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A Calendar for Emma

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Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse.Emma “works”somewhat differently from Austen’s other realistic prose narratives. Austen still exploits the differences between psychological and calendar time to pace her book and our response to it, and she paces the events of the book in a closely intertwined way with detailed references that move back and forth in time; she still introduces but one new turn at a time. However, in this book she pays attention to seasons as well as the artificial calendar, she plays hidden games with the reader, and at turn in the narrative time is allowed to seem to float free (although a study of all the references to time shows that Austen is still using her almanac to attach narratives consistently to one another across hundreds of pages.

There are two explanations for this. First Emma was never written as an epistolary novel over a sequence of time. Individual letters (like Frank’s at the end) were always planned to be “dropt” into the book. Second the book is very indirect; Austen is coy, hidden; she is intensely concerned to marginalise some of her stories so we only see them out of her heroine’s eye. The hidden nature of the calendar is of a piece with the book’s silences and Austen’s distance from this heroine.

Chapman was the first to notice the difference. Since he has until recently been so respected, when he didn’t try to work a calendar out, no-one did. The situation changed when Jo Modert published an article on time and the various calendars in Austen’s novels in which she did work out the cruxes of a calendar and showed the novel follows an almanac for the years 1814-1815.

In brief, Modert demonstrated there is a “hidden calendar game” in the novel. Thus, for example, the Monday on which Frank’s gift of a piano arrived at Jane Fairfax’s home was Valentine’s Day; the Tuesday he was forced to leave Highbury for Yorkshire and tried to confess to Emma was Shrove Tuesday; the momentous occurrences at Donwell Abbey and Box Hill occur on June 23rd and 24th, Midsummer Day and Eve, and thus correlate to the day Emma writes Harriet a letter telling Harriet their friendship is over for the time being as that day is July 4th, Old Midsummer’s Eve, and the unusually cold wintry Wednesday which followed, July 6th, when Mr. Knightley proposes, Old Midsummer’s Day.

I have been asked if Austen worked into the calendar August 1st (Lammas Day). I don’t find that she did specifically because I trace only the major events of the novel; the little turns such as Knightley walking into a field or conferring with William Larkins I didn’t attend to. I worked out the following calendar by an intensely close reading of Austen’s Emma after reading Modert’s commentary.

Anyone who looks will see that Chapman was right in this: while one can draw a calendar out, one must deal with Austen’s new procedure of zeroing in on very few days over a two or three week period of time and then moving on to a later period; this requires conjecture; thus others may disagree with my calculations; what I did do was keep to the folk-festival-church and calendar year and to the birthdays of the characters and those days of the week we are given against a month. I remember that Eugene McDonnell also posted a brief partial calendar for Emma on Austen-l in which he showed the alignment of its events to the seasonal and folk year.

Real life mother and daughter Phyllida Law and Sophie Thompson as Mrs. and Miss Bates. Phyllida's other daughter is Emma Thompson.Finally, I have come across evidence which suggests our extant Emma is another of Austen’s “gradual performances”. There are Miss Bates’s references to Ireland which would have been fitting in 1801-2 (“[it] must make it very strange to be in different kingdoms, I was going to say, but however different countries”, Ch 19,p. 173) or very early in the 1810s. In her Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction Margaret Kirkham has shown that Emma may have taken its initial inspiration from a performance of an English translation of a play by Kotzebue, whose full English title is The Reconciliation, or The Birthday Party, first performed in England in 1799. However, I still think this novel was not originally epistolary: the controlled distant point of view suggests a wholly new approach to the delivery of narrative. Since Austen moved away from it in Persuasion, it may be that she was unconscious of the nature of her achievement and did not mean the reader to read this novel as ironically as many readers do. It’s revealing that she made the mistake of thinking many of her readers would not like Emma; in fact, many identify. This supports the contention the text is not meant to be fundamentally or consistently ironic.

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Ellen Moody, a Lecturer in English at George Mason University, has compiled the most accurate calendars for Jane Austen’s work, to date. Drawn from a variety of sources, including the original Chapman calendars and period Almanacs, her work has been recognized as the most thorough and certainly inclusive of all Austen Calendars. She has created timelines for each of the six novels and the three unfinished novel fragments; one of the calendars has been published as “A Calendar For Sense and Sensibility” in the Fall 2000 edition of the Philological Quarterly. To see more of her work on Austen visit her website to find

Essays on Mansfield Park

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For information on how Ellen created her calendars, click here

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