Oxford World’s Classics: Emma – Our Diptych Review

“I will keep my ill-humour to myself. I have a very sincere interest in Emma . . . There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma. I wonder what will become of her!” Mr. Knightley, Emma, Chapter 5 

Gentle readers, Please join us for the fourth in a series of six reviews of the revised editions of Jane Austen’s six major novels and three minor works that were released this summer by Oxford World’s Classics. Austenprose editor Laurel Ann is honored to be joined by Austen scholar Prof. Ellen Moody, who will be adding her professional insights to complement my everyman’s view.


Emma, by Jane Austen

Oxford World’s Classics Rev. Edition (2008)


Laurel Ann’s review 

For me, reading Jane Austen’s novel Emma is a delight. However, not all readers have been in agreement with me over the years including Jane Austen herself who warned her family before publication “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” She was of course making fun of herself in her own satirical way; – her critics on the other hand, were quite serious. When the book was published in 1815, Austen sent a copy to her contemporary author Maria Edgeworth who gave up reading the novel after the first volume, passing it on to friend and complaining, “There is no story in it.” Others had mixed feelings offering both praise and blame for its focus on the ordinary details of a few families in a country village. One important advocate of Emma was Sir Walter Scott, whose essay published in the Quarterly Review of 1815 represents the most important criticism on Austen’s writing during her lifetime. Even though the review was published anonymously, she must have been quite giddy when the reviewer heralded her Emma as a ‘new style of novel’ designed to ‘suit modern times’. Heady stuff to be sure. When it was later learned that Scott had contributed the review, it would placed Jane Austen in a whole other league of writers. 

Emma can be enjoyed on different levels, and for pure humour and witty dialogue it may reign as Austen’s supreme triumph. Just Google quotes from Emma and you might agree that it has the best bon mots of any of her novels. Modern critics claim it as her masterpiece, and I do not doubt it. Pride and Prejudice may be the most beloved and well know of her works, but Emma represents Austen at the height of her writing skill and power as a story teller. Like some of Austen’s contemporaries, the modern reader might find challenges in its minutiae and supposed lack of story. Not to worry. There are many sources available to assist in understanding Jane Austen’s subtle and often witty dialogue, her unique characterizations, and help place the novel in historical context. 

One source to consider is the new 2008 edition of Emma, by Oxford World’s Classics. Recently revised in 2003, this re-issue contains the same supplemental and textual material with a newly designed cover. For a reader seeking a medium level of support to help them along in their understanding you will be happy to find a thoughtful 23 page introduction by associate Professor of English and Women’s Studies Adela Pinch of the University of Michigan. The essay contains a brief introduction, and segments on Shopping and Suburbia, Narrative Voices: Gossip and the Individual, The Politics of Knowledge, and Emma: Much Ado About Nothing?. Her emphasis is on understanding Austen’s choice of writing about the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of the lives of its heroine Emma Woodhouse and her circle of family and friends in Highbury, a small English village in which she sets about to match make for all of its singletons blundering hilariously along the way. I particularly appreciated Prof. Pinch’s positive comments throughout the essay. 

“Austen makes voices stick in the mind through her use of free indirect discourse, which makes character’s voice seem indelible, capable of soaking into other beings. But she also uses the same technique for representing thought. Her cultivation of this mode of representing her heroines’ minds has made her novels crucial to the history of the English novel, markers of a movement when the novel as a literary genre perfects its inward turn, and begins to claim human psychology as its territory. Above all it creates the feeling of intimacy with her heroines that many readers prize.” Page xvii-xviii 

If I may be so bold and interject as the everyman Austen reader for a moment, parts of this essay are scholarly and touch on areas beyond my immediate understanding, especially when she delves into the philosophical and psychological pedantry. For the most part, Prof. Pinch’s essay is written in accessible language and is reverent and admiring to the author and the heroine. I found this outlook refreshing since the heroine Emma, and the novel Emma have received some criticisms for their shortcomings over the centuries. The novel is about so much more than the “no story” that Maria Edgeworth hastily condemned it to be. I especially adore Emma’s little friend Harriet Smith and think her much maligned in the recent movie adaptations, and well – can there ever be enough praise bestowed upon Mrs. Elton? She is comedic genius and worthy of a nomination to the literary comedy hall of fame. 

Professor Pinch has also supplied the helpful explanatory notes throughout the text which are numbered on the page allowing the reader to refer to the back of the book for explanation. Honestly, I prefer them to be footnoted at the bottom of the page instead of riffling back and forth, but that is a quibble on convenience. The remainder of the supplemental material; Biography of Jane Austen, Note on the Text, Select Bibliography, Chronology of Jane Austen, Appendix A: Rank and Social Status, and Appendix B: Dancing are repeated throughout the other Jane Austen editions in this series and discussed in our previous reviews. As always, I will defer to my learned colleague and co-reviewer Prof. Ellen Moody on the on-going discussion on the textual changes that have evolved since Emma’s first publication in 1815. 

This Oxford edition is a sweet little volume at an incredible price if you are in the market for a middlin amount of supplemental material from reputable sources containing an authorative text edited for the modern reader. If you enjoy matchless wit and irony, unforgettable characters, and a unique story that turns the everyday imaginings of a young Georgian era woman into an extraordinary story filled with a comedy of manners and romance, then take note; – Miss Emma Woodhouse commands you to purchase this book immediately!

Rating: 4 out of 5 Regency Stars 

Please join us in October when we review Jane Austen’s Gothic parody, Northanger Abbey and some of the Minor Works. 

Read our previous reviews of the Oxford World’s Classics – Jane Austen Collection

Emma by Jane Austen
Oxford World’s Classics
Oxford University Press, Rev. Ed. (2008)
Trade paperback, 418 pages, ISBN-13: 9780199535521
James Kinsley, editor 

Supplemental Material
Adela Pinch: Introduction and Explanatory Notes
Vivien Jones: Select Bibliography, Chronology and Appendixes
Biography of Jane Austen
Note on the Text
Textural Notes


Prof. Ellen Moody’s review 

“a heroine whom no one but myself will much like:”  the latest Oxford edition of Emma

Emma.  The book of books.  A remarkable novel where when a story or character suggestively goes through Emma’s mind since she half-gets it wrong, and sees it partially, we are invited to imagine it whole — so one novel becomes many in potentia.

Doran Goodwin as Emma Woodhouse, Emma (1972)

Mr Knightley (John Carson) has just told Emma (Doran Goodwin) he cannot love Jane Fairfax because he can love an open nature only; she has reciprocated by telling a joke against herself, and he laughs not in triumph or meanly, but out of a spirit of deeply congenial camaraderie (’72 Emma, screenplay Denis Constanduros)

Dear Friends,

As Laurel Ann says, here we are for the fourth in our series of six diptych reviews of the latest Oxford reprint of Jane Austen’s novels contextualized against a background of controversies, scholarship, book illustrations and film adaptations[1].  This time I will also provide a counterpart to Laurel Ann’s review by, like her, first talking about what makes Emma an important and perplexing book.

“Important” is such an overused word that it may seem beyond retrieval as a meaningful word (publishers scream from the top of their blurbs how this is an important, that an essential book), but its simplicity (it’s not pompous) makes me reach for it. 

Like all the other latest Oxfords, the text here is a reprint of the 1971 text edited by James Kinsley (basically an emended reprint of Chapman’s 1923 text as revised by Mary Lascelles).  As with Pride and Prejudice, there is no alternative first text as there is no manuscript and Austen died before a second edition could even be thought of. Like latest reprints of Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice, we also get exactly the same supplemental materials: brief biographical note, bibliography, chronology, and (by Vivien Jones) appendices on rank and social status and on dancing.  The notes are a reprint of the 2003 notes Adele Pinch wrote.

As Laurel says, Adela Pinch’s introduction to the latest 2008 Oxford reprint[2] of Emma emphasizes how different Emma seemed to most novels to readers of the era; Pinch tells us how bored Edgeworth said she felt in a letter to a friend.  Since it was Austen who sent a copy of her book to Edgeworth (probably out of pride in an achievement), I, for one, prefer to assume this comment never got round to Austen.  Not that Austen is herself shy of criticizing other novelists harshly or at all (at least in her letters to her sister) unsure of the high and exquisite quality of her artistry.  Her response to Scott’s review was to complain he left out Mansfield Park. continue reading

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