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ClassicsOnline Home » AUSTEN, J.: Emma (Abridged)
Arrogant, self-willed and egotistical, Emma is Jane Austen’s most unusual heroine. Her interfering ways and inveterate matchmaking are at once shocking and comic. She is ‘handsome, clever and rich’ and has ‘a disposition to think too well of herself’. When she decides to introduce the humble Harriet Smith to the delights of genteel society and to find her a suitable husband, she precipitates herself and her immediate circle into a web of misunderstanding and intrigue, from which no-one emerges unchanged.
Jane Austen was born in Hampshire in 1775, the seventh of
eight children. Her father was a clergyman who ensured that his children were
educated. After a brief spell at boarding school when they
were very young, Jane and her sister Cassandra were educated at home. In 1801,
Mr. Austen retired and the family moved to Bath. Although
Jane Austen never married, she is reputed to have had a romance in 1802, but
she parted from her lover, who died the following year. In 1803, she was proposed
to by a wealthy Hampshire landowner and after initially accepting his
proposal; she refused him the following morning. In 1805,
her father died, and she moved with her mother to Southampton and in 1809 to
the village of Chawton.
In 1816, Jane Austen became seriously ill, and was taken to
Winchester in search of a cure. She died there in 1817. She is remembered by
six great novels: Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813),
Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1816), Northanger Abbey (1818) and Persuasion
(1818) — all available on Naxos AudioBooks.
Emma was written and published in less than two years, while
Jane Austen was living at Chawton in Hampshire. Although it lacks the narrative
scope of her other novels, many have hailed it as one of her most perfect and
accomplished works in that she concentrates predominantly on the examination of
a small society in the grip of a complex pattern of social and moral values.
The character of Emma was a brave intention. Indeed Jane Austen
wrote: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”
Thus, at the beginning of the book we meet a wealthy, over-indulged young
woman, who feels she has every right to trifle with the destiny of others
simply as a result of the social position she occupies. She is therefore only
subscribing to the accepted social hierarchy when she explains to Harriet Smith
that were she to have married the humble Robert Martin, she could not possibly
have visited them, given her elevated social position. This is a social value,
which contemporary readers would have recognized, but Jane Austen leaves us in
no doubt as to what she feels is the morality of such a statement. Thus,
throughout the novel, characters reveal themselves not only according to the
position they occupy in society, but also in terms of the way they behave
towards one another. The Coles are an upwardly mobile family whom Emma at first
despises for their presumption, but their generosity of spirit is contrasted
with her small-minded arrogance.
For Jane Austen, a happy marriage was the symbol of social
and moral adjustment and harmony,
and it is not until Emma repents of her lack of sensitivity to others and her
reckless interference in their lives, that she herself can become eligible. It
is then that she discovers that she is in love, and by marrying the morally
virtuous Mr. Knightley equilibrium and harmony are restored.
Notes by Heather Godwin
Juliet Stevenson has worked extensively for the RSC, the
Royal National Theatre, and other major theater companies. She won an Olivier
Award for her role in Death and the Maiden at the Royal Court, and a number of
other awards for her work in the film Truly, Madly, Deeply. Other film credits
include The Trial, Ladder of Swords, Drowning by Numbers and A Secret Rapture.
Among her prominent TV appearances is The Politician’s Wife.
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AUSTEN, J.: Emma (Abridged)