Sunday, September 20, 2009

Emma by Jane Austen

Oh, Emma. How I love you, and yet, how you frustrate and annoy me. Even Jane Austen wrote that she had created a heroine "whom no one but myself will much like." So there you have it. Emma is unique among Jane Austen's heroines because she's rich and doesn't need to worry about finding herself a good husband. However, this means that she's got lots of time on her hands, so she becomes a busybody and decides to match up all of her unmarried friends. Unfortunately, she's an insufferable snob, so that she thinks she knows who's best for everyone. This eventually backfires when she realizes she may have messed up her chances for the one man she really loves. In true Austen fashion, all ends well, though not exactly as first expected.

The first time I read this, I was so frustrated by Emma's character that I wanted to throw the book across the room (heretical behavior for a bibliophile). But this is just proof that Emma is so believeable and her character is so well-developed. Jane Austen makes her come to life. And the other characters, such as the chatterbox Miss Bates and the obnoxious Mrs. Elton, are so real I wanted to yell at them too. However, I will say that Emma, like David Copperfield, could have used a little editing. Some of the passages just seem to go on and on. That's probably why it's Jane Austen's longest book.

This time around I actually read very little of the print version, and mostly listened to the excellent audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson (on Naxos Audiobooks). If you've seen the 1996 film adaptation (starring Gwyneth Paltrow) might remember that Stevenson played the obnoxious and insufferable Mrs. Elton. This audiobook is absolutely wonderful and her narration is spot-on, making all the characters distinct. I even forgot that it was a woman narrating the men's parts as well, which I think is one sign of great audiobook narrator. If it wasn't so darned expensive I'd buy my own copy, but it's more than $80 plus shipping for the set of 13 CDs and $45 for the digital download. Still, if you can get it from your library, it's worth a listen.

Some people think that listening to an audiobook is somehow cheating -- The New York Times published a really interesting article on this very subject. Personally, I don't think so, as long as it's an unabridged version -- it's not as if you're reading the Cliffs Notes. I think the audio forces me to slow down and pay more attention -- sometimes I get so caught up in the plot of a book that I rush through to find out what's going to happen next. Also, some readers like Ms. Stevenson are so talented, they bring all the characters and situations to life, which makes it so much more memorable and enjoyable; and of course, some narrators just ruin a book altogether. Also, didn't the oral tradition of storytelling precede written narration? It's an ancient tradition. I don't think it's cheating the same way that watching a movie adaptation is. And I am a pushover for an Austen adaptation. I think I've seen them all, several times. I'm just waiting for the newest Emma adaptation, coming to PBS in January.

And, of course I'll be writing more on Jane Austen in October -- when I attend the 2009 meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America! (Yes, I know, I'm officially a Jane Austen geek.) I'll keep everyone posted on tea, whist, and ladylike behavior.


  1. I can't take the pace of audiobooks. I've tried but it just doesn't work for me. The only time I ever listen to them is if I cant' get ahold of a book in any other from. Now that I have a kindle, there won't be many audiobooks I'll need, because i can use the Gutenberg version. I didn't read off Gutenberg before because I don't like sitting/reading at the computer.

  2. I like audiobooks in the car, but they take forever since I don't drive that far anymore. They were great back when I was in grad school and drove back and forth every week. Also wonderful on a car trip.

    I also find that if I have an audiobook on my iPod I tend to walk longer than if I'm listening to music. Otherwise it's hard to execise and read at the same time, I keep walking into stuff.

  3. After discovering the double-speed button on my iPod Touch, the idea of the audio book improved tremendously. I'm in the middle of one right now, I listen to it when I'm driving, or doing a really boring job at work :P.

    It's interesting to me that Jane Austen has become the sort of classic phenomena that she is now. Not that I'm an Austen-basher. Pride and Prejudice is a really great book, for instance. It's just interesting, I mean, you don't hear about, say, Thomas Hardy conventions where you can learn to thresh corn, you know? (Well, maybe THAT'S with good reason, but you get my drift :D). Why do you think it is that the Austen trend has caught on?

  4. I exercise much better to music. If I'm listening to audiobooks, I tend to forget to keep walking and instead want to sit down and pay attention! :D

  5. Jason -- loved your comment about learning how to thresh corn at a Hardy-con! I laughed out loud. I guess Hardy hasn't caught on the same way because nobody wants to recreate the life of Tess.

    I do think the Austen-mania has to do with a lot of female fantasy. It's all so genteel and romantic, and all the stories have happy endings. The writing is also fairly accessible, and Jane Austen is actually pretty funny. Of course, they ignore the lack of sanitation, refrigeration, health care, women's rights, etc.

    There was a really British miniseries recently called Lost in Austen, in which a 21st century Londoner finds a magic portal in her apartment and switches place with Elizabeth Bennet. It's really quite funny and it does point out how much harder life was back then, especially for women. It's on DVD now, definitely worth watching. After you finish Lair of the White Worm, of course.

  6. OK, real quick, just to clarify, one is never DONE with Lair of the White Worm. That's like saying, a Christian is DONE with the bible. They may reach the end of the book, but that's the time to turn back to Genesis.I'm just saying.

    Now, on to other issues...

    See, that's what I just. Don't. Get. I mean, to be perfectly frank, I usually have more trouble relating to other men than I do to women. But Jane Austen? Really? Again, this is NOT to speak against her writing, which is gorgeous. But when I read Pride and Prejudice I feel deep sympathy for Elizabeth, not envy. I'm sure this is partly projection, sort of overlaying Betty Friedan on that life of never being allowed to just plain speak. The Austen books usually construct themselves in my head as struggles of these strong, beautiful women trying to maintain some modicum of individuality and dignity in a world that keeps telling them to be soulless dolls/toys for men to play with. There is this element of subversion in a Jane Austen novel, to me, like these women are thumbing their nose at the world around them, in a brave sort of way, not embracing it. So, the 'I really wish I could go back to the time period when I have to balance my desire for love and happiness with maintaining my status as a saleable asset' idea always struck me funny. Not that I fault people who would like this. I think it'd be a beautiful experience, for instance, to have a French Revolution conference, where you learn all the month names in the secular French calendar and make a red bonnet, and even learn to knit encoded names of the oppressors into scarves. Seriously, that sounds pitiful, but it would be a lot of fun. But I'm also real glad I don't ACTUALLY have to worry about getting m'head lopped off... ;P.

    But it would be LOTS of fun to learn to play Whist. Though I associate it with Phineas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. In high school, I actually checked out the Hoyle Book of Card Games to try to teach myself - but it kind of doesn't make much sense with only one person and a rulebook...

  7. I had no idea there was controversy over audiobooks vs. print. I have always take the view that, as long as it's not abridged (which I hate), then it is fine. It's the same book, just audible. And some people don't comprehend reading print as well as listening so it helps get people to "read" books.

    I read Emma after I saw Clueless and the whole time I kept comparing the two against each other. Maybe that's why it didn't frustrate me that much.

  8. having trouble commenting. It ate my commment.

    Short of it is: i like audiobooks, but like you don't drive often enough so it takes a long time.

    I look forward to *reading* the physical copy of this one though.


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