The Importance of Emma
22 December 2015. 200 Years of Emma
This is not just a shameless plug for The Importance of Being Emma, my modern version of the Jane Austen classic. It’s also a look at why Emma was such a milestone for its author.
With Emma, Jane Austen achieved a number of firsts:
First novel with her new publisher, John Murray.
First – and last – book with a dedication: to the Prince Regent, under duress.
First heroine with financial independence and therefore no need to marry.
She admitted to creating a heroine ‘whom no one but myself will much like’. I suspect that this concern about Emma’s unpopularity was driven by something more than her personality flaws. Emma enjoys a social position second to none of the other heroines: queen of both her father’s household and Highbury society, with a comfortable income and an inheritance that makes her worth wooing. On the face of it, what could the daughter of a country vicar possibly know of Emma Woodhouse’s situation in life? But, if we dig a bit deeper into Jane Austen’s circumstances at the time of writing Emma (1814-15), a different picture emerges. First, through her success as a published author, she had achieved some financial independence of her own – not on the scale of Emma’s fortune, but perhaps enough to give her more insight into the character.
Next, her favourite niece Fanny Knight was of a similar age and financial status to Emma and could equally be described as ‘handsome, clever, rich’. Like Emma, Fanny was motherless and enjoyed visits from Aunt Jane, seventeen years her senior, in the same way that Emma depended on the older Miss Taylor for companionship. Unlike Emma, of course, Fanny asked Aunt Jane for advice – especially about young men – whereas Emma did not readily take advice from anyone, as Mr Knightley recognised. Interestingly, Fanny eventually married a man twelve years older than herself – not dissimilar from Mr Knightley, perhaps, who was sixteen years older than Emma?
Finally, the village setting of Highbury, with its social hierarchy and prejudices, would have been very familiar to Jane Austen, particularly since her move to Chawton. She might even have seen parallels between herself and Miss Bates, who was also the daughter of a clergyman, never married and shared a house with her elderly mother.
The lasting importance of Emma, however, is that it shows us how a privileged background does not guarantee happiness in love. The lessons that Emma learns are available to all, and cannot be measured in pounds, shillings and pence.
Happy birthday, Emma – two hundred years old and still going strong!