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.