Wednesday, February 09, 2011

#14 - Emma

When I was younger, much younger, the first time I went to university, I sort of decided that "old" books weren't worth studying. I did my whole English degree trying to avoid anything remotely written before the 21st century. It wasn't easy. I think I had to do a Romantics and a Victorian class, along with Shakespeare, but I filled every elective with Post-Colonial, American, Modern British, anything to avoid what I perceived to be "boring" books.

No one ever said I was particularly smart in my youth.

But what it means is that I haven't read all of Jane Austen. I've barely scratched the surface of some of the best work in the English language, actually. And it's a good time of my life, two degrees later, working in publishing, to be reading these books for the 1001 Books list. So, in my quest for alphabetical order in my off the shelf reading, Emma came up first.

We all know the story: Emma Woodhouse makes all kinds of matchmaking mistakes, often puts her foot in her mouth, gets jealous, and sometimes becomes a person she doesn't like very much. Emma takes the young, impressionable, yet pretty, Harriet under her wing (a girl with lesser prospects and an unknown lineage) and finding her a suitable husband (first Mr. Elton, then Mr. Churchill, then, disaster when Harriet falls for Mr. Knightley and Emma is not particularly pleased with this turn of events) becomes her goal. Throw in a little petty jealousy when the talented and accomplished Miss Jane Fairfax arrives on the scene and there's plenty of picnics and parties to entertain the romantic in everyone. Of course, there's a happy ending, and much emotional development upon Emma's part. In a way, it's a little bit of a coming of age novel -- as we watch Emma develop from girl to woman.

Any critical analysis of the novel on my part would be ridiculous, I'm sure there's nothing I can add to the conversation. We live in a society that's already Austen-obsessed: There are mugs (of which I own four), multiple movies, numerous (far inferior) books, and a whole host of ivory tower work surrounding her life and her novels. But I will say this, from a format perspective, in terms of pacing, humour, theme, and depth of character, Austen certainly defined the novel for, well, just about every novelist to come after her writing in this genre. The more I read, the more I am astounded at the depth of her structure, how it perfectly suits the characters, and reaches a conclusion, while completely predictable only because I've seen Clueless about a half-dozen times, that made me smile.

I read in the introduction that Jane Austen, while writing Emma, that she was creating a character that people wouldn't like very much -- and I heartily disagree. I loved Emma, couldn't stand Mrs. Elton (as I am sure I was supposed to), and thought that Jane Fairfax should just come clean already -- she'd feel so much better. See, how you just get caught up in them like they're real people? Sigh. So, I've got two more Austens on my shelf, so by the time I get back to the 1001 Books section, I'll have two more delightful reads before I get into the real down and dirty stuff that I've been avoiding reading for years (like Murakami -- I honestly have zero desire to read Murakami, but it's on my shelves and I will at least attempt it. But, luckily, it's in the "M's" so it'll take me months to get there. I've barely scratched the surface of the first letter of the alphabet on any shelf).

WHAT'S UP NEXT: I'm reading the new Per Petterson, I know, it's out of order, but I've got to read the books sent to me from the publishers -- they do get priority. Then I'll be back on my Canadian "A's", which I think is a novel by Jason Anderson from ECW.

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