Jane Austen & 'Emma'

Hopefully this will be the best month of your year, for you will be reading Jane Austen’s Emma. I hope to persuade you, as we discuss its depth, richness, psychological complexity and humour, that this is the world’s greatest novel.

Come with me on a fabulous reading journey through 2020. Together we will explore a thought-provoking selection of 19th and 20th Century classics. For each novel you will receive an illustrated monograph packed full of intriguing stories about the author behind the book, explaining its themes, tempting you with film versions to watch, and challenging you with discussion questions.

I love to share my passion for great literature. Please consider joining me in this literary exploration.

“What two letters of the alphabet are there, that express perfection?”, Mr Weston asks the group at Box Hill. He is not an especially intelligent or astute man, and yet he hits the nail right on the head with this question. For the answer, of course, is “M. and A. – Em-ma”. He means the woman, but his words can also be taken to mean the novel to which she gives her name. For Emma by Jane Austen is the perfect book. In my view, no other novel can equal it for brilliance, depth of psychological perception, understanding of human nature, unrivaled use of language that never wastes a word, and utterly sublime romance and comedy.

No other book has ever meant as much to me – it has shaped my life and way of thinking, provided me with behavioural models (sometimes also teaching me how not to behave), and it has given me such unutterable reading pleasure. My grandmother loved this book. My mother had a little red copy that was never far from her side and often when she came to pick me up in the car, she’d have a big smile on her face because she’d just been dancing at the Crown Inn, or the gypsies had frightened poor silly Harriet, or Emma had forgotten to think of the rights of her nephew Henry. Together my mother and I used Emma almost as a code. After one horrific wet weekend staying with a woman who hardly drew breath, she rang me and announced, “Dear, Miss Bates is alive and well!”, and we both knew exactly what she’d gone through.

“Miss Austen was surely a great novelist. What she did, she did perfectly. Her work, as far as it goes, is faultless. She wrote of the times in which she lived, of the class of people with which she associated, and in the language which was usual to her as an educated lady.”
– Anthony Trollope, 1870

In December 1815, the Morning Chronicle announced the forthcoming publication of a novel named Emma, and soon afterwards the world became a better place in which to live – Emma was available.

The novel covers a period of fourteen months, from September of one year through to the November of the next (probably the years 1813 to 1814). Emma was well reviewed, praised by the eminent Sir Walter Scott, and critics almost invariably rank it as her greatest novel.

During her lifetime, Jane Austen made only about £40 from Emma. A copy cost £1, 1 sh. It came out in three volumes. First editions today sell for small fortunes in auction houses. The Americans pirated the English edition and the French brought out a very poor translation as La Nouvelle Emma.

Emma is a book that demands to be re-read at least once a year. It changes lives, it enriches lives, it improves lives, it provides friends. It is “the book of books” and in the world of literature, it reigns supreme.

I adore and worship Jane Austen’s Emma and writing about it has been an utter joy. This is a ‘bumper’ guide as I had so much to say, and I must warn you it contains many superlatives (how can you not use superlatives when discussing that book?). I try to explain its power, charm, brilliance and importance, and attempt to do justice to its perfections. You may not yet have fallen in love with Emma. Hopefully, my guide will persuade you to do so. Discuss this outstanding book with your book group or even with me by leaving a comment below.

Continue the story of Jane Austen’s life and what is, in my view, the most perfect book ever written, in my full-length Literary Readers Guide to Jane Austen & Emma. Will you join me? Leave a comment.


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Header Image credit- ‘Emma’ by Jane Austen. Johnny Flynn, Callum Turner, and Anya Taylor-Joy in Emma. (2020), https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9214832/

Comments (23)

  1. Kathryn Lawes

    I too feel the same about Mr Knightley, scruffy hair & not a tall presence, does not do the character justice.
    Who wrote the Script? Nose bleed- really!! Ridiculous.

    Clothes & Ball scene quite original feel.
    Saw this latest release of Emma 2 weeks ago, came away feeling flat & disappointed.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      The script was written by Kiwi author Eleanor Catton, who wrote the prize winning novel ‘The Luminaries’.

  2. Lynda

    ‘Emma’ is not Jane Austen’s best work, though it is excellent. The characters all have so many personal flaws as to be caricatures! That spineless selfish Mr Woodhouse, ditzy inconstant Harriet, staid Mr Knightly, prim Jane Fairfax… though it has the best mystery of any novel of the period.

    My personal favourite is ‘Persuasion ‘ the product of her maturity. The selfish, foolish and frivolous characters are mixed in with normal kindly people, and it’s a book I could live in. I wouldn’t want to live in Highbury!

  3. Brian Doyle

    Just a thought,
    A very close conspiracy by Jane Dunn is a must read if you haven’t already, a wonderful writer I also loved Elizabeth and Mary and Daphne du Maurier and her sisters, thank goodness we live in the age of laser surgery for eyes I’ve certainly given them a workout.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I totally agree – I have read Elizabeth and Mary and the one on Daphne and her sisters, and both were excellent.

  4. Yvette

    I have recently starting re reading Emma after rewatching the Romola Garai mini series. I have found that I am seeing Knightly through new eyes. I think what always put me off was the age gap. But that aside Knightly is truly such a lovely man with such care for other people. I think he is a very underrated Austen hero. And seeing a character grow as Emma does is very enjoyable.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I’m so glad you are enjoying ‘Emma’ and seeing Mr Knightley for the true gentleman that he is. Yes, he is a bit underrated and I think the age gap could be responsible for that, but he is a superb character.

  5. Brian Doyle

    Very much enjoyed your treatise on Emma, I read ithe book some years ago and was irritated by her,at first,but as there were so many other wonderfully written characters I kept reading and of course found her more endearing as I read on, like all great articles yours has now made me want to read it again. Big thanks

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You’ve just made my day. I get so much joy when I know people are appreciating this great novel as it ought to be appreciated. It demands to be re-read, and often!

  6. Susannah Fullerton

    Well, any excuse for a wine, but you are not alone. Generally P & P is the top favourite, with Persuasion a close second, so I can cope with your choice.

    • Brian Doyle

      No doubt the brilliant BBC series of P&P. cemented it’s position as number one and it’s highly unlikely to be bettered, the movie with Keira Knightly on the other hand was a travesty of miscasting and can certainly be remade. The movie of S & S was fabulous where the series wasn’t, Lady Susan was made into a great movie and I’m still waiting for a definitive Persuasion, in an ideal world the solution to these hits and misses would be to consult and expert such as yourself with your vast knowledge of Jane Austen’s writing to be a consultant on any future projects., it’s not like you can’t fit it in Susannah you must be awake 24/7, your output is remarkable

  7. Brian Doyle

    Emma would not be amused with humidity, so troublesome for ones curls and complexion

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Jane Austen once wrote in a letter: “What dreadful hot weather we have! It keeps one in a continual state of inelegance.” I know how she felt!

      • Brian Doyle

        The most prudent decision is to take your superlatives with a chilled glas of Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc and wait for it to pass

        • Susannah Fullerton

          Or maybe the wine will help to persuade you that it is the world’s greatest novel??

          • Brian Doyle

            It’s more likely to to stop me thinking about anything but more wine, when it comes to thinking about Jane Austen I must confess that Persuasion is my favourite, there I’ve said it, I can see you reaching for the bottle and a straw Susannah

  8. Brian Doyle

    Gwyneth Paltrow was simply appalling as Emma, I’m still waiting for for a definitive series of this marvellous book

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, no version has really satisfied me. While I have many problems with the Paltrow version, I am not as against her in the role of Emma as you are. But the best Emma is the one in my imagination.

      • Brian Doyle

        And to find out more of what’s in your head Susannah on this matter I’ve purchased your book of the month guide to read in due course when I’ve finished reading, Children playing before a statue of Hercules, a collection of wonderful short stories, perfect in this ghastly humidity when one’s concentration is limited

        • Susannah Fullerton

          I hope you enjoy my guide to ‘Emma’. Just a warning – it does contain a fair number of superlatives! I do so wish this humidity would come to an end – we’ve all suffered enough.

  9. Penny Morris

    I too love Emma but I’m curious that your picture is of the BBC movie adaptation. I’ve seen several versions but not that one. However I do love the Gwyneth Paltrow version. Should I now watch the BBC one esp as I loved their Pride and Prejudice series?

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I like the Romola Garai BBC version and think it is probably the best. You can find it on DVD. However, no version can begin to match the book in my opinion.

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