep us from guessing what is going to happen. It’s a book that hides its secrets with tremendous skill, and on first reading the revelations come one by one with wonderful surprises in store. A second reading cements all that was first discovered, and is just as revelatory as on the first. Every time I read it I discover something new. I don’t want to give anything away, but if you don’t know the book I promise you won’t be disappointed with all the twists and turns of the plot.
|Olivia Williams as Jane Fairfax|
Jane Fairfax is another character I want to mention. She is the only young woman that Emma envies, yet she is poor and is set to become a governess. Emma doesn’t like Jane Fairfax, but Jane Austen writes of her in glowing terms. Jane has all the traits and accomplishments that Emma feels she is lacking in herself. She is clever, beautiful, and is a talented singer and pianist. Jane Austen writes her character sympathetically, and I can’t help wondering if she ever worried that the fate of becoming a governess might befall her. As she comes to her own self-realisation, Emma thinks about the inequalities between women of independent means and those who are poor. The contrast between Mrs. Churchill’s importance in the world, and Jane Fairfax’s, struck her; one was every thing, the other nothing.
Austen compares the lot of the governess to a form of slavery and we know she witnessed the life at first-hand. Her dear friend, Anne Sharp served as governess to Fanny Knight, Jane’s niece at Edward’s other house, Godmersham Park, Kent, from 1804-6. Jane sent a presentation copy of the three volume edition of Emma inscribed to her friend when they were published, and I can't help thinking that in some ways Emma is partly a tribute to the woman whom Jane revered. They remained good friends until Jane died.
At the end of Jane Austen’s life she wrote a poem called Winchester Races. Jane knew she was dying and though the poem is a reference to St. Swithin I’ve always been intrigued by these lines:
When once we are buried you think we are gone
But behold me immortal!
I can’t help wishing that even though she achieved immortality in her writing, that she could have found a way to be cured so she could write all the books she wished. And that’s what set me thinking about Emma, governesses, and my latest book, Jane Austen Lives Again. Although Emma started as the inspiration for this book, I soon found other nods to Jane's novels creeping in - you'll find Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility, and Pride and Prejudice all making their influence known.
|Jane Austen Lives Again|
When Jane Austen’s doctor discovers the secret to immortal life in 1817, she thinks her wishes have come true. But when she wakes up from the dead, a penniless Miss Austen finds herself in 1925, having to become a governess to five girls of an eccentric and bohemian family at the crumbling Manberley Castle by the sea. Jane soon finds she’s caught up in the dramas of every family member, but she loves nothing more than a challenge, and resolves on putting them in order. If only she can stop herself from falling in love, she can change the lives of them all!