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Emma | Study Guide

Jane Austen

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Emma | 10 Things You Didn't Know


While Jane Austen's Emma was not enormously popular at the time of its publication in 1815—writer Maria Edgeworth said, "There was no story in it."—by the end of the 19th century, it was regarded as Austen's greatest novel. It was also the last of her novels published before her death.

Critics have called Emma a comedy, a mystery, a romance, and a novel of social realism. The author's ability to combine all these genres within a single tale about a self-absorbed young woman and her misbegotten attempts at matchmaking makes Emma a novel that appeals to a wide variety of readers. By treating realistic relationships and ordinary life, Austen is considered by many to be the first modern novelist.

1. Austen dedicated Emma to a prince she actually hated.

The prince regent (George Augustus Frederick) was the self-proclaimed "First Gentleman of Europe." His librarian, James Stanier Clarke, told Austen the prince was a great admirer and that she was "at liberty" to dedicate Emma to him. This was more of an order than an invitation, so Austen did so grudgingly. She expressed her real feelings when writing about his wife in a letter to a friend, "Poor woman, I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband."

2. Austen knew that her protagonist, Emma, was not a likeable character.

Before Austen began Emma, she wrote of her character, "I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like." And while Emma is self-absorbed and even cruel at times, many consider her Austen's most complex and interesting character. The writer Reginald Farrer stated that Emma is a candidate "for love as well as laughter." The eminent theologian John Henry Newman said, "Emma herself is the most interesting to me of all her heroines," and another critic called her an "engaging, dear, delicious, idiotic heroine."

3. There are many retellings of Emma—including two by her great-great-grandniece.

Perhaps the best-known spin-off to Austen's Emma is Joan Aiken's Jane Fairfax, published in 1990. Two books published by Joan Austen-Leigh, the author's great-great-grandniece, are epistolary novels focusing on characters from Emma. Among the many other retellings is the graphic novel Emma, published in 2011 by Marvel Classics.

4. There are many film adaptations of Emma, including a Bollywood musical.

In 1972 the BBC produced a six-part series based on Austen's Emma. Two films came out in 1996: one starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the other with Kate Beckinsale. In 2009 the BBC produced a second series, also in six parts. The film Aisha was a 2010 musical Indian production, and in 2014 an online video series was produced called Emma Approved.

5. Austen earned very little money for Emma.

Ultimately, Austen earned less than £40 for Emma. That's the equivalent of £3,000—or $4,500—today. Even though Emma was well received by critics, a second-edition printing of Mansfield Park, Austen's previously launched novel, was not as successful as had been anticipated. Unfortunately, most of the earnings from Emma were used to pay for that second printing.

6. Austen imagined what happened to her characters after the novels ended.

Austen's nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, noted that his aunt thought about what happened to her characters after their stories were over. He wrote in his memoir of his aunt "that Mr. Woodhouse survived his daughter's marriage, and kept her and Mr. Knightley from settling at Donwell, about two years; and that the letters placed by Frank Churchill before Jane Fairfax, which she swept away unread, contained the word 'pardon.'"

7. Sir Walter Scott, a contemporary of Austen's, reviewed Emma anonymously.

Writing anonymously in The Quarterly Review, Sir Walter Scott said Emma kept "close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life" and "has even less story than [Austen's] preceding novels." Some felt this was a negative review, but in his diary he clarifies that it was meant as high praise: "That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with."

8. Austen's friends and relatives had mixed opinions about Emma.

Austen kept notes of what her relatives thought about Emma. Of the people who gave their opinions on the book, 6 loved it, 4 thought it was her best work, 12 didn't like it, and 17 preferred her previous novel, Pride and Prejudice.

9. The movie Clueless was an updated version of Emma, set in Beverly Hills.

Clueless (1995) stars Alicia Silverstone as Cher, the modern version of Emma, a shopping-obsessed teenager who is determined to set up her friends. It was a huge hit and set off a spate of Jane Austen–themed updates, including Austenland and From Prada to Nada .

10. Jane Austen was engaged to be married—for one day.

Family friend Harris Bigg-Wither proposed to Austen in 1802. He was the brother of friends, younger than she was, and according to the author's niece Caroline Austen, "very plain in person—awkward, and even uncouth in manner." Austen broke off the engagement the next day. There is no record of a reason for either the acceptance or the change of heart.

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