29 June 2015. 200 Years of Emma
This year Jane Austen’s Emma is in the spotlight as we celebrate two hundred years since its first publication. This means I find myself looking in all sorts of places for reminders of this classic novel. Watching a Royal Shakespeare Company production of The Merchant of Venice recently, I couldn’t help drawing parallels with Emma.
First, each has three couples becoming romantically involved, although in Shakespeare this is less of a focus than in Austen.
Second, heroines Portia and Emma share some similarities, being ‘handsome, clever, rich’, with an over-protective father and a country estate. Both are at the heart of the action, at times manipulating the fate of others but ultimately demonstrating sterling qualities.
Third, one of the key challenges each heroine faces is how best to discover a man’s worth: the suitor who wins Portia must look beyond the apparent value of the three caskets, while Emma is sufficiently dazzled by Frank Churchill’s surface charm to overlook Mr Knightley’s true worth.
Like Shakespeare, Austen returns time and again to the themes of love and money. Unlike Shakespeare, she restricts herself to ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory’ (letter to James Edward Austen, her nephew, on 16th December 1816).
Shakespeare, on the other hand, stages his work in a range of exotic (for his time) locations and tackles wider social and cultural issues, such as hostility towards Jews and ‘bromance’. Both writers reveal the best and worst of human nature, and in this lies their essence.