Tuesday, January 12, 2010

tuesdays with emma: doing our part to keep austen weird

Listening To: Take Your Mama Out by Scissor Sisters
Watching: The Little Couple. Have I mentioned lately that I wish Bill and Jen were my friends? Because I do. :)

Today we begin our discussion of Jane Austen's Emma and, in doing so, I feel the need to issue three warnings:

1. The commentary I offer is not scholarly. Tis not fodder for you literary criticism. Twill (is that a word?) not stretch your brain so far you can't smash it all back into it's appropriate brainy shape. I know some of you are in college and grad school, which means you're writing consistently brilliant papers about literature. Which means you will find some of my thoughts laughable. You've been warned. Do feel free to roll your eyes at various references I make to MTV reality shows or at any dumb joke I try to sneak in.

2. Know that I'm commenting on this novel as I read, so my predictions about the characters, their motivations, and their potential hook-ups might be wrong. Or I might misunderstand something. Jane likes to give plenty of details about how SoandSo is related to SoandSuch and Meh is the brother of Wah and I'm a smidge confused by it all (like Chapter 2, for instance, really threw me). But I press on. And hope all these couples flirting and taking long walks together aren't also passing mashed potatoes to one another at the family reunion.

3. Know that I advocate cheating :) You don't have to keep up the pace in order to participate in this conversation! (Full disclosure: I only made it through chapter 8 ...) You don't even have to read along. Emma brings up loads of conversation points about relationships, friendships, social structure, character and I could keep going. Chime in whenever you feel chimey.

And we're off!


(My copy of Emma is a 2001 Modern Library edition from Random House)

E m m a. She's the girl Jane Austen thought her readers would hate, and the girl many of you told me you positively adore. She's been immortalized in film by a swift shooting Gweneth Paltrow and a plaid-skirt-clad Alicia Silverstone (which makes my early statement about seeing no adaptation of Emma wrong ... I have seen Clueless. As if!).

She was the eHarmony of the Regency era.

She was the sparkle in Mr. Knightley's eye.

She's sassy, this Emma Woodhouse. I like her. And I have a feeling I'm going to have fun writing about her.

Eventually, I'll probably just focus on one or two topics I uncover in the text and make the Emma chatter more essay-esc in nature. Today, I'm talking Emma confetti-style. Bear with me while I share the highlights of my reading experience as I tackled (like totally wrestled with) the first ten chapters of this novel. Full disclosure: I'm a writer and chronic booklover. Therefore, I know I'm supposed to swoon over Jane Austen. Most writers do. In fact, I can think of several discussions I've had with other writers where they credit Jane as one of their inspirations for even becoming a writer. I think Jane is fabulous too but good gravy, y'all. This language is hard to meander through sometimes. It's taking me awhile to fall into the rhythm of Jane's writing. That's not to say the writing isn't beautiful. And that the stories aren't incredible. And that the task isn't worth it (it totally is ... er .. will be :). But this is definitely a challenge for me. I'm glad I have you guys to talk it out with.

These were some of my favorite aspects of the first ten chapters of Emma:

1. I can understand Emma's "gentle sorrow."
This is one of the first paragraphs in the book and I love it dearly:

Sorrow came -- a gentle sorrow -- but not at all in the shape of any disagreeable consciousness. Miss Taylor married. It was Ms. Taylor's loss which first brought grief ... [Emma's] father composed himself to sleep after dinner, as usual, and she had then only to sit and think of what she had lost. [chapter one, p. 3 of my edition]

I'd already made up my mind that Emma was a bit frivolous. She's going bananas trying to match up all her friends. She seems a bit overconfident. But. This gentle sorrow thing ... I think that's genuine. It's not an immature foot-stomping mock-sorrow because she didn't get her way. The gentle sorrow is this: Emma's best friend got married. We're told in the next paragraph she's married this catch of a guy, Mr. Weston, who Emma likes and totally approves of. So why the sadness? I bet you've felt it if your BFF is married. Both my besties are married now and while nothing has really changed (we still hang out as much as we did before), and while I think they married great guys, and while those guys seem to like me (or have at least come to grips with my weirdness) ... there's definitely a gentle sorrow attached to the experience. Maybe it's the realization that you're growing up, that your responsibilites are getting heavier, that everybody is getting older. I'm not quite sure exactly how to define a gentle sorrow, but I can attest to how it rattles a person's heart. In that small way, I connected with our girl Emma on the first page. And regardless of her frivolity, I'm starting to believe Emma's desire to see her friends happy is very genuine. I'm willing to bet she has a kind heart. Bravo, Jane.

2. I like the subtle hints about what the other characters in this story are like. For example:

- Emma's dad is an introverted extrovert who likes dinner parties with friends but doesn't do the social scene. I'm with you, Mr. Woodhouse.

- Mr. Elton is a single guy in his early twenties who hates being single. Which is great for Emma because she gets her kicks setting people up. I figured she would set him up with Harriet and she was totally doing just that by chapter 6.

- Mrs. Bates is old and favors tea and "quadrille." Now. The "quadrille" thing excited me at first. Quadrille kind of sounded like "armadillo." So I thought maybe Mrs. Bates had a pet armadillo and she led it around on a leash. Which would make Mrs. Bates my favorite character so far. Sadly, a quick Google search tells me a quadrille is either a.) a card game or b.) a square dance. I don't think Mrs. Bates is chicken-in-the-bread-pan-picking-out-dough. So mostly she likes to sip tea and play Phase 10.

- Miss Bates is her daughter (in case your deduction skills are non-existent) and she "enjoy[s] a a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, or married." (Chapter 3, pg. 14 my version) We're told she didn't have a noteworthy youth and she spent her adulthood taking care of her mom. "And yet she was a happy woman ..." I love that. Good reminder joy isn't circumstantial.

- Mrs. Goddard is a teacher, an good one from what the text suggests. Her school isn't the fanciest in England, but it has a great reputation. And Mrs. Goddard likes for her girls to be healthy, happy, and well fed. Yay.

- Harriet Smith. This girl is mostly Emma's project. We're told Emma is drawn to her "on account of her beauty." But just when I was about to roll my eyes at Emma's shallowness (even though this could be an interesting topic ... because there probably are people who pick their friends based on shared levels of hawtness), I came upon this paragraph describing that beauty:

[Harriet] was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be the sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness and, before the end of the evening, Emma was much pleased with her manners as her person ... (p. 16 my version)

I'm not going to explore the meaning of "a fine bloom." But. I really like it when authors go to some length to define different body types as beautiful. Short, plump, and fair = pretty in Emma's mind. I like that :) (Later on it becomes obvious Harriet isn't very clever but still...) Jane definitely isn't writing stereotypes in this book.

Speaking of Harriet,

3. Emma doesn't seem to be making a big effort to hide the fact that Harriet is more of a project than a friend. In Chapter 4, Jane writes, "Such a friend as Mrs. Weston was out of the question. Two such could never be granted. Two such she did not want." Emma already had a best friend. She's not looking for a new one. She's just thinks she can make Harriet's life better by fixing her up with a hot young Regency buck. "For Mrs. Weston," writes Jane, "there was nothing to be done. For Harriet, everything." Knightley is totally onto her scheming as well. He says Harriet's weakness is "hourly flattery" (p.27 my version). And questions what in the world Emma could possibly learn in a relationship where the other person totally admires her. Instead of expounding any further on Emma's motives, I'll hand the mic to Galinda:

Break for Infomercial:
Mr. Martin's ... How to Make a Girl Notice You in Three Easy Steps!
1. Bring her Walnuts! When Harriet mentioned to Mr. Martin [a guy she's semi-crushing on that Emma thinks is a dweeb] how much she liked walnuts ... he walked three miles to get some for her. [Sign of a Modern Day Martin: He brings you a caramel macchiato at work because you mentioned, in passing, how much you liked them.]

2. Get your shepherd's son to sing to your lady love! Harriet got a free concert in the parlor one night. [Sign of a Modern Day Martin: He makes you a mix CD of fabulous songs.* Or writes a song for you awwww :)]

3. Tell her she can call the cow out there in the pasture "her" cow. (Old McMartin had a farm. Bow chika bow bow bow.) [Sign of a Modern Martin: Hm. I don't know how to modernize the cow thing.]

4. Read the Romance of the Forrest, because she recommended it to you. [Sign of a Modern Martin: read the books she recommends, even if they aren't you're thing.] A title like Romance of the Forest totally sounds like a Barbara Kingsolver novel. If that were true, it would be gorgeous and Martin would love it.

End of Infomercial.

4. I like this juxtaposition of beauty and character.

Maybe Jane is always like this (?) but the physical description is quite vivid in this novel. And even in the first ten chapters, loads of character traits are rising to the surface. I'm suspect of Jane because I think she likes to write characters who aren't what they appear to be. (First impressions really are just first impressions, ya know?) One of my favorite little character descriptions happens when the girls are talking about Mr. Martin, who is totally into Harriet. As Harriet is recounting all the ways Martin is hitting on her (see above), she never mentions the way he looks. When Emma finally asks about him, Harriet says this: "Oh! not handsome -- not at all handsome. I thought him quite plain at first, but I do not think him so plain now. One does not, you know, after a time. (p. 20 my version)" Cool. I like the notion that we might be playing with how faulty perception can be. I don't know if we'll see much more of Mr. Martin though. Emma is bound and determined to match Harriet with Mr. Elton.

5. And now we come to the squee-inducing moments. I'm pretty sure Emma and Knightley get together at the end of this so I'm looking, early on, at the ways they might be noticing each other. Without noticing the other one is noticing. You know? ;)

For example. Emma is talking to Harriet about proper gentlemen, and what they're really like, and how they-don't-give-you-stupid-walnuts-Harriet! And then Harriet mentions dashing Mr. Knightley and how he definitely has this super gentlemanly swagger. Harriet's like: "Mr. Knightley is fine!"**

And Emma says: "Mr. Knighley's air is so remarkably good that it is not fair to compare Mr. Martin with him. You might not see one in a hundred with gentleman so plainly written as in Mr. Knightley. But he is not the only gentleman you have been lately used to. What say you to Mr. Weston and Mr. Elton?" (p. 23 my version)

So. Maybe Emma was just throwing Mr. Knightley a bone by complimenting his greatness. And she wants Harriet with Elton so she's subtly mentioning his name whenever the situation calls for it.

Or maybe there's this subconscious desire for Harriet not to notice Knightley. Like, yeah, yeah, Knightley is perfect. Now pay attention to these guys. Not that guy. Because deep down ... I want that guy to be mine. Maybe? :)

6. Swoony Moment #2: Knightley definitely notices Emma.

- He notices she's very impatient. We've already talked about how he's kind of critical (which is a bit annoying). He says she'll never take on any challenge requiring "industry or patience" (p. 26). And he references all the books she's said she'll get around to reading that she has never, ever read.

- He has noticed she's clever. But he thinks it's more of a curse than a blessing.

- He has noticed Emma likes to surround herself with people who only feed her ego. Who let her be the Alpha. It's why he thinks she's not a good influence for Harriet.

- He has noticed the way she looks. Shall we count the ways?

He says, "...I confess that I have seldom seen a face or figure more pleasing to me than hers. But I am a partial old friend." Heh. A "friend." Riiight.

He says (in this same conversation!): "I love to look at her; and I will add this praise, that I do not think her personally vain." (I don't either. I think that's why I like her even though her life seems a little too conveniently perfect.)

- He knows about her declaration to never, ever marry. Which I hope we find out more about. Like why wouldn't Emma, queen among matchmakers, want to fall in love herself? It's puzzling to Knightley too. His theory is that she just hasn't fallen in love yet, so she doesn't know what she's missing out on. "It would not be a bad thing," he says, "for her to be very much in love..." (29) Hmmmm. :)

At one point, Knightley says, "There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma. I wonder what will become of her." (p. 29) I bet you do, Mr. Knightley.

And I do too, really. I wonder if Emma, who spends a tremendous amount of time analyzing other people (I bet she was a psych major ;), has ever taken the time to figure out more about herself. I wonder if she'll fall in love. I wonder how it will happen. I wonder how she'll change. Love always changes people and Emma has lots of love raining down on her: from old friends, new friends, family ... and a certain gentleman with a very confident swagger. I think she's in for a ride. I think we are too.

So! I would love to hear your thoughts so far! Any favorite quotes? Favorite moments? Any issues you want to chat about in the comments? Gushing is allowed! :)

Next Tuesday with Emma: January 26 -- Chapters 11-20 :)

*"It's no good pretending that any relationship has a future if your record collections disagree violently or if your favorite films wouldn't even speak to each other if they met at a party." - Nick Hornby. I don't agree, but I like the quote.
** Actual quote: "Certainly he is not like Mr. Knightley. He has not such a fine air and way of walking as Mr. Kinghtlye. I see the difference plain enough. But Mr. Knighley is so fine a man." (p. 23 my version)


  1. Yeah, I don't know about a modern cow thing either?? I'll think about that!

    And I think you should totally follow this up with a analysis of Clueless!:)

  2. Oh, I will totally use this as an excuse to watch Clueless! :) My favorite part in the movie is when they drive on the freeway for the first time. It makes me laugh just thinking about it.

  3. A Modern Martin would let you name one of his dog's puppies. Or let you test drive his Mustang (okay that's a stretch). Or let you be the one in charge of making the pancakes when it's on his turf.

    ...Yeah, the puppy one works best.

    And I agree about Austen being really big on messing with your mind with first impressions. Every single time I go through this story I see Jane Fairfax in a completely different light. (You'll get to her soon.) Every time I think I have her pinned down, I read it again or watch it again and her personality comes completely out of left field. I'll talk more about her later, because I think of all the characters, she sparks the most intrigue. If you want her to. And if you want to barely notice her, you can do that too. It's so interesting.

  4. ...or you have your own coffee mug at his house. And he keeps your favorite kind of tea in stock at his house for when you visit, even though he only drinks Folger's (and he only drinks Folger's).

  5. Will you be offended if I only skim your Emma posts? :)

  6. Ashley, I can't wait to read about Jane Fairfax! Love what you said about the character sparking intirgue "if you want her to." That's such an interesting way to look at it. I'm reading several other books right now and, I'll admit, Jane's characters are the ones I'm thinking about the most. In part, I'm sure that has to do with bloggin :) But I think it's just because she writes such interesting people ... people whose real colors shine through so convincingly by the end. One thing I noticed about P&P was that I fell in love with Darcy as Lizzy did. I'm excited to see what happens with Emmma. Also, love the Folgers reference ;)

    J, I am elated you are even skimming! I anticipate no male readership on Emma days ... :)

  7. Jane Austen's books are a challenge to read at first. But when you get really involved in reading them or watching the movies, you get so used to the language and style that is used that you really don't even notice it! The first book I read of hers was "Pride and Prejudice." It took me quite a while, because there were parts that I had to read over and over to understand, and I kept one finger on the "notes" section in the back so I could flip back and forth. I have a P&P edition that has really good notes...Penguin Classics, 2003. Anyway, despite the weirdness at first, it is so worth it!

    I have to be really careful about what I say because I don't want to spoil anything! =) Still, I'm loving rediscovering this book. The last time I read it was a year or two ago (I actually did a book report about it...and "Pride and Prejudice," of course). I'm so glad to have an excuse to reread it, and to take my time with it!

    Sometimes my grandparents remind me so much of Mr. Woodhouse. He was "never able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself." You know, a lot of elderly people are like that...they think that everyone must feel and believe the way they do. =)

    Miss Bates is a great character, one of my favorites, actually, though a little annoying. I know a few people who remind me of her, LOL. She gets a lot of attention later on.

    I love how you pointed out all the things Mr. Knightley notices about Emma. They've known each other for so long, it's almost as if he knows her better than she knows herself. And we do find out a little more about Emma's determination not to marry. It's discussed in chapter 10, I think.

    As for the cow thing, I know a 16 year old guy whose family has a farm. One of their cows had a calf, and the guy let his girlfriend name it. Sort of Mr. Martinish, maybe? (She named it Bella, from Twilight. One of our milk cows is also named Bella, but it is not a Twilight reference, LOL.)

    Great first week of Emma. =) I'm excited about the next one. I'm on a real Austen kick right now. I watched 2005 "Pride and Prejudice" (which also happens to be my favorite movie) Sunday night, as a sort of last bit of relaxation before school started again. I adore that movie...the music, scenery, dialogue, cast, everything. It made me want to read P&P again, but it'll have to wait until after Emma. The P&P soundtrack has gotten me through my homework these past few days. =)

    I'm sorry that this comment is nearly as long as the book! =) I get excited about Austen.


  8. I can't say anything or I'll ruin it for you. I read Emma last year, I think, and it was so good. Emma is a multi-sided character. At first I Was totally disgusted with her, but then I kind of liked her. Though she isn't really my kind of person. She's much too flighty and match make-y and...I don't know. I can't really relate. :P But, to put it simply, I would rather spend time with her than a lot of girls I have encountered these days....

    I do like how Jane Austen gives you a "first impression" of a character and then sort of changes it and something unexpected happens. So you may start out not liking a character and then end up liking him/her, or vice versa.

    Oh, and I just love how Mr. Knightley is so understanding of Emma. He knows she's crazy, but he still says he is her friend. He gives her good advice, but even when she doesn't listen he still puts up with her. That's nice. Perhaps there is hope for me. :)

    Excited for next week!

  9. It's almost 2 AM, so I'll just say a few things in a list before heading to bed...

    1) Natalie, I just love everything you have to say about the story. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, what certain things remind you of or make you think of, etc. It gives such an exciting (and modern-day-relatable) flair to an already beautiful story. (btw, I love Ashley's 'naming the puppy' idea... my boring alternative is MM [modern martin] telling you that you many control the remote. or the car. or the ipod.)
    2) A bit of trivia connected with your comment about Jane Austen and first impressions: Her first title for P&P was 'First Impressions'.
    3) Ashley, I SO understand what you mean about Jane Fairfax! I can't wait to see what everyone else makes of her (especially in the inevitable after-the-book-is-done character summaries. ;) )
    4) Jennifer, you pointed out something I think is very important with Jane Austen's writings... I think she tried to make her characters as human as possible, because when you think about it, all of us are SO multi-dimentional, but when we think of characters, we tend to label and put people/characters in boxes where we can tell exactly what they are 'like'. I think Jane tries to switch it up and remind us that there's a lot going on behind the scenes that others may not always see. We all have many different sides to us, and this seems to be reflected in Jane's characters. Maybe that's why she thought not many people would like Emma... because in one respect, Emma seems too perfect to relate to (the first thing we're told about her is that she usually gets her way, she's beautiful, she's well-off, and she hasn't really had very much hardship to deal with) or shallow, but in another respect, when you get to know her, you realize that she is so completely human. Even though she may seem like just a pretty face and a vain matchmaker, there's really a lot more to her than meets the eye. She has a LOT of lessons to learn.

    I love her. I think (and this is the ONLY thing I find fault with in the Gwyneth Paltrow version, which I still adore) that many depictions of Emma tend to focus on one aspect of her character, instead of showing all her different sides; (I'll give more detail when we're further through the book.) But suffice to say that she's not perfect, and she's not ALL faults either. ;)

    In any case, sorry, that was rather long-winded... (and if it was incoherent, I'm sorry too... like I said, it's about 2 am! Maybe that's why I keep using '...' ...my thoughts keep drifting away. :P)

    Anywho, can't wait for more discussion!
    G'night lovelies!

  10. Kristin, loved the connection you made about your grandparents! (I didn't even SEE that quote. Isn't it crazy what you lift and what you don't?) Naming the cow is definitely Martin-ish. (Naming it Bella cracks me up! ;)

    Jennifer, I definitely get where you're coming from. Some days I like Emma - like her spunk, like her energy. And then in some passages she makes me cringe. Typically, I need to be able to like the main character if I'm going to relate to the journey she takes. I still don't know quite what to make of her.

    RT, these are such great thoughts! I like what you said about Jane making her characters human. Even though that should seem obvious, Jane is obviously crazy talented at giving characters real dimension. So much that you really don't know what people are like the first time you meet them. While I'm interested in the story, I'm even more interested in the people in this novel. They're so vibrant. I can't wait to see what comes next!

    I don't know if you guys are still reading the comments but I have two more topics I would like to mention at this point (that fall within the first 10 chapters)

    1.) It is so painfully obvious to me that Elton is into Emma NOT Harriet. And Emma seems to be completely blind to this.

    2.) I really like how Knightley took her to task over the way she sabotaged Martin's proposal. I like the way those two banter back and forth. Neither backed down in that fight. Kudos. (Even though I totally agree with Knightley. Matchmaking is one thing. Meddling is another.)

  11. I totally agree with number one. The whole time I was reading it I wanted to scream "WAKE UP!" Emma only sees what she wants to see, wich I guess is something most of us can relate to at times. I have a feeling Emma would've been appalled at Elton's like of her, so she just didn't see it. Silly, silly girl. :)