Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Jane Austen's Emma


Source for this image here.

On the day of my birthday proper, one of the gifts that I received was a wonderful hardback edition of the complete works of Jane Austen.  It is a huge book - beautifully produced with gold-edged pages that makes me feel as if I am reading an original first edition!  I have only ever read one of Jane Austen's novels before - Mansfield Park, which was a long read but very enjoyable.  Little Bear, Cubby and I studied this book a couple of years ago as part of our homeschooling curriculum.  Now I have almost finished reading Emma.  This has been an easier read than Mansfield Park, partly because I have in fact seen a movie version of this book, so I was already familiar with the plot.

When we studied the work of Jane Austen as part of our homeschool project, we looked at some of the differerent critical approaches to analysing her writing which are readily available online and in print.  As with all great writers (and those not so great!) there exist very differing interpretations and opinions about the themes and messages that are conveyed in her writing.  Some critics focus on the more material aspects of her writing - the way that she represents society in her novels, and the relationships between the different characters, while others focus more on the political or metaphysical themes, some going so far as to say that her writing is fundamentally an early form of feminist critique.  Still more focus on the structure of the novels, and her skill in conveying her personal messages through the portrayal of the characters she writes about.

Not being very well educated myself, it was quite a challenge to interpret all these different theories and analyses, and make my own conclusions!  The cubs of course approached the novel and the literary criticism that we examined in quite a different way - and it was interesting to see how their youth and upbringing meant that their understanding of the themes in the novels varied from mine in some areas, and in others was much in agreement.

Personally, I like to read novels as literally as the words appear on the page, and prefer to leave the analysis and critical theory to the experts.  For this reason, I have enjoyed reading Emma a great deal more than I enjoyed reading Mansfield Park, simply because I have been able to take it as it appears.  It is essentially - as all Jane Austen's novels are - a love story.  As with all of her central figures, Emma is a young unmarried woman who is yet to be betrothed.  The story has a few twists and turns to the plot as Emma, who fancies herself as a matchmaker, tries to enter her friend Harriet, who is socially of a class beneath her own, into a courtship with a succession of unsuitable gentlemen of a higher social standing, before eventually coming to realise, through her own unexpected betrothal, that the perfect marriage partner for Harriet is indeed the gentleman who first proposed to her.

 This novel has been a very satisfying read as for me, it conveys a message which is still very much the foundation for a happy and successful marriage union today - that betrothal works best between marriage partners whose values, aspirations, social standing and character are of a similar measure, and that it should be postponed in order that the hearts of both partners remain intact until their union is sealed.  In Emma there is a subtle focus on purity which runs through the whole of the novel and which, given the era in which Jane Austen was writing, was probably universally assumed to be the norm for all betrothals in a way in which it is no longer, today.   Of course, there are many other themes running through the novel - romance, material security, honesty, education, illness, bereavement and inheritance to name but a few.

There is a view held among some critics of Jane Austen's writing that she was one of the first feminist novelists, however I see no feminist themes in her writing although I can see how some of it could be misinterpreted as such.  Jane Austen could not have been writing from a feminist viewpoint - nearly 250 years ago the word did not exist.  Her understanding of the roles of men and women would have been shaped by the society she was raised in - she had no access to social media, telecommunications or other means of broadening the scope of her experience of life, and her immediate society would have been that of the rural gentry of whom she was part, and her morals thus those she had been taught both at home and at Church.

The idea that she could use her writing as a form of social discourse questioning the roles of women, would have been entirely alien to Jane Austen, and instead it is clear from reading not just Emma but any of her novels, that her understanding of women was entirely and very appropriately contemporaneous.  I have really enjoyed reading this novel for just this reason - it has transported me straight back to an era where the roles of men and women seemed to be more clearly defined, and where femininity was a womanly trait to be nurtured and cherished, celebrated for the beautiful thing that it is, and when the lifetime bond of the marriage union was a precious gift to be treasured forever.

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