Our Discussion of Emma (and Some Kids’ Books Too)

Hands holding copies of Emma

Another Jane Austen book, another fun book club discussion night. This month we all read Emma and the answer to the question of “Do you like her?” was a mixed bag.

Emma Book Covers

We had a mixed bag of covers for this book, as well. We also had a couple of people who listened to the audiobook and one who read an e-book version.

Most of us thought Jane Austen had created one of her more unlikeable characters for the heroine, but we agreed that Emma Woodhouse seemed to come around in the end. As far as the book itself, the reactions mainly seemed to fall into two camps: either we really liked the story and would name it among our favorite Jane Austen books, or we just had a hard time getting into the story.

After discussing some of the ridiculous characters in the novel (Mrs. Elton and her request to ride donkeys to the party at Mr. Knightley’s house taking the cake), going through through our list of discussion questions, and choosing some conversation starters from the Table Topics cards (Most thought-provoking: If the book was a dream, what do you think it would signify?), we somehow got on the topic of some of our favorite books from when we were children. There were lots of books we had read in common, and some we sort of remembered but couldn’t recall the titles. If you can help us identify a book at about a fifth or sixth grade reading level with kids who could stop time that had a scene where they stop a dog from attacking them that might have contained some questionable language that a teacher reading it aloud would have skipped over or changed, Sarah would really like to know what it is.

Discussing Jane AustensEmma

We hope you can join us for our April 12 meeting! We’ll be reading and discussing The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck (among other subjects, I’m sure) and having a delightful tea party at Sarah’s house. We’ll keep you posted on the details.

Happy reading!

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Discussing Emma

Sharing a little food for thought here before our Emma discussion this Thursday.  The last question is enlightening, as I heard from many that you had trouble getting into the book this month.

  1. About Emma, Jane Austen famously said, “I’m going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Do you like Emma? Why or why not?
  2. Austen makes an unusual choice by selecting as her main character the most privileged woman in the book, the woman with “little to distress or vex her.” The Jane Fairfax story line (which W.J. Harvey has called the “shadow novel-within-the-novel”) has more traditional elements of tension and drama than Emma’s story. How did you feel about this novels want of incident and romance? Would you have rather read about Jane?
  3. Early in the book, Emma tells Harriet she doesn’t plan to marry. But the other women all embody, in one way or another, the serious economic consequences of staying single. The book is filled with women at risk. Discuss with reference to: Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, Mrs. Elton, Harriet Smith, Miss Taylor.
  4. Class issues run through every plot line in Emma. How would you describe Mr. Knightley’s views on class and privilege? Harriet Smith is “the natural daughter of nobody knows whom.” Which fact—her illegitimacy or her undetermined class standing—is more important in effecting her marital prospects? How do you feel about Emma’s hopes to see Harriet married above her expectations? How does Emma’s relationship to Harriet change over the course of the book?
  5. Two characters, Mrs. Elton and Frank Churchill, come into Highbury from the outside and threaten the little community with change. Mr. Knightley likes neither of them. How do you feel about them?
  6. One effect of the hidden (Jane Fairfax/Frank Churchill) story is to undermine the omniscience of the narrator. Some critics have suggested that the narrator controls the reader less in Emma than in most Austen books. Because of this, Reginald Ferrar has suggested the book improves on rereading. “Only when the story has been thoroughly assimilated can the infinite delights and subtleties of its workmanship begin to be appreciated.” He suggests that rereading Pride and Prejudice allows you to repeat the pleasure you had at the first reading, while rereading Emma always provides new pleasures. (He also says that “until you know the story, you are apt to find the movement dense and slow and obscure, difficult to follow, and not very obviously worth the following.”) Do you agree with any of this? Do you like a book in which the writer’s intentions are not always clear and there is space for the reader to take charge or do you like to know what the writer wants you to be feeling and noticing? How do you feel about the idea of a book that has to be reread in order to be enjoyed? Is Emma such a book? 
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See you Thursday @ 7:00 @ Paradise Cafe 

 Questions from Penguin Group
Photo from BBC 2009 Emma production

Emma: About the Author

I have SO MUCH to tell you about this month’s author, Jane Austen. When I first found out I would be writing this post, I thought, “This is our 4th Jane Austen book. There won’t be anything else to tell them about her! I’ll have to think of something else to write.”

Except we didn’t start writing About the Author posts until more recently, and there’s only one other post on this dear woman which I wrote in a characteristically lazy manner. So lazy that I said nothing about her! I claimed it would spoil the book or some such nonsense. Ha.

After thoroughly chastising myself, I set about to laboriously research our favorite writer by combing through her Wikipedia article. I’ve seen Becoming Jane. What else could there possibly be to know? And then I chastised myself some more.

She’s a sneaky one. You see she purposefully had many of the documents that could have told us about her life destroyed. How did she know anyone would care? She wasn’t actually famous per se during her lifetime. I mean, the books were well known, but she published under the name “A Lady.” Although some people must have known she wrote them because she was invited to visit the Prince Regent, George IV, who requested she dedicate her next book to him. Since she felt she had no choice but to do so, she did- sarcastically- with Plan of a Novel.

We do know some fascinating tidbits about the timeline of her life. Apparently she decided at the age of 13 to be a serious writer, and from that young age worked consistently on her craft. In her early twenties she began putting the characters of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey on paper. Lack of fortune, want of connections, and- I’m going to guess- war, all had their hand in preventing her from publishing anything until she was 35 years old. Well, that, and a cranky publisher who bought the copyright to Northanger Abbey when she was 22 and never published it. Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion were all written towards the end of her life which ended so early at the age of 41. In fact, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey  were published posthumously with a note from her brother Henry which revealed her as the author of the novels.

Although it has been quite some time since I’ve seen Becoming Jane, I do remember James McAvoy’s character, and indeed there was such a man in her life. Well, Wikipedia didn’t really tell me enough for me to know that she was in love with him, but they did cause some trouble together and apparently his family felt the need to keep them apart, so there must have been some attraction. We also know that she was engaged for one day to a family friend who is also a character in the movie, but unlike the movie, he apparently was, “a large, plain-looking man who spoke little, stuttered when he did speak, was aggressive in conversation, and almost completely tactless.” If we know anything about Jane from her stories, we know there is no way you could convince her to marry such a man.

After all my careful toiling through Wikipedia, I have come to just that conclusion: We know Jane from her stories. We know her sensibility, prejudices, and persuasions. She told us herself. I’m enjoying her sense of humor in Emma. I need to get going though, and finish the book. I’ve spent way too much time on this blog post for you all! If you need to find out more for yourself you can always check Wikipedia, but if you really want to know, you’ll read her writings for yourself.

Emma: Do YOU like her?

Title Page from Emma

Title Page from Emma

Before her novel Emma was published, Jane Austen said about the title character, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” Emma Woodhouse is “handsome, clever and rich,” but also has tendencies toward being selfish, spoiled, snobby and meddlesome. The real trouble begins when Emma decides she is going to try her hand at matchmaking, taking the very naive Harriet Smith on as a project of sorts in order to bring Harriet into higher society and find her a husband.

While Emma schemes and goes about her daily life in the small village of Highbury, it is the interesting cast that brings life to the novel, and this work of Austen’s seems to have one of the largest assortments of quirky characters:

  • Emma’s father, Mr. Woodhouse, who is very fragile in health and always seems to think the health of others is every bit as fragile as his own and that they should follow his habits.
  • Harriet Smith, who is impressionable and flighty and will do anything for Emma’s approval.
  • Mr. Elton, who is a master at schmoozing and turns out to be a social climber.
  • Mrs. Elton (formerly Miss Hawkins), whom Mr. Elton marries to achieve higher social standing. Although she has money, she has horrible manners.
  • Miss Bates, who is an incessant talker.
  • Frank Churchill, who is an “auntie’s boy.”

And then there’s Emma herself. She’s very concerned about people’s rank in society, she schemes to get her way, and she has decided that she doesn’t like Jane Fairfax for what seems like no good reason. Although she has her faults, in some ways, she is like Scarlett O’Hara, where you can’t help but root for her throughout the book.

So, as you’re reading though Emma, who do you think is the quirkiest character so far? What do you think of Emma? Do you like her, or do you think Jane Austen was right?

Hope you can join us for our discussion of Jane Austen’s Emma on March 8 at 7 p.m. We’ll keep you posted on the location. Happy reading!