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January 2019



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An Annual Ritual: Reading Emma

It’s no good. I have two books on the go and an excellent pile waiting to be read thanks to a visit to a different library. But yesterday afternoon, driving with lights on and wipers going, the trees heavy and claustrophobic above me, I knew it was time for my annual Emma re-read.

I don’t know why this is a July book for me. Perhaps it’s this passage:
The evening of this day was very long and melancholy at Hartfield. The weather added what it could of gloom. A cold stormy rain set in, and nothing of July appeared but in the trees and shrubs, which the wind was despoiling, and the length of the day, which only made such cruel sights the longer visible.
Jane Austen might have been describing yesterday evening’s weather here.

Emma is my favourite Jane Austen novel and I admire it enormously. The first sentence is masterly, making you think immediately, ‘Oh ho, my fine Emma. Looks like something is going to distress or vex you now!’ It’s beautifully plotted, like a detective novel, with not a wasted word in the book. It’s particularly English in its setting: the village of Highbury is so well described that you could move right in, navigate your way to the shop or church and recognise the people in the streets. You are also made aware that life there could be claustrophobic; the wealthier people have London contacts but even they will have to get on with their neighbours for the rest of their lives, however much they may dislike them.

Many people are put off the book because, they say, Emma is not ‘nice’ in the way that Elizabeth Bennet is. I think that makes her more interesting. I also find the descriptions of her mental state very modern. After Box Hill (the trip gets worse on every reading) and her ticking off by Mr Knightley, poor Emma is in tears: ‘She had never been so depressed.’ Jane Austen here uses ‘depressed’ just as we would.

Mr Knightley is by far my favourite Austen hero, probably because we know more about him than any of the others. He is a good landlord, an efficient farmer, a generous friend unwilling to be thanked. His manners to all are perfect and he’s a stickler for good behaviour. ‘There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chuses, and that is, his duty…It is Frank Churchill’s duty to pay this attention to his father.’ But he’s not at all pompous or stuffy; he has a good sense of humour and enjoys romping with his little nephews.

These family scenes are among my favourites in the book: Mr John Knightley playing with his boys, Emma and Mr Knightley jointly baby worshipping their new niece. Quoting out of context: It was a sweet view - sweet to the eye and the mind. English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive. And with a very sharp English eye upon it.


What a splendid post (and the book's not bad, either)! You've made a very good case for reading Emma again.
Thank you and good! I must know chunks of it off by heart.
You're going to have us all doing our annual reread of Emma at this rate! I had missed the so apt description of July weather before so thanks for pointing it out - so appropriate indeed!
Hope you do! Funny, those lines have always struck me; perhaps I first read the book in similar weather.
I love 'Emma', too, including (or perhaps because) she is not "nice."
The way the reader is made to sympathise with her is very clever. I think it's a wonderful book, so dense.


I very much enjoyed your thoughts on Emma, Barbara! When I was younger I found Emma very annoying and didn't like the novel much. It's now one of my favourites - Emma's faults are so very human you can help but empathize, and as you say it does make her more interesting! Miranda
Thank you!


Yes. Sometimes only Austen will do. I'm slowly re-reading Emma, too. Knightley comes a close second to Captain Wentworth for me. I love that the atmostphere between Emma and Knightley is so sexually charged and both can't or won't acknowledge it.
Right! And all the clever hints: 'Brother and sister! No indeed!'
I have to admit that Emma is my least favourite Austen book, and yes, it is because I can't get on with the character. Still, I liked reading why it resonates with you. I will be rereading this summer, before the adaptation.
I've never yet seen an Emma adaptation to please me; they always get Mr Knightley wrong. I bound to watch it, though.