Emma, or Truth and Consequences


Jane Austen

This isn’t the cover of the edition I read, but I thought it was pretty, and reminded me of Emma, herself.  Actually I read a “Borders Classic” edition (poor Borders!) with plain black cover, “copyright 2004 (huh?)”, 386 pgs.


Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Finally finished the last of the Austens for the Challenge read!  I’ve always had an awareness of this book:  I’ve watched numerous adaptations (love the stunning 2009 version with Romola Garai!) and of course the adorable Clueless.  But digging into the reality of Emma ended up being more of a chore for me than I expected.  That, and the numerous distractions keeping me from my Challenge reading — school, work, life — blah, blah.  Must keep reading!

Anyway, Emma.  The plot:  Emma Woodhouse is a rich and lovely young lady who lives in the quiet Surrey village of Highbury with her hypochondriac and eccentric father.  Her mom died many years ago and her older sister is married and raising a family in London.  Emma’s wealth, high status in the neighborhood, and her indulgent father leaves her plenty of resources, time and energy to meddle in the lives of her neighbors.  She fancies herself the ultimate match-maker, after having overseen the successful courtships of her sister and her beloved governess, Miss Taylor.  With Miss Taylor now married to neighboring Mr. Weston, Emma focuses her energies on a more ambitious effort:  finding a husband for a poor and clueless orphan girl, Harriet Smith.  Emma’s antics in promoting this project will have long-reaching and disastrous consequences affecting the lives of Harriet and many others.  Least of those touched by Emma’s plots will be the handsome and flirtatious Frank Churchill, mysterious and aloof Jane Fairfax and finally, Emma’s nemesis, George Knightley.

I always thought this book was going to be light-hearted and fun.  It actually was quite serious.  It had a lot to do with telling the truth and what happens when people don’t.  From the romantic “riddles” being passed back and forth by Emma and her erstwhile admirer, Mr. Elton, secret engagements, false situations created to try to throw potential lovers together,  illnesses faked to manipulate others — much of the story points to the lesson urged by Mr. Knightley:

“My Emma, does not everything serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”

Of course, the point of the book is for Emma to learn this lesson for herself.  Also, being Austen, we get a heavy dose of the realities and consequences of adhering to the rules of society.  Finally, Emma is quite a long book and to my taste, doesn’t have the pacing and pep of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.  Austen really takes a long time to tie all the plot lines together at the end and at one point I felt as bored and trapped as one of the characters playing an endless game of whist or backgammon with Mr. Woodhouse.  Even with that criticism, getting to know Emma was a delight and watching her grow up and embrace the beauty of truth was worth the wait.

Famous Box Hill in Surrey was the scene for the "Box Hill" outing in Emma.  Source:  This image was originally posted to Flickr by lostajy at http://flickr.com/photos/15192926@N00/164896001. It was reviewed on 1 April 2008 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

Famous Box Hill in Surrey was the scene of the “Box Hill” outing in Emma. Source: This image was originally posted to Flickr by lostajy at http://flickr.com/photos/15192926@N00/164896001. It was reviewed on 1 April 2008 by the FlickreviewR robot and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-2.0.

January is for Jane, Part One: Mansfield Park

mansfieldMansfield Park

Jane Austen

Once again, I read a free download from Amazon.  As an aside, electronic access to these public domain works is a real boon to my reading Challenge.  Otherwise, I would be bankrupt and have my shelves overflowing with books!


According to my newly-discovered bible on all things Austen, the Republic of Pemberley website, Mansfield Park was published between Pride and Prejudice and Emma, and described as solemn and moralistic when compared to the other two works.  This is my penultimate Austen on the Challenge list.  I have already read  Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey.  Only Emma to go.  Yay, I am loving this Austen part of the Challenge!  Or as Jane put it more elegantly:

I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of anything than of a book!  — Pride and Prejudice

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Mansfield Park, where have you been all my life?  I loved this book.  I got up at about 7:00 am this morning, and had about a quarter of the book left to read.  I could not put it down until I finished it around 11 am.

The rich family at Mansfield Park, the Bertrams, decide to invite their poor niece Fanny Price to live with them.  Fanny’s mother, Lady Bertram’s sister, had disgraced herself by marrying a low-ranked naval officer.  The Bertrams extend the hand of charity to this poor little girl and Fanny is to be raised with the wealthy Bertram children.  As a poor relation, she is treated as a sort of Cinderella character.  The kindest of the cousins, Edmund Bertram, becomes Fanny’s protector and champion.   She grows up to be a shy and self-deprecating girl, albeit with a steadfast and upright character.

When the cousins grow up,  Henry and Mary Crawford, a wealthy and dashing brother and sister,  move into the neighborhood.  Love complications develop quickly for the young people.  Much of the plot is about living within, without or falling from the strict code of conduct of Austen’s day — and what that means for the happiness of the various characters.  For example, brothers Tom and Edmund Bertram serve as counterpoints, one a wastrel and the other a good-natured young man anxious to do his duty.  You don’t need to guess who has the happier end in the story.  Making a good marriage, one that benefits other members of the family, is a priority.  Several selfish characters take it upon themselves to flout the rules to the heartbreak of others and their own eventual downfall.

Along with this “code of conduct” theme there is a wonderful flavor of understated humor in this book.  Several characters, including the lazy Lady Bertram and her busybody sister Mrs. Norris, are really funny.

“It is a very anxious period for her.”  As he said this, each looked towards their mother.  Lady Bertram, sunk back in one corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquility, was just falling into a gentle doze…

I also found the theme of home — or finding one’s true home or place — to be a interesting one.  One’s true home may not necessarily be the place where you were born, but may be the place where you are most needed or most useful to others.  Several of the more dissolute characters wander from fancy house to fancy estate – but are never at peace or in harmony with others.  Brilliant gardens and grounds may hide empty hearts or minds.

“Varnish and gilding hide many stains.” — Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park.

For those whose hearts are true, who long to love and serve those around them, the instinct to be at home is strong — and I believe this is the final lesson of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.  Poor, humble and once despised, Fanny is the character who is most central and most useful to all the other characters.  The story of Fanny finding her true home and true love is the story of Mansfield Park.

“I trust and hope, and sincerely wish you may never be absent from home so long again.”

Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey

NorthangerAbbeyNorthanger Abbey

Jane Austen

I read the free Amazon Kindle version.  The introduction describes it as the Signet Classic Text edition.  182 pgs.

Austen wrote Northanger Abbey in 1797-98, referring to it as both “Susan” and “Miss Catherine.”  In 1803 she sold the manuscript to the London publisher Crosbie & Co., but the book was never published.  In 1816, Jane bought the book back from Crosbie and made some revisions to it, but put it “on the shelf.”  Her brother Henry finally had the novel published in 1817, the year of Jane’s death. 1.

Other books I’ve read by Austen:  Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility.  These masterpieces were written well after Northanger, and I noticed immediately how undeveloped this novel is when compared with the later works.  Perhaps Austen knew best when she “shelved” it in 1816.  I still need to read Mansfield Park and Emma to complete all the Austens on the Guardian list.

One other bibliographic note.  The main character, Catherine Morland, is a big fan of the gothic novels of her day, especially the works of Ann Radcliffe.  Radcliffe’s 1794 block-buster, The Mysteries of Udolpho (also on the Guardian list!), serves as both a point of discussion for the characters in Northanger and a sort of counter-plot.  The theme of literature (as in, what is good?  are novels bad?) winds throughout Northanger.  Remembering that this book is really part of Austen’s juvenalia, I could almost hear the young Austens enthusing about the horrors of Udolpho and urging sister Jane:  “You could write something even better!!!”  Fun thoughts.

Guardian 1000 Challenge.  Love Titles.

Now, the plot.  Our heroine, Catherine Morland, is a young, innocent and earnest young lady who is taken on a pleasure trip to the resort town of Bath by kindly Mr. and Mrs. Allen.  Catherine’s function is to act as a companion to the flighty and clothes-obsessed Mrs. Allen.

To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability of administering to the vanities of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid.  A woman, especially, if she have the misfortune of knowing anything, should conceal it as well as she can.  — Northanger Abbey.

Catherine’s brother James, who is on holiday from Oxford,  joins the party in Bath, and the two younger people are soon caught up in what I would imagine would be equivalent to a modern U.S. spring break in Daytona Beach — but with long dresses, chaperones and a big emphasis on drinking Bath’s medicinal waters instead of Bud Light.  Catherine and James form a sudden and intense friendship with brother and sister Isabella and John Thorpe.  Isabella is on the make for a rich husband and her maneuverings are obvious to anyone a mile away — except for the innocent and gullible Morlands.  John Thorpe is just a crazy maniac whose talents are limited to gossip and bragging.  At the same time, Catherine also meets the refined and fascinating Tilney family — brother and sister Eleanor and Henry, and their father, doughty General Tilney.

Bath from Beechen Cliff

City of Bath, view from Beechen Cliff. Source: http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/945985. Creative Commons license by Derek Harper.

Catherine is very attracted to the handsome and kind Henry Tilney, and anxious to get away from John Thorpe.  She finds that Henry enjoys reading as much as she does and endorses her love of the gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe.

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.  — Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey.

Catherine is excited to think that the Tilneys live in an old Abbey, and imagines lots of mysterious adventures there.  She is ecstatic to be invited to stay at  Northanger Abbey for a kind of extended sleepaway party by Eleanor Tilney.  Once installed at Northanger, Catherine has several “gothic” adventures based more on her over-heated imaginings rather than any real hauntings.  She is brought soundly back to earth by some real-life gothic horrors that haunted young ladies of that day:  the powerlessness of poverty, the inability to find true love when one’s reputation is questioned, and the cruelty of so-called gentlemen.  Austen does provide a happy ending, but not after some true mysteries are brought to light.

I enjoyed this read, despite its rather skimpy plot.  Several main characters (Eleanor Tilney and General Tilney, for example) hardly ever speak, and their motivations are somewhat clumsily described second-hand by Austen.  Austen’s satiric gifts are present, but they will be more fully displayed in her later work.  For example, the ridiculous characters of Mrs. Allen and John Thorpe seem almost frantically portrayed; they will reappear skillfully drawn as Mrs. Bennett and Cousin Collins in Pride and Prejudice.  The gothic theme is carried through about three-fourths of the novel, but then abruptly dropped after Catherine is lectured by Henry about her imaginings.

Fun fact:  Northanger Abbey contains the first known reference to the sport of baseball. 2.

Northanger Abbey was another title that I probably would never have read, except for the Guardian Challenge.  I’m not sure I’m up for following this with The Mysteries of Udolpho, although that would make sense.  We’ll see!

Notes 1 & 2:  The Republic of Pemberly, http://www.pemberley.com/janeinfo/janewrit.html#northabbey.