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I fervently wished to enjoy as an adult what I had detested in my youth, but the bottom line is that with mainly flat characters doing little to nothing but gossip and speculate about each others' romances, the first 200 pages of Austen's novel left me wishing I were reading anything but this. The second 200 were an improvement, but not so much so that I can imagine recommending this novel to anyone else.
Three-sentence summary: 21 year old Emma Woodhouse helps run her controlling, valetudinarian father's estate about 16 miles outside of London. Bright, talented yet self-absorbed Emma overcomes her boredom and stasis by manipulating the love lives of lower-status women (and sometimes men) around her, while entirely misconstruing the intentions of many and ignoring the love of her life. Guess how it's all going to turn out...?
Austen fans: Whatever is the draw? Even in high school I detested these books in which - whatever folks proclaim about Austen's feminism - the entire central conflict is always about the girl getting the guy and the novel resolves immediately once she definitively does so. Treacly and dull, I found them. And apparently, despite every effort to enjoy this time-consuming read, I still do.
As usual, however, our book group conversation redeemed an otherwise unsatisfying novel, and I'm once again convinced of the power of ActionReading. Why?
1. In praise of fabulous conversations with the kind, smart, funny, and thoughtful people in my book group:
I wasn't surprised to find our two Austenite members enthusiastically arguing for Emma as a relatively realistic and nuanced Austen protagonist, and I did agree with them on that. And they took genuine pleasure in Emma's eventual regret for all her ill-conceived and ill-crafted machinations; OK, I can applaud any sort of conversion from the narrowly manipulative to the open-hearted, from the blinkered to the eyes-wide-open scrutiny of oneself and one's foibles. So Emma sets a decent example of personal growth, if we're looking for that sort of thing in a novel, and if she can be relied upon to maintain her altered clear-sightedness and compassion.
And then we commenced a brief yet heartening discussion of the relative constrictions - both social and geographical - of a well-born, landed single woman in that time period: A happy reminder of our relative freedoms (although all of us in book group are decidedly middle income, and so more akin to Jane Fairfax or to Harriet Smith than to Emma herself). And we discussed as well the continued use of plots in which - as in Pride and Prejudice - two soul-mates at first detest each other, even though none of us have ever seen such a love-hate relationship evolve in real life. Compared to other Austen novels, at least Emma gives us a match that moves from good to better rather than from antagonism to nuptial bliss.
Our conversation on these subjects, as well as others, constitutes one action that redeemed an otherwise dull read.
Two additional actions will give me cause to applaud Emma and to remember it fondly rather than scorn it:
2. I'm going to get back to playing guitar, and to pulling out the instrument when I invite people over, if they're at all keen on singing together. In Emma, the piano(forte) factors heavily in a subplot, and the games and music at social events enliven each occasion for the characters.
3. In May, I'm going to start making occasions for that music-making at once-a-month salons in my home. If any of you happen to live in my town, I'm hereby offering an open invite, and I'll try to figure out a regular day-of-the-month for an open house sort of an early-evening kind of a standing soiree.
But, Laurie: Why, oh why, do you abhor Austen so? Especially when some of your favorite people adore her?
Please, Austen fans, enlighten me on why she is still so popular...
I mean, I can certainly see that her prose is competent and, say, once every seventy pages or so, draws a quiet smile, but other than indicating to us modern readers the full extent of females' relative social constriction in that era, what does she offer us, content-wise? A bunch of boring people discussing the boring details of their boring lives ad nauseum, while the protagonists studiously avoid getting together with their obviously intended soon-to-be-mates so that the novel can drag on and on until they are suddenly visited by an epiphany and give in to romance/secure a mate?
In my opinion, you read one Jane Austen novel (of the big three anyway), and you've read them all. And only a couple of the characters in any of her works are multidimensional, so there's scant insight into the human condition per - say - one hundred pages of drivel either, just cyphers sitting around or going to dances or riding in carriages somewhere and then gossiping about it.
And this novel absolutely does not pass the Bechdel test (no surprise, based on the setting, really):
Does it have at least two female main characters? Arguably, yes.
Do the two females talk? Yes.
Do they talk about something other than men/romance? No, not really. (Well, Miss Bates does babble on about apples and spectacles, but she hardly counts as a major character and at any rate her topic is really still men.)
While I am loathe to advocate this in almost any other situation, I say: Why not just watch the movie (or better yet the stellar BBC series) instead? We did, and that Emma I loved.