We hit another publication milestone this year with the bicentenary of Jane Austen’s most lauded novel, Emma. I have previously reviewed the novel and the 2010 film adaptation extensively, so I thought for this new 200th Anniversary Annotated Edition by Penguin Deluxe Classics that you might enjoy hearing from another source—someone who is an Austen scholar, college professor and all-around-friend of Jane—editor Juliette Wells. Here is an informative interview with her publisher that I am happy to share.
When we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Emma, what in particular are we celebrating? What’s new about this edition?
We’re celebrating the 200th anniversary of Emma’s original publication, in London in December 1815. The date of publication is a little confusing because “1816” was printed on the title page of the first edition of the novel, but it was actually released in December 1815. I think this gives us the right to celebrate for a whole year!
And what better way to celebrate than to re-read Emma, or read it for the first time? Our 200th anniversary annotated edition has everything you need, all in one place, to help you appreciate this wonderful novel. You can immerse yourself in Austen’s world and also have, right at your fingertips, explanations of some of the elements of the novel that tend to trip up or puzzle today’s readers.
In the Austen canon, what would you say makes Emma special and unique?
Emma is special because it’s the capstone of Austen’s career as an author. She had already published three novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park), and she was at the very top of her game as a writer. She didn’t know it, of course, but Emma would be the last book she saw through to publication. When Austen died in July 1817, she left two essentially completed novels (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion), which her brother published at the end of that year. So Emma is the last Austen novel that was published in the exact form that she herself approved.
Emma is also special because it’s the most perfect example of Austen’s particular genius as an author, which is (I think) to create a recognizable, engaging fictional world from the slenderest of materials. She writes about everyday life and ordinary people—you won’t find kings and queens in her novels, or ghosts or vampires. Her effects are wonderfully subtle.
What was the publishing process like when Emma was first published? How was the novel received critically? Was Austen as popular in her own day as she is today?
The publishing process was recognizable in some ways and very different in others. Austen didn’t have a literary agent; at that time, authors dealt directly with publishers. With Emma, she chose a new, more prestigious publisher—John Murray—than she had used for her three earlier novels, and she negotiated hard for a good contract with him. As authors are today, Austen was responsible for proofreading and approving copy before publication. Since being a published author was considered not so respectable for an unmarried woman, Austen chose to remain anonymous on her title pages throughout her lifetime. Emma identifies her as “the author of Pride and Prejudice.” Her identity wasn’t made publicly known until after her death.
Like Austen’s earlier novels, Emma was praised by reviewers, who appreciated Austen’s ability to convey a very realistic fictional world. Austen wasn’t a bestseller in her day; then as now, thrillers, adventure stories, and romances outsold quiet literary fiction. But Austen did have the satisfaction of knowing, in her lifetime, that readers appreciated her work. In addition to reading reviews, she kept track of the responses of her friends and family, which offer a wonderful glimpse into what everyday readers of Austen’s own time thought of Emma. Some of what they liked and didn’t like may be very familiar to us!
What is it like to prepare a new edition of a book that’s so well-known and exists in many editions?
It was really important to me to create a truly new approach to Emma—a welcoming, reader-friendly approach. Excellent editions of Emma already exist for scholars and for devoted “Janeites.” With this anniversary edition, I wanted to open Austen up to people who hadn’t given her a try before, and to support their reading experience by using everything I know from years of teaching undergraduates and from talking with everyday readers. I certainly reached for plenty of scholarly and reference sources on my shelves, but I’d say my most important preparation was to have built up, over time, a sense of what readers are curious about and what frustrates them in their first encounter with an Austen novel. And, through my teaching, I’ve had a lot of practice at explaining historical concepts in an accessible way.
The illustrations for this edition are drawn from historical copies of Emma in the Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College, where you teach. Can you tell us more about that collection? What is it, exactly?
The Jane Austen Collection at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland began as the passion project of an alumna of the college from the 1920s, Alberta Hirshheimer Burke. Alberta loved, loved, loved Jane Austen’s writings and decided that her own purpose in life was to gather as much material as possible relating to Austen. So, Alberta bought first and rare editions and even some manuscripts—such as letters in Austen’s handwriting—all of which she felt brought her closer to her beloved author. The images in our new edition reproduce turn-of-the-twentieth century illustrations of Emma by English and American artists, from books that Alberta owned, and which she bequeathed to her alma mater when she died in 1975. (Her manuscripts went to the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.)
Alberta also cared deeply about ephemera with an Austen connection, such as newspaper and magazine articles, which she preserved in ten overstuffed scrapbooks. So our Austen Collection at Goucher is a terrific resource for popular culture studies as well as book history.
Do you think we have a modern-day equivalent of Jane Austen? Or do you have any “further reading” suggestions for Austen fans who’ve read all of her books a thousand times and are looking for something new?
I love to read contemporary novels and memoirs, and I always keep an eye out for hints that an author is influenced by or interested in Austen. I recently re-read Allegra Goodman’s novel The Cookbook Collector and really appreciated how she weaves in elements from Emma as well as from her more obvious place of inspiration, Sense and Sensibility. I also particularly like that Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic-format memoir Fun Home and the Dykes to Watch Out For comics, gives several shout-outs to Austen. Flyover Lives, Diane Johnson’s hybrid family history / memoir, includes a fascinating account of what Johnson’s foremothers in America were up to at the same time that Austen was writing about much more privileged women in England.
I’d also warmly recommend the novels of Barbara Pym, a 20th-century English writer. Pym’s dry humor and close observation of everyday people ally her very closely with Austen. And it’s always rewarding to read, or re-read, 19th-century novels by authors who knew and loved Austen’s writings. In that category, I’d especially recommend Elizabeth Gaskell (start with Cranford) and George Eliot (outside of Austen, Middlemarch is my all-time favorite novel).
And, finally, I’d say that Austen lovers are the best people to ask about what to read next! Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot of shout-outs for the novels of Anthony Trollope, so I may have to get cracking on his enormous oeuvre . . . .
END OF Q&A
In addition, I am also happy to add that I think this new edition the finest I have encountered so far of the many choices available in print. Not only is it accessible and informative, but Juliette Wells’ choices of annotation and additional material are also excellent, the size and weight in your hand is comfortable and the cover is to die for. I highly recommend adding Emma: 200th Anniversary Annotated Edition to your collection, or making this edition the one copy displayed in pride of place on your bookshelf.
5 out of 5 Regency Stars
Emma: 200th Anniversary Annotated Edition, by Jane Austen, edited & introduced by Juliette Wells
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition (2015)
Trade paperback with deckle edge & eBook (496) pages
Cover image courtesy of Penguin Classics © 2015; interview text Juliette Wells © 2015, Austenprose.com
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