Rivertown Reads Book Club launched in April, with Jane Austen’s “Emma” as the inaugural book.
As a longtime fan of Jane Austen’s works, "Emma" was not a new read for me. Rereading this book, though, made me enjoy and appreciate it even more than I have in the past. It is full of all the wit that I love from Jane Austen. This time that wit is often turned, interestingly, on her heroine.
Emma Woodhouse is vain and self-important. Austen knows it and laughs at it, but with the affection of a friend. In doing so she gives the readers leave to love and laugh at her as well.
“The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself,” Austen spells out the issue to us in the very first page in her usual facetious way.
Character development is an important aspect of all Austen novels, and we see it on full display here with Emma.
Throughout the novel her intentions are always good, but they are blinded at their basis by her belief that her judgment is infallible. Her attempts at matchmaking have varied results, and for someone who claims to have such insight into the human heart, she is rather oblivious to her own. That of course, is part of the reader’s fun.
The friendship between Emma and Mr. Knightley is paramount to the book, and to Emma’s character development. He is, she owns herself, the only one to see flaws in her, and in doing so is the only one who expects better from her. The two have a longstanding relationship, built on mutual affection and respect.
Through the mischiefs and missteps, Emma finds her way to the ending Jane Austen guarantees for us in all her books: “My characters shall have, after a little trouble, all that they desire.”
— Rebecca Mariscal
I was not a fan of Jane Austen’s work until my final semester of college when I took a class that focused solely on the author’s life and six published novels. Now, I’m an Austen apologist. (OK, not quite. But I do appreciate her work immensely.)
The highest hurdle that I had to get over to appreciate Austen’s work was understanding the cultural context that she was writing in. When I read “Pride and Prejudice” and “Sense and Sensibility” in high school I found the novels to be boring and the characters to be stuck up. While some characters in Austen’s novels do place themselves above others, I would argue that it is usually because the author is making fun of them and the cultural stereotypes that they embody.
For example, in one scene when Emma thinks that she understands an acquaintance but is terribly mistaken about his intentions Austen writes of Emma:
“She walked on amusing herself in the consideration of the blunders which often arise from a partial knowledge of circumstances, of the mistakes which people of high pretensions to judgment are forever falling into.”
To fully appreciate “Emma” it is important to remember that Austen is not advocating for everything that her protagonist does like, for example, playing matchmaker for all of her friends and acquaintances. Instead, Austen is commenting on class and social norms in Regency-era England.
Austen scholar Maggie Lane outlined that class structure of the author’s life:
“During Jane Austen’s lifetime this rigidity was beginning to break down, as the middle classes became more numerous, more prosperous and more aspirational. The novels of her maturity demonstrate an awareness -- somewhat uneasy -- of these pressures from below. The assumptions of natural superiority entertained by her class were being challenged. … (S)he acknowledges the validity of the challenge.”
The entire novel can be read as a commentary on and study of class. Austen’s characters range from landed gentry (the highest social group other than the aristocracy) to farmers and servants.
When “Emma” and Austen’s other novels are read from a historical perspective it becomes clear that they are about much more than what we see at first glance.
— Rachel Fergus
Rivertown Reads will be reading “I Am, I Am, I Am” by Maggie O’Farrell in May. To send us your reviews or future book recommendations, contact Rebecca Mariscal (email@example.com) or Rachel Fergus (firstname.lastname@example.org).
1. How have these near-death experiences shaped the author’s life?
2. Which one stuck out the most to you?
3. The title of the book “I am, I am, I am” comes from Sylvia Plath’s “The Bell Jar,” a mantra the character of that novel uses to remind herself she is alive. How does the title fit with this story?
4. Did you find this book to be hopeful?
5. How would you summarize this book to a friend who has never heard of it?