'Emma' by Jane Austen started out as a bit of a chore and turned into a delight. I am not sure why she calls it Emma since everyone in the book refers to each other by their full title, so Mrs Weston and Miss Woodhouse don't call each other by their first names even though they are the most intimate of friends who have shared a home for years, her father is the only one who ever calls her Emma. I was drawn to give Miss Austen another go by this Guardian article that mum sent me, that outlines the subtleties of the book's narrative and structure and the influence it had on future novel writing. I think that the things that I said about her writing and her characters in my review of 'Pride and Prejudice' pretty much still stand in 'Emma'; many of the minor players are somewhat one dimensional and predictable, and the stifling social exchanges do not make for gripping reading. Having read the article I did not have any surprises coming where the plot was concerned, but then it gave me insights into the characters' behaviour and so I found it enjoyable to watch for the subtle little hints that Austen drops concerning their true intentions. Also Tish's assessment of Austen writing much to say little also stands true: almost the entire of chapter 18, some five pages, are given over to a conversation between Emma and Mr Knightley, in which they discuss the character of Frank Churchill, a man neither of them has yet met. Once the fascinating Mr Frank Churchill finally arrives on the scene the smooth running of their quiet little community becomes suddenly more complicated, and therefore much more interesting, and from that point I found the book much more engaging.
The social mores are the one thing that I do find interesting, the insights into attitudes of the period: here, for example, is a description of Mrs Goddard's school:
"a real, honest, old-fashioned Boarding-school, where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price, and where girls might be sent to be out of the way and scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies." (p.17)
And this, Emma's explanation to Harriet as to why she will have nothing to do with Mr Martin:
"That may be - and I may have seen him fifty times, but without having any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or another. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it." (p.23)
I did like this lovely description of the main street of Highbury, I like it because I think that it is described with affection, by Emma, which shows how she feels about the community she lives in:
"Harriet, tempted by every thing, and swayed by half a word, was always very long a purchase; and while she was still hanging over muslins and changing her mind, Emma went to the door for amusement. - Much could not be hoped for from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury; - Mr Perry walking hastily by, Mr William Cox letting himself in at the office-door, Mr Cole's carriage horses returning from exercise, or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her travelling eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough to still stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease, can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer." (p.176)
This is the tedious and snobby Mrs Elton, regaling everyone with her in depth knowledge on the subject of strawberries, and showing very neatly Jane Austen's development of this particular style of punctuation, partial sentences with dashes, to indicate someone rattling on, uninterruptable, and not allowing any exchange of view or opinions:
"The best fruit in England - every body's favourite - always wholesome. - These the finest beds and finest sorts. - Delightful to gather for one's self - the only way of really enjoying them. - Morning decidedly the best time - never tired - every sort good - hautboy infinitely superior - no comparison - the others hardly eatable - hautboys very scarce - Chili preferred - white wood finest flavour of all - price of strawberries in London - abundance about Bristol - Maple Grove - cultivation - beds when to be renewed - gardeners thinking exactly different - no general rule - gardeners never to be put out of their way - delicious fruit - only too rich to be eaten much of - inferior to cherries - currants more refreshing - only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping - glaring sun - tired to death - could bear it no longer - must go and sit in the shade." (p.271)
I will finish with this wonderful exchange between Jane Fairfax and Mr Knightley, about the post-office; if only people nowadays would show such appreciation for the job we do, that has only become more complex over the years:
" 'The post-office is a wonderful establishment!' said she. - 'The regularity and dispatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!'
'It is certainly very well regulated.'
'So seldom that any negligence or blunder appears! So seldom that a letter, among the thousands that are constantly passing about the kingdom, is even carried wrong - and not one in a million, I suppose, actually lost! And when one considers the variety of hands, and of bad hands too, that are to be deciphered, it increases the wonder.' " (p.223-4)
All things considered I think it has improved my opinion of Jane Austen, and who knows, I may give another of her books a try ... maybe next year.