Should your Book Club read Emma by Jane Austen?

As you know, I am currently running a Jane Austen Literary Salon, and we just finished discussing Emma, the fifth of Jane’s six novels that we’re reading.  One of the members, let’s call her Diane, had to miss last month’s discussion of Mansfield Park, but she had a good excuse–her first grandchild was born!  And guess what Diane did while helping to care for her new granddaughter?  She read Emma out loud to her–I love it!  A little Janeite in training!

So, should your book club read Emma?  Are you looking for a classic?  Are you looking for one of Jane’s novels to read?  I can recommend Emma for the individual reader and for a book club, but I have to be honest here…this is not my very favorite of Jane’s novels.  Don’t get me wrong–it’s a wonderful, sometimes hilarious novel, with much to appreciate on many levels.  I just happen to prefer Mansfield Park (usually everyone’s least favorite), or Persuasion.  But that’s just me.  Emma is usually everyone else’s favorite, along with Pride and Prejudice.

If you do read Emma, there’s lots to discuss.

You probably know the plot, or some of the plot.  Emma is rich, spoiled, and rather self-absorbed.  She’s also very snobbish, but not when it comes to her new friend and pet project, Harriet.  Harriet’s class and rank are hard to pin down, as she has never known her parents–she is “the natural daughter of somebody”–and has lived at Mrs. Goddard’s school.  Emma, who sees the world as she would like it to be rather than how it is, decides with no evidence whatsoever that Harriet must be the daughter of a gentleman and therefore deserves to marry a gentleman.  But which gentleman will it be?  And will that chosen man see Harriet the same way Emma sees her?  Emma sets her sights on the perfect man (or men?) for Harriet and the hilarity begins!

There’s much more to the plot, but suffice to say that it reads like a Shakespearean comedy with all the confusion of who’s in love with whom, and who’s falling out with whom and who will end up with whom.  As I said, it’s quite funny, but there’s an undertone of serious business going on, and the careful reader will pick up on that.

The serious business of marriage, for instance.  Your book club will have a grand time discussing what this novel is saying about romantic love and marriage.  The class system looms large in this story, and impacts everyone and everything–you can see what you think the novel is saying about class and rank in Jane’s day.

Actually, the list of what you can discuss would be too long to list here.  How genders are being played with in the story, and what this means, for instance.  Or if Knightley has “proper pride” and whether he is an ideal man.  Or how Jane’s use of free indirect discourse impacts the reader’s view of the characters and plot.  Or what to make of the themes of duty, the individual versus society, education, and authority, to name a few.
You could spend hours just talking about the characters, like Emma’s father, a pathetic hypochondriac, or the inimitable and insufferable Mrs. Elton, one of the more loathsome characters in all of English literature.

I read and re-read Jane’s novels because I love her use of language.  She is incomparably brilliant and I am in awe as I read.  I also read her because I appreciate how there seem to be so many different, yet simultaneous, discourses in her novels.  In our Jane Austen Literary Salon, we are trying to get to “know” Jane–through her texts, of course.  But this is tricky, as she can be very slippery–you think you understand what the text is saying only to find it’s saying something quite different elsewhere.

Bottom line, Jane’s novels can be read on many levels, which may be a key to her staying power.  Have a go with Emma and let me know what you think.  No cheating by just watching the movie, however!  As beautiful as the films of all Jane’s novels are, they do not compare to reading the books–I assure you!

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