Why ‘Emma’ Is Jane Austen’s Greatest Achievement

Jane Austen’s Emma was published at the very end of 1815. As a result, the novel’s 200th anniversary season will last all of this fall and into 2016, ending a year from now with the Jane Austen Society of North America’s Emma-themed conference in Washington, DC. In a sense, pop culture already kicked off an Emma retrospective when we celebrated 20 years of Clueless, the beloved adaptation. But today, a stunning new annotated edition of the novel arrives from Penguin Classics, transitioning a summer of Clueless into a winter of Emma.

The beautifully bound paperback contains lots of context for the uninitiated (particularly the uninitiated American) reader, with little mini-essays on subjects like dancing, health, and social class in Austen’s time, as well as a guide to reading Emma, a glossary and spelling guide, maps, and original plates from early editions of the novel.

Flavorwire talked with the editor of the new edition, Juliette Wells, an English professor who studies and teaches Austen at Goucher University (which has a notable collection of Austen papers and memorabilia). We discussed the pleasures and frustrations of the novel that is regarded as Austen’s greatest achievement — with one of her most difficult heroines.

Flavorwire: When did you first read Emma?

Juliette Wells: I was a junior in high school, at science and technology magnet  high school. It was not like I read Emma and the heavens opened and I was like, “This is my life’s work!” Instead, our teacher asked if Austen could be considered a feminist and we said, “Well, kinda, sorta.”
When I was assigned to read Emma in college, I said, “I know this.” I was full of myself for having read it before and being able to pay attention to all the clues about Jane Fairfax

How many times would you say you’ve read it at this point?

It is impossible to count! There are so many thorough readings and then  quick, “I’m teaching this!” re-readings. Sometimes you go to meetings and conferences, gain a new perspective, so you re-read it. As I prepared this edition, I was not expecting to find any surprises. But going that slowly, with that quality of attention, I had an amazing experience with the novel’s  artistry of language. Now I think the best way to read Austen is slowly, not with a deadline. I hope people who choose this edition will choose to read it for pleasure.

When my English department colleagues are talking about language, it can be a code word for, “our students don’t appreciate the language.” But there were so many times with this edition where I really had to think about how to convey what Jane Austen had conveyed. She had written two perfect words, while I was writing laborious sentences.

Do you think one’s perspective on Emma changes with re-readings since the character is so clearly an adolescent? I appreciated it much more when I got older and saw her mindset from a distance.

I just finished teaching Emma last friday. My students sat around the table and said, “We don’t understand, why is this book great?” What I said is that it’s the contrast between depth of artistry with the slenderest possible material. This is an incredibly constrained world. But Emma is all about nuance, and who can really appreciate nuance on a first reading?  You have to re-read it. As a professor, I think of what I am doing as preparing students to re-read. I do the same thing with Middlemarch: set the groundwork for them to re-read it later.

How does Emma stack up to Austen’s other big novels? I get the sense that Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion are more beloved, but Emma is the most respected.

I think for most readers Pride and Prejudice is the easiest to love. She kept all her reader responses, and people even were saying this is in her time. And then Persuasion is the favorite of most experienced Austen readers, and older readers because it’s looking towards the future. Yet I do agree with the judgment that Emma is her single finest achievement.

What makes it stand out artistically?

Emma is the culmination of Austen’s ability to make great art about the most everyday material. She  can create this amazing classical comedy with characters who really  live in our imagination.As P.D. James pointed out, it even has an embedded mystery plot.

And then there’s Emma herself. What an amazing portrait of a smart young woman coming to self-awareness! People don’t catch on to the fact that it’s a coming-of-age novel because it’s not a bildungsroman — she never goes anywhere. It’s tiny but rich, and it’s incredibly gripping to read. I sometimes spend time looking at the original copies at Goucher, and there I’m supposed to be

just looking at them as physical objects, but I always get caught up in whatever scene I turn to.

I know you’re a big fan of Clueless. Why does it work so well as an adaptation of Emma?

The character of Cher is just a genius update of Emma Woodhouse. She’s handsome, clever, rich, the queen of her little society who is devoted to her father in a relationship that makes sense to us.  By making Cher younger, clearly smart and talented and also clearly uninformed, you see exactly what happens when you have a girl who has been told she’s beautiful and  knows she’s important but has never been challenged, never had anyone expand her horizons.

I think it’s the work inspired by Austen that brings the most genius to it. It completely works without [the viewer] knowing anything about Austen. Among my modest hopes for this Penguin edition is that if you’ve seen Clueless and you’re interested in Emma, this is the edition that would make sense for you.

In fact, if you love Jane Austen but your acquaintance is from these screen adaptations and you’re ready to take that step and read some of her writings, this is the perfect way to do it.