Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued, by Emma Tennant – A Review & Rant

Emma in Love Emma Tennant 1996 x 200From the desk of Laurel Ann Nattress:

When a book is universally acknowledged by Janeites as the worst Jane Austen sequel ever written, why would I want to read it? Temptation? Curiosity? Due diligence? Take your pick. I like to think that I am open to carefully drawing my own conclusions before passing judgment. After-all, Austen told us through her observant character Elizabeth Bennet, “It is particularly incumbent on those who never change their opinion, to be secure of judging properly at first.”— Pride and Prejudice

So, it was with wide eyes and an open heart that I began Emma Tennant’s Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued. Published in 1996, it was controversial before it even hit bookstores. Eager to cash in on the release of two film adaptations of Emma staring Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale, Tennant’s UK publisher chose to move up the publication date to stymie its competitor, Perfect Happiness, by Rachel Billington. That might seem like good business (or mercenary tactics by some), but that was not the real controversy. Tennant had chosen to include a romantic relationship between the married Emma Knightley and a new female character, Baroness Elisa d’Almane. Her reasoning for this provocative choice? Why, historical precedence by scholars of course! When interviewed in 1996 Tennant boldly stated, “I am not taking any liberties. Emma is known as the lesbian book in Jane Austen’s oeuvre. It has strong lesbian overtones and undertones. In the original, Emma absolutely adores Harriet Smith, her protégé and spends a lot of time with her. There’s a passage where she describes how Harriet’s soft blue eyes are just the type of eyes that Emma loves. I am not the first to draw out her lesbianism. Serious academics have found many clues to it in Emma.” 1.

Perfect Happiness by Rachel Billington 1996 x 150I am not an Austen scholar, nor had I picked up on the hidden subtext that some have discovered in female relationships in Emma, but I was curious if Tennant’s claims were based on a real academic debate. The amiable Austen scholar Devoney Looser kindly answered my inquiry with a list of several essays on the subject and offered this comment, “Discussing lesbianism in Emma has a longer history than we might assume, as many scholars have pointed out. Sixty years ago Edmund Wilson and Marvin Mudrick remarked directly on Emma’s same-sex attractions, though in a generally unsupportive way. 2. Wilson’s essay suggests that if the novel were continued, the married Emma would continue to indulge in infatuations with women.”

We don’t know which essays Tennant read, but she obviously ran with this notion and incorporated it into her novel. Even if the premise is founded on scholarly research, the question in my mind was how far a sequalist can stray in continuing Austen’s characterizations, and would the reading public of 2014 accept it?

With nine 1 star reviews on Amazon since 1999, it appeared that the forewarning I had received was not unwarranted. Trying not to be a partial and prejudiced reader I downloaded the new digital edition onto my NOOK and settled in for a weekend in Highbury with an author who might rival Austen’s heroine as the ultimate imaginist.Dorian Goodwin as Emma Woodhouse, Emma (1972)

Doran Goodwin as Emma Woodhouse, Emma (1972)

The Plot:

It has been four years since Miss Emma Woodhouse and Mr. George Knightley were united in matrimony. They are in residence at Donwell Abbey, the large Knightley estate that borders Hartfield, Emma’s childhood home and residence for two years after her marriage until the death of her father, dear Mr. Woodhouse. Emma’s elder sister Isabella has also met her maker after catching a fever in London (just as Mr. Woodhouse predicted) leaving five young children and husband John Knightley in deep grief. Jane Fairfax is working as a governess to August Elton’s friend Mrs. Smallridge after her feckless fiancé Frank Churchill jilted her at the altar for a northern heiress with £50,000. It is July and the charms of the Surrey countryside have drawn the two former lovers back to Highbury; unbeknownst to each other until their arrival. Frank Churchill is staying with his father Mr. Weston and his wife at Randalls, and Jane Fairfax, obliged to travel with her employer, is staying at the Parsonage with Mr. and Mrs. Elton. Both have brought a mysterious guest with them: Frank’s brother-in-law Captain Brocklehurst, and Jane’s friend, the exiled French Baroness d’Almane.

Two beautiful strangers have come to Highbury in one day! Remarkable as this is to Emma, she only sees the marriage possibilities for the single people around her and reneges on her promise to her husband never to match make again. Determined that Jane should marry her widowed brother-in-law John Knightley, she devises a dinner party at Donwell to bring them together. While walking to Hartfield to visit him and his children, she meets the very handsome Captain Brocklehurst who confides that Frank Churchill is devastated by the fate of Miss Fairfax and still in love with her. Astounded, Emma is also anxious to meet the other new visitor in Highbury and travels to the Parsonage to extend an invitation to the Baroness, Jane, the Elton’s and Mrs. Smallridge to her soiree. On the path she encounters Frank Churchill picking wildflowers in the hot sun. He entreats her to deliver them to Jane. Emma begs off and is concerned by his emotional behavior. At the Parsonage, Mrs. Elton introduces Emma to the beautiful and beguiling Baroness. She is mesmerized by her charms and annoyed by her lingering touches and loving gazes at Jane Fairfax. Feeling a pang of jealousy, Emma wonders if they are more than friends? Conflicted, Emma feels compelled to warn Jane and learn all she can about this intriguing creature.

Gwynth Paltrow in Emma (1996) x 350

Gwynth Paltrow as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)

My Review:

Told in Austen’s inventive third person narrative style, Emma in Love reunites us with many of the Highbury characters we adore: Miss and Mrs. Bates, Harriet Martin, Mr. & Mrs. Weston, Mr. & Mrs. Elton, brothers John and George Knightley and the nonsensical girl herself, the clever, rich and handsome Emma Knightley. That is where any similarity to Austen’s tale ends.

Heavy on exposition and light on dialogue, the story begins well enough with a curious setup and conflicts, but soon lacks a balance of show and tell—and logic. To compensate, Tennant pulls in links from Austen’s original novel to tie the two together with generous abandon: Frank mends Mrs. Bates glasses again; John Knightley threatens with warnings of bad weather; Mr. Woodhouse’s worrisome predictions come to pass even from the grave; and many more. Some readers might enjoy these ah-ha moments, but after three or four they became intrusive heavy-lifting to me. Tennant continues to channel Jane Austen’s characters steadily until they go off in directions that Austen would never have broached head on: same sex relationships.

Things are definitely not as they should be in Highbury. Tennant’s Emma and Mr. Knightley’s marriage is very odd. They are indeed “brother and sister” – platonic and unromantic. He treats her like an errant school girl while engrossed in estate business and sleeps in his own room with his landscapes. Immature and insecure, Emma clings to the advice of neighbors Harriet Martin and Mrs. Weston before every move. Even dimwitted Harriet can see the writing on the wall. “Mr. Knightley was no more – and no less – than a father to her in reality.” 53 Mesmerized by the exotic and bewitching Baroness, Emma recognizes her intimate gestures to Jane Fairfax? My first reaction was a question. How would a Regency era woman raised in a sheltered country village, who has the emotional maturity of a twelve-year-old (according to Tennant), know about, let alone detect, same sex relationships? According to my esteemed Janeite friend Diana Birchall, who I hounded over this issue (and other annoyances about the book), “… mention of such things certainly wouldn’t have been bandied about among gentlefolk, as they are today. Certainly Jane Austen knew about homosexuality, her joking proves that, but it wouldn’t have been a topic for polite conversation among the middle class. Probably much more so among the aristocracy – you’d think Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire and her set would know all about it. Fanny Hill and other such books certainly showed female/female action, but Fanny Hill et al would NOT have been in the library of the Rev. George Austen, or in the lending-libraries Jane Austen frequented!” This only confirmed my astonishment. Tennant was beginning on very shaky ground. I didn’t believe her premise for one moment.

Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)

Kate Beckinsale as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)

Spoilers:

After Emma meets the Baroness and becomes passionately infatuated with her, she is witness to many eye-popping events in Highbury: Captain Brocklehurst in drag, Miss Bates suddenly and uncontrollably issuing expletives during a dinner party (Tourette’s?), the Baroness passionately kissing her in her bedroom, and Frank and Captain Brocklehurst engaged in a love that shall not be named. It was all so far-fetched and sensational that it just smacked of exploitation of Austen’s characters for pure monetary gain.

Had enough yet? Well, there is more. To wrap up the novel in a slapdash fashion, Tennant ends with a boating party where Emma witnesses the estranged Baroness, Mrs. Weston and her husband Mr. Knightley conversing on an island in the center of the lake while the narrator conjectures that the fake Baroness is the secret love child of Miss Taylor (now Mrs. Weston) and Mr. Knightley. WHAT? As I shut off my NOOK in a defiant gesture of disgust I remembered, in ironic Austenian fashion, that it had been bantered about by Austen scholars that Jane Fairfax was the secret love child of Miss Bates and Mr. Knightley and Tennant had not only got the sexual subtext all wrong, she had the incorrect lovers as well! HA!

Emma (2009)

Romola Garia as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (2009)

My Rant: 

Reading Emma in Love brought up more questions than it answered for me. I was continually puzzled. So much so, that I sought the help of others to understand it. Why did Tennant write it? Who was she trying to appeal to? Was it written as a joke or was she truly attempting to promote the notion that Emma is a lesbian novel? Is it the book that she set out to write, or an abbreviated version because it was rushed to press? Only Tennant can answer these questions. Maybe one day she will be interviewed and reveal the answers. In the meantime we are left up a tree.

The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet (2008)Was Emma in Love truly the worst Jane Austen sequel ever written? Quite possibly, at least by a professional, award winning novelist. (Colleen McCullough’s The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet comes in at a close second.) It failed not only because it did not present the same sex love relationship in any believable way, but it relied on sensational social issues as its axis that Austen would never have written about directly. It lacked “honour, decorum, prudence — nay, interest” as Lady Catherine would say. Yes interest. I was just annoyed and bored.

Let this novel serve as a warning to all who take up their pen to channel Jane Austen. Sensationalism may sell a few books and feed the circus animals in the press, but writing a pure bravado piece like Tennant’s Emma in Love will not earn you the respect of your readers, nor will it ingratiate you to the academics you may have wanted to please. If you do choose this route, be comforted in the fact that you will never have to meet the original author in heaven, because you will surely be in a place far below where they do not serve ice in their cocktails.

1 out of 5 Regency Stars

Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued, by Emma Tennant
Fourth Estate (1996)
Trade paperback (229) pages
ISBN: 978-1857026634)

1. Nigel Reynolds, Emma Sequels & Allusions: Perfect Happiness – How Jane Austen’s Emma Became a Lesbian, The Telegraph, 1996

2. Edmund Wilson, Classics and Commercials: A Literary Chronicle of the Forties (New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, 1950), 201-2.

Cover image courtesy of Fourth Estate © 1996; text Laurel Ann Nattress © 2014, Austenprose.com

41 thoughts on “Emma in Love: Jane Austen’s Emma Continued, by Emma Tennant – A Review & Rant

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed your review–I long ago decided not to bother reading this book, but loved reading your thoughts of it. As you conclude, the motivation behind writing this defies understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m surprised you gave it one star! I had never thought that Emma had gay tendencies, and she is not as immature as Tennant portrays her. She had a perfectly good mother substitute in her governess, who continues to live nearby and to dote on Emma. Emma and Mr. Knightly (especially as Jonny Lee Miller) would not have a tepid marriage, but a passionate, fun one. Emma is a wonderful book on many levels, especially as a mystery story, but Tennant’s book is shameful to the brilliance of Jane Austen’s work!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I certainly won’t be reading the story — but I definitely enjoyed your review! Thanks for reading and suffering through that so we don’t have to, Laurel Ann. Now, on to better and brighter books! :)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great review,Laurel-is it just me or why it is that some people feel that just because a female character in times that are not the present, particularly in classic literature, who has a close bond with another woman,presumptions must be made about her sexuality? For example,in the Disney movie Brave,Merida has no interest in marriage which made a lot of people instantly conclude that she was gay(never mind that there was no romance attached to the arranged marriage her parents were planning for her) and Patricia Roxema’s Mansfield Park had Mary Crawford being extra flirty with Fanny,which seemed rather cheesy to me.

    The language and attitudes regarding friendships back then are very much different that what they are now,so misinterpretations are understandable(one way or another) but I think some of these scholars are seeing what they want to see.

    It is one thing if that concept is dealt with in a reasonable or respectable but EIL sounds like it just went for the sensational,which is disrespectful to more than one community. Last year, in Paula Byrne’s The Real Jane Austen,she made a reasoned argument in one of the chapters that if any character in Austen’s books was gay,it would be Tom Bertram,which I slightly hint at in my recent MP themed book and hopefully with much more taste than this book appears to have done. Then again, I haven’t read any of Tennant’s work so this may just be a book that didn’t work out well.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for your review! I’m not generally a fan of sequels, but thanks to your reviews I’ve read some decent ones and avoided some horrors. My favorite line in your post is this -” If you do choose this route, be comforted in the fact that you will never have to meet the original author in heaven, because you will surely be in a place far below where they do not serve ice in their cocktails.” I can only hope it’s true!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Just reading the plot would have decided me against this one — but I read past that and really enjoyed your review. Thanks for confirming my initial inclination against reading this…

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are welcome Tess. Don’t be discouraged by this one ill written book. It is amusing if you want a good laugh. I could not have dreamed up an example of what not to do in a Jane Austen better than the wrongs turns taken in this one. I am glad that I read it just so I can say I REALLY know the difference.

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  7. Thank you, Laurel! This review and information is wonderfully helpful! I love how you looked up the author’s interview answers and searched scholarly studies that may have been her inspiration. A very thorough and informative review! Thank you! I think I’ll be steering clear of this one…too many other books to occupy my time with! :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Meredith. I know that you like reading the early sequels too and might be interested in my viewpoint. Have you read it’s rival Perfect Happiness? I would like to, just to compare the two. I think you have read Later Days at Highbury if my memory serves. I would like to continue reading one of the older editions every month. It is good to be able to put the evolution of the Austenesque genre in perspective. Best wishes, LA

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  8. I am intriqued with your review because I have always considered Tennant’s Pemberley one of the worst P&P continuations mostly because Elizabeth and Darcy are so at odds. Sorry for the spoiler alert but the idea that Darcy has Bingley’s out of wedlock son and her mother living on his estate with Elizabeth thinking it is Darcy’s son and then Jane accepting the boy etc etc made me mad. I wanted a better marriage for Elizabeth and Darcy. I have never heard of Emma in Love but Emma and Knightly don’t seem to have the marriage Jane would have planned either!
    The book that I was most dissapointed in and consider the worst of the worst, however, was McCullough’s. If you consider E&D’s family relationships alone, I cant see Elizabeth being so frightened , listless , and lackluster as a wife. ( again sorry for the spoiler)That she felt raped in the marriage bed and laid there like a statue until Darcy was finished and let that go on for years is just not the Elizabeth we all know and love. While I was mad at Tennent, I was furious with McCullough!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ugh, and I thought Pemberley was the worst yet. I could name a handful of others that I have reviewed here and thought little of as well– but I won’t rehash those author’s failings again — but geez, I do believe this one will never be attempted by me. (To be fair, I didn’t thikk her Jane Eyre book “Adele” was bad.)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Wow is all I can say, great comments everyone and thank you Laurel Ann for being brave enough to really say what you mean Lady Catherine would be proud indeed. It has been a while since ive read Emma but from what i can remember of my first thoughts I did not see the lesbian aspect and i dont think im naive! I could actually relate to Emma she does not see her own worth she may appear confident but i think deep down she has insecurities. I am very fast to aknowledge and praise the qualities of others and less inclined to say the same of myself or to accept praise and far from recognising that someone is interested in me ( like Emma not seeing or wanting to acknowledge Knightly was interested). I love to point out my fellow girlfriends strengths and the things I like about them but this does not make me a lesbian, but the opposite to a Caroline bingley! Thanks for the review I will steer clear and employ my time more wisely!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Have you read Trust and Triumph? Where there is an exorcism at Pemberley, a seven foot detective who steals the Darcy’s cook. A trip to the US during the war of 1812 and mirrors on the ceiling in Colonel Fitzwilliam’s southern plantation bride’s house. It’s so awful it’s incredibly funny. I mean really. You should try it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great review, and thanks for the warning. Jane Austen slash fic? I think not :)

    I agree with the others comments too, Pemberley was dreadful and put me off reading Austen fanfic for years, though thanks to your challenge last year I did find some that I really enjoyed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robin. I usually do not write reviews less than 3 stars unless they have really abused Austen or her characters. I considered not reviewing it at all, but then realized that if I did, many would benefit and spend their hard earned pewter on more worthy candidates. It was really amusing in a bus accident sort of way which I do not want to experience again. I can now say that I have read the worst Austenesque book ever.

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      • Then there’s nowhere to go but up for the rest of the Austenesque books. Kudos to you for having the courage to stand your ground. Most people take the path of least resistance.

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  13. The topic of sexual attraction between Emma and Harriet Smith was first brought to my attention regarding the poem “Kitty, A Fair and Frozen Maid.” Most say that poem is a suggestion that Mr. Woodhouse had an STD. However, the commentator argued another viewpoint: that Austen was making a parallel to Emma’s fear of sexuality with the poem, and part of the defense was citing Helen Storm Corsa in 1969 and the “homosexual aspect of Emma’s relationship to Harriet.” Edmund Wilson was the first person to imply this, saying “Emma, who was relatively indifferent to men, was inclined to infatuation with women” in 1944, and Marvin Mudrick, a descendent of Austen calls her “a latent lesbian” in 1952. In 1988, Claudia L. Johnson agreed with them regarding Emma and Harriet, and in 1995 Terry Castle suggested Austen’s letters imply she had homoerotic feelings for Cassandra and Fanny Knight. The other books have not escaped unscathed, and on and on it goes. So Tennant isn’t the first to make such suggestions. However, no matter what you read into the book from a significantly different social set of expectations as we have today, it doesn’t excuse a poorly-written book. Thanks, Laurel Ann! Loved both the review and the rant!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know how I could have forgotten about Pride/Prejudice.

      Even though a same sex P&P just does not sit right with me, at least the author was up front about it. Tennant just had no plot work up to help you believe the lesbian slant. P/P is very direct. No mysteries there. I just could get past about 6 chapters.

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  14. I thought this was a fascinating review, thank you! Coincidentally, I recently ploughed my way through the Rachel Billington Emma continuation, and while I didn’t enjoy it that much I think I liked it a lot more than I would have liked this! (my review is nothing on this one, but here are my thoughts on it!)

    http://frawli-books.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/emma-knightley-by-rachel-billington.html

    I hadn’t even heard of this book, but I read ‘Pemberley’ by this author years ago, and I wasn’t keen on it, and I read another of her books which moved me to write my first ever Amazon review because I hated it with such a passion. I’m not sure if this book is referred to in a comment above, it was a follow up to Jane Eyre which focussed on Adele, and the version I read was called something along the lines of ‘The French Dancer’s Bastard’, but I have a feeling that it may have been published under more than one title, presumably to hide the bad reviews! The reason I hated it so much is that it was full of errors and the characters behaving unrealistically. When the author clearly doesn’t understand or know the characters properly you can’t help but feel that they are only writing the sequel to make money on the back of somebody else’s talent and not because they love the characters and want to see more of them.

    I agree with the comment above that it’s annoying that females can’t be close without being accused of lesbianism. Personally I don’t feel that Emma had lesbian tendencies. I think what she had was the need for an ego boost, somewhat similarly to how Elizabeth Elliot had Mrs Clay, but in Emma’s case, she is actually trying to do something for the improvement of her pet project. She was the big fish in a small pond, nearly everybody was beneath her intellectually aside from Jane Fairfax and Mr Knightley who made her feel inferior in their own ways. Also it is slightly ironic that Emma is the Austen heroine labelled as most likely to be a lesbian when you think that she is the only one that has no need to marry at all because she is financially secure in her own right! Apologies for the huge comment, but it was such an interesting review, thank you for posting it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for the review of Perfect Happiness. I will get to this one eventually because I would like to compare the two dueling Emma sequels. I am sorry it was such a downer. Forewarned is forearmed.

      Regarding your observation that people jump to the conclusion that because Emma did not want to marry and she and Harriet are close friends that they must be lesbian’s, that is a social perception that may take another generation to change. People in general are just not comfortable with other people not being married or too close to the same sex.

      Thanks for your comments Ceri.

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  15. ” Fanny Hill and other such books certainly showed female/female action, but Fanny Hill et al would NOT have been in the library of the Rev. George Austen, or in the lending-libraries Jane Austen frequented!”

    Laurel Ann, I could not disagree more with the suggestion that Jane Austen was unfamiliar with Fanny Hill. Au contraire, i claim it was a CRUCIAL allusive source for Emma! Just read the following blog posts of mine for some of the evidence for that claim:

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/12/answer-to-my-trick-question.html

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2013/02/jane-austens-carpet-sharade-on-james.html

    http://sharpelvessociety.blogspot.com/2010/12/mrs-cole-direct-connection-between.html

    If you read all of the above posts through, you will see that there would have to be about 15 coincidences in order for Jane Austen not to have intended to allude to Fanny Hill in Emma–the evidence is truly overwhelming.

    Cheers, ARNIE
    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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  16. I have never heard of this book, so this was an interesting discussion. However, EMMA is a problem novel. I believe (years ago I did take a wonderful upper level colloquium on Austen) that though there may be plusses for some people living in extended family situations, it WOULD NOT have been a healthy thing for Emma’s and Knightley’s relationship. Mr. Woodhouse is too selfish by far to allow “his little girl” to become a real woman and a wife. This IS definitely present in the novel Emma. Emma, herself, barely knows that she is in love with Knightley until the end. I agree that Tennant went way too far — but, this is no marriage made in paradise. This is what makes the original Austen novels “LITERATURE”. They are not simplistic affairs at all (as many Austenalia are, sorry to say, and I will NOT take back that remark). I enjoy Austenalia for what it is. Some of it is good; some is very, very good; however, where some of the authors get their ideas I do not know, and it shows with the poor to so-so quality of much of the genre.

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