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The latest Oxford edition of Emma

Emma. The book of books. A remarkable novel where when a story or character suggestively goes through Emma’s mind since she half-gets it wrong, and sees it partially, we are invited to imagine it whole—so one novel becomes many in potential.

Like all the other latest Oxfords, the text here is a reprint of the 1971 text edited by James Kinsley (basically an emended reprint of Chapman’s 1923 text as revised by Mary Lascelles). As with Pride and Prejudice, there is no alternative first text as there is no manuscript and Austen died before a second edition could even be thought of. Like latest reprints of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, we also get exactly the same supplemental materials: brief biographical note, bibliography, chronology, and (by Vivien Jones) appendices on rank and social status and on dancing. The notes are a reprint of the 2003 notes Adele Pinch wrote.

Adela Pinch’s introduction to the latest 2008 Oxford reprint of Emma emphasizes how different Emma seemed to most novels to readers of the era; Pinch tells us how bored Edgeworth said she felt in a letter to a friend. Since it was Austen who sent a copy of her book to Edgeworth (probably out of pride in an achievement), I, for one, prefer to assume this comment never got round to Austen. Not that Austen is herself shy of criticizing other novelists harshly or (at least in her letters to her sister) at all unsure of the high and exquisite quality of her artistry. Her response to Scott’s review was to complain he left out Mansfield Park.

Pinch goes on to say that Scott’s remarkable review focuses precisely on what he felt made Emma so noteworthy he had to record it himself: its use of quiet diurnal events so understated and unextraordinary that we can be fooled into thinking the book is as real as the lives going on around us. Pinch considers this kind of texture “revolutionary” and discusses how Emma’s blunders amid such everyday experience as shopping and gossip, makes readers question how they know what they know. Fiona Stafford’s introduction to the (2003) New Penguin, takes the same stance and uses the same text: there too we begin with Scott’s review; the difference is Stafford then goes on to suggest this realism is an illusion Austen set up and continually undercuts by her use of puns, allusions, games, coded names and parody.

It is common for people writing on Emma to begin with taking it as an extraordinary achievement as well as a book somehow more fully representative of Austen’s art than any of her others. And it is now de rigueur (as Pinch and Stafford do) to single out free indirect discourse as Austen’s invention too, when in fact it may be found (though crudely done) in many earlier novels. Nonetheless, it is not true that free indirect discourse and quiet diurnal probable realism were new or unique to Emma: precisely this mood and versions of this kind of discourse can be found in novels by Charlotte Lennox, Sarah Fielding, Mary Brunton (Austen complained about one of her books perhaps because in another so like Emma that were it not for its date, it’d be called a source, Discipline), and among the French writers who Austen read, Isabelle de Charriere, Stephanie-Felicite de Genlis, Adelaide de Souza and Isabelle de Montolieu use free indirect discourse & quiet diurnal realism. Further, what Scott is actually astonished by is Austen’s ability to conjure up in an excited, spirited and original way a complexly believable ordinary character, not a fanatic, not grotesque, not in psychological extremis; that is what is beyond him he feels.

The important innovation of Emma forms the centerpiece of a central critical text of our time: Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction where he is deeply troubled by a technique or element that he feels distinguishes modern or 20th century novels from just about all earlier ones: an unreliable narrator whose morality is appallingly bad or pernicious.

In Emma Austen did something so innovative and controlled that it was not imitated with a similar artistic consistency until Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary. (It’s no coincidence Flaubert called his erring heroine, Emma.). At the center of Austen’s novel is an unreliable narrator toward whom her implied author takes an ironic or distanced stance. This in order to present us with a self-centered self-regarding, blundering as well as startlingly blind, domineering, very rich and snobbish, and at times malicious heroine.

Why did I call this perplexing? Well Austen as implied author gives Emma qualities she likes, nay identifies with: as a composite whole, Austen wants us to recognize Emma as part of ourselves. Sometimes Emma is all kindness, especially towards her father.

As numerous critics have written, it is difficult to know how we are to judge any particular character, incident or utterance when the innovation (ploy, trick) is to make the heroine, its “central reflector” (to use Henry James’s term) our unreliable and only narrator except for two chapters where the free indirect discourse is used to make Mr Knightley our reflector (I:5 & 3:5); occasional carefully unobtrusive narratives and interjections by our implied author when it is necessary for us to know some piece of history or point of view we would be in danger of misunderstanding were we to be given it by Emma (e.g, most of 1:2, 2:2, the first sentence of 2:4), and obstreperous or apparently obtuse characters who will act or have their say irrespective of Emma’s wishes (e.g., Mr Weston and Mrs Elton in the 2nd through 28th paragraph of 3:6)

Now Booth sees the development after Austen as dangerous since the reader is seduced into identifying and sympathizing with such central consciousnesses and amorality is reinforced and made acceptable. He suggests there had been unreliable narrators before, but the first one, Austen’s, is in a book that carefully discriminates between what is right and wrong by having an alert and active enough implicit author and a heroine who is basically a good person even if flawed, one whose happy ending we are to rejoice in. Myself I can think of dozens of novels where just this combination of dramatic irony, mystery and alternating sympathy and alienation is the reigning technique, and most of them those by women have narrators we are ambivalent about.

Where the problem with Booth’s analysis comes up is how sure he is that all readers admire and rejoice in Emma herself. He seems at times to forget Austen’s famous statement upon embarking on writing the book: ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like’. While on the Internet among common readers of Austen, Fanny and not Emma wars have become famous, it doesn’t take long before coming across strong dissenters from Booth’s complacent delight in Emma, for his is a father’s view of his wonderfully loving, smart and finally submissive daughter (rather like Mr Knightley who he also admires very much), and thus very different interpretations of the novel.

Of those who cannot like Emma and rigorously find faults and flaws in the book or are candid in asking how we are to take a scene that seems to ask us to accept an obnoxious or now obsolete social attitude, I name Mark Schorer, Margaret Drabble, Arnold Kettle, and most recently Avrom Fleishman. Fleishman’s essay is the most intriguing since like Austen he uses an ironic tone: he presents this strange young woman without telling us what her name is (except since it’s in Todd’s book under Emma we must guess). Austen’s heroine emerges as a sexually frustrated neurotic woman tied down to an imbecilic weak (unconscious) tyrant. This over-the-top yet persuasive (you have to read the essay) interpretation stays with one because of the use of irony, and I at least was left wondering if this psychoanalysis is more accurate than we like to admit.

Fleishman’s view coheres with the more traditional approach of Schorer who sees the sexual frustration and fear in Emma and who also resembles Booth because in the end he feels Emma is rightly rewarded with Mr Knightley and qualifiedly adult contentment after she has been humiliated. Schorer’s is a punitive masculinist interpretation. For my part I find Margaret Drabble’s frank dissent and discomfort with Emma and her puzzles over where Austen is in this book and what she expects us to think and feel among all this irony the most illuminating essay in conventional print about it. Far superior to Pinch or Stafford.

This latest Oxford Emma does differ in one way from the three latest Oxfords I have reviewed: like the others, we get a detail of a picture of an attractive young woman so angled that the picture becomes a close up; however, this time the choice (as in 2003) is George Dawe’s Portrait of Mrs White (nee Watford), Full Length in a White Silk Dress (1809) and angling the camera this way makes the woman’s breasts prominent and (as it were) in the viewer’s face. So the volume participates in the recent fashion for exposure of breasts on classic or high status novels (and their sequels), a pornification which matches this decades fashion, even if the use of old images precludes also presenting an anorexic sexy model.

More appropriate to Austen’s subdued book are the images of ordinary social life which provide the covers for the books which provide full apparatuses, e.g., the two Norton editions thus far (of an 1817-18 assembly at Clifton) or the choice for the Longman Emma (ed. Frances Ferguson) of a contemporary image of Apley Priory, an 1811 mansion which included medievalizing elements that made it resemble an abbey.

Countering the insistence on the lifelike believable characters and place, is an equally strong tradition where it’s demonstrated how idyllic, leisured, insular, narrow and protected is the world our heroine is conscious of and lives wholly in.

More appropriate than a huge elegant romanticized mansion or exquisiteness picturesqueness would be a picture of a quiet country village, something anticipating Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.

I’m one of those uncomfortable with Austen’s Emma. I don’t see what Emma has done to merit the apparently happy ending she is rewarded with. It may be that Austen is just showing how such a woman, so handsome, clever, rich, now with two comfortable homes, and a complacent disposition will live with ease. If so, I wish she hadn’t spent so many final chapters detailing the wish-fulfillment element and cannot myself believe that Jane Fairfax could so quickly forgive, unless again we are to see status at work and Jane’s reserve still functioning to protect her. This seems a stretch in that “feel good” scene between them in the corridor of Miss Bates’s lodging. What may be said, as Margaret Drabble writes, is “society has triumphed,” and I would feel more comfortable if the irony directed at the final happy community were shafted by someone other than Mrs Elton.

You can purchase Emma in various editions at our Jane Austen Bookshop. Click here.

Price: £4.99
Paperback: 448 pages
Publisher: OUP Oxford; New Ed. / edition (17 April 2008)
ISBN-10: 0199535523
ISBN-13: 978-0199535521


Ellen Moody, a Lecturer in English at George Mason University, has compiled the most accurate calendars for Jane Austen’s work, to date. She has created timelines for each of the six novels and the three unfinished novel fragments. She is currently working on a book, The Austen Movies. Visit her website for further Austen related articles.

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