Of all of Jane Austen’s six major works, I have always been daunted by Emma: both the novel and its eponymous heroine. It is Austen’s longest work and contains her most “troublesome creature” Miss Emma Woodhouse.
I am not alone in my challenge to understand and appreciate this clever tale. The first time I read it many years ago I was mystified. It took further readings and research to fully appreciate it. I only wish on a first acquaintance that I had this new annotated edition of Emma by Prof. David Shapard available to me. This is the fourth Austen novel that he has annotated – and it is indeed a wonder. At a hefty 928 pages, no stone has been left unturned to offer the reader: an introduction, bibliography and detailed chronology of events; explanation of historical context; citations from Austen’s life, letters, and other writings; maps of the places in the novel, and nearly 200 informative illustrations. Phew! If the eBook version included film clips, we could all throw up our hands and proclaim that there was indeed nothing left to experience in the Emma Woodhouse lexicon.
Published in 1815, Austen was at the top of her game as a writer and many scholars proclaim it as her masterpiece. Readers will argue that point. I will too. There are many elements of story and characters that I adore – and some not so much. Though first-time readers (especially young students and some early critics) thought it is a snooze fest, if one looks beyond the surface, Emma is an intricate story focused on the astute characterization and social reproof which Austen is famous for. Our heroine Emma Woodhouse is a complex character that on first acquaintance is rather a pill. Austen gave herself a great challenge in creating “a heroine whom no one but myself will like.” In contrast with her other heroines, Miss Woodhouse does not have any social or financial concerns and thus no compelling need to marry. Therein lies the rub. We have no sympathy for her whatsoever. She’s rich, she’s spoiled and she’s stuck up. Who indeed could possibly like such a “troublesome creature”? During the course of the novel, we witness her exerting her superior notions of who is suitable for whom as she matchmakes for her friends with disastrous results. But…what a great journey we are privileged to be taken on. Here are a few of my reactions to the novel and David Shapard’s elaboration of it:
The Good: Notwithstanding Emma Woodhouse, it is the secondary characters that really shine in Emma for me. Harriet Smith, Emma’s young, impressionable friend is one my favorite of Austen’s creations. Even though she is undereducated and from the wrong side of the blanket, by the end of the novel she knows her own heart and is superior in my mind to the grand dame of the first family of consequence in Highbury, Emma herself. Austen excelled at sharp wit and comedy in this novel. None can match Mrs. Elton in snobbery and conceit, Miss Bates as the garrulous spinster who is all heart and no brains, and Frank Churchill who is so slyly smarmy that we don’t see it coming. Ha! Continue reading “The Annotated Emma, by Jane Austen, Annotated and Edited by David M. Shapard – A Review”