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I think I mentioned picking up an omnibus edition of Jane Austen's… - Terrafactive Armageddon

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April 28th, 2005


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06:38 am
I think I mentioned picking up an omnibus edition of Jane Austen's novels a while back. I've been spending a fair bit of the current convalescence reading them. Yesterday I reached Emma, which was the first Austen I ever picked up - and I was reminded why for the longest time I thought I didn't care for Austen's writing. It wasn't the writing, as it turns out, but the characters.

I have a fault when it comes to stories, regardless of the medium they inhabit: if I don't like or sympathize with any of the characters, I have a hard time enjoying the work. The immediate comparison between Emma and Pride and Prejudice or Mansfield Park proved to me pretty clearly that I was annoyed with Emma because I was annoyed with Emma, not with Jane Austen herself.

So in retrospect it was a bad idea for me to be introduced to the author via that particular work, due entirely to quirks in my own character.

[Yes, I can definitely see the effects of a steady diet of Austen on my writing, as well.]

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From:grouchychris
Date:April 29th, 2005 12:55 am (UTC)
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Emma is the most class-conscious of the four novels I've read, and Emma herself is quite a snob. Is that what bothers you?
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From:cithra
Date:April 29th, 2005 03:27 am (UTC)
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That's a part of it, likely. So many of the dramatis personae are just annoying, though. Emma's father and his hypochondriac complaints, Mrs. Elton and her malicious snobbery (Emma's snobbery simply seems to arise from her being thoughtless and spoiled), John Knightly's irascibleness, the babbling Miss Bates, the eternally pliable Harriet, the controlling Mrs. Churchill off-stage (but actually ill, in contrast to Mr. Woodhouse.) George Knightly and the Westons seem to be the only folks with any grounding in reality whatsoever, and while they aren't annoying I never found them terribly engaging either.

I think I find Emma's biggest fault to be her constant making of assumptions about people's thoughts and behaviors, her complete lack of analytical thinking about anything and her seeming inability to learn from mistakes. (I've ranted about my irritation with makers of un-verified assumptions in the past, I know.) She reminds me of people who don't bother to pay attention to what is going on around them, then want to be caught-up on the details at their convenience - like someone who comes in halfway through a movie and spends the rest of it interrupting and wondering aloud and wanting to be told what is going on. She's good hearted, yes - but I can't think much of Mrs Weston nee Taylor's powers as an educator based on the mental habits of her students. Although I think it's mentioned in passing that Miss Taylor was more companion that governess, due to Emma's force of will...

Is Mansfield Park one of the ones you have read? It is pretty class-conscious in a way I found much less irksome, but then again the heroine there, Fanny Price, is definitely the underdog - and the more aristocratic and snobbish the character, the worse off they end up in that story. Emma by contrast remains essentially unchanged, though mildly penitent, and while everything does come out all right in the end, it's no doing of hers.

Maybe part of it is, too, that we are rooted more in Emma's head than in some of the other novel's main characters. It strikes me that, partly because of the nature of the intrigues of the story, and so as not to give some things away too early on, we are restricted to Emma's particular viewpoint more than we are to Fanny Price's or any of the Dashwoods. So there isn't much to counter the overwhelming (to me) thoughtlessness of someone who nevertheless is constantly thinking.
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From:grouchychris
Date:April 29th, 2005 09:08 am (UTC)
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I've read Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. It's true, a lot of the characters in Emma display downright annoying behavior (although I am of course in favor of irascibility). But in a comedy of manners, I expect a lot of the characters to act foolishly. It's the nonchalant classism that bothers me the most.
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From:cithra
Date:April 29th, 2005 03:04 pm (UTC)
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Yes - and I can't decide if the classism is frosting on the cake or eggs in the batter. Rather, are the thoughtless and irritating characters that way in part because of the classism, or would they still be the same were they of differing status. I doubt, for example, that Mr. Woodhouse would be as coddled and indulged were he not so well off. Lady Churchill formidable command over her nephew was certainly class-rooted.

Maybe that's the point of Emma not really 'getting it' after all that happened - it is Austen's comment on the pernicious effects of class snobbery. It's fairly clear from her other writings that Austen herself was not nearly so slavish to notions of classism - I would never impute Emma's views to Austen herself, I don't think. So often the more rarefied the rank, in her novels, the sillier or more venal the character - perhaps what I find missing from Emma is a character who speaks in something like Austen's own voice.

I'll still take Emma over most other romance novels though, Regency or otherwise.

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