Saturday, June 30, 2012

Review: Emma by Jane Austen


Emma
Emma by Jane Austen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars



I was lucky to approach Jane Austen's works the way I did. Had I been forced to read her books for classes, and to pick them apart, I'd likely hate them. But, I've exclusively read Austen's books for pleasure, and that they have been.

Emma isn't my favorite Austen novel, but it is entertaining, in its way. It follows six or so months in the life of Emma Woodhouse, the youngest daughter of a wealthy hypochondriac. She's considered the "highest" person in Highbury, by virtue of birth and the fact that she's fairly social. But the book takes great pains to show that good breeding and good education don't make for a better person. Emma teases and embarrasses people, and manipulates someone she considers a close friend. Because of the standing in the community, people don't call her on her bad behavior, all of which is well within the codes of behavior for her class, which is why the consequences of her actions in this book come as such a shock to her.

If you've watched the movie Clueless, you're already familiar with the plot of Emma. Characters were combined or left out, and several plots were also changed, but the core of the story is there. Clueless could be argued to be something of an improvement, even, because the minutiae are left out. Emma goes on at length about who is invited to what social event, what people talk about there, where it's being held, how invitations are conveyed, who should be grateful to be invited, blah blah blah. For anyone who wants to know more of Regency-era English countryside living, there's quite a lot of detail to be found. But if you're waiting for the story to come along, I'm afraid all that social minutiae is the story.

At one point, a character's dialogue is spelled out for paragraphs and paragraphs, just to show the reader how tedious she sounds. I listened to this on audio, which really gets that across even more strongly. Had I been able to skim, I wouldn't have agreed so readily with Emma's assessment of that character.

The most illuminating character is that of Mrs. Elton, who doesn't show up until about halfway through the book. She abbreviates people's names, calls others by their first names, and assumes people are throwing parties in her honor when they aren't. Emma finds her a classless boor. While I don't know enough about Regency-era manners to point out all of her missteps, the ones Emma notices and points out are more than enough to tell me all about the unspoken rules. It was also interesting that "scheme" contains no negative connotation, and that "compliment" does. It carries an implication of an empty remark, said only for something to say.

Other than that, how little language has changed since Emma's publication surprised me. A lot of the dialogue sounded like something I might expect a well-spoken person in a movie to say, and the use of "pretty" as an adjective meaning, "very, but not strongly" was interesting.

The audio edition I listened to of this book had a male narrator. He sounded like he had a frog in his throat for a lot of the guy characters, and affected a falsetto for older women, which was annoying. But he did have a nice range of English accents that separated the characters nicely, and even managed to lend some of the characterization in his accents. I'd be interested to hear this narrated by a woman, though.

Overall, Emma is typical Austen. If you like her books, you'll like this one. If you don't, you probably won't. Austen did, reportedly, write that she had a heroine only she would like in Emma, so I felt quite comfortable in my waiting for her to realize what a jerk she was. That she does realize it, and works to become a better person, made me appreciate this book quite a lot.



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