From 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.
I 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.
Doran Goodwin as Emma Woodhouse, Emma (1972)
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 as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (1996)
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)
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!
Romola Garia as Emma Woodhouse in Emma (2009)
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.
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
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