Emma at 200: From English Village to Global Appeal Back

What is Emma? Anonymously then – but famously now – Walter Scott reviewed Jane Austen’s fourth published novel in the Quarterly Review in 1816, at the behest of John Murray, the novel’s publisher, and acknowledged that it was a signal achievement – if not exactly the kind of thing he wrote himself. Chawton House’s exhibition Emma at 200: From English village to global appeal includes another well-known response in the form of Charlotte Brontë’s unimpressed letter to W. S. Williams of April 12, 1850, anathematizing both the book and its author: “the Passions are perfectly unknown to her” and so on.

Contemporary with Scott’s review, however, is a modest volume in the exhibition’s first cabinet, in Chawton’s Great Hall: La Nouvelle Emma. A French translation of Emma published in 1816, it carried a telling subtitle: Les caractères anglais. The French preface went on to explain that – contrary to the title page of the English original – this was not exactly a novel but “un tableau des mœurs du temps”. French readers could thus proceed to indulge their Anglophilia safe in the knowledge that they were not about to enjoy a Radcliffean tale of wickedness or the “Big Bow-wow strain” of Scott.

Both the contemporary context and the past two centuries of responses to Emma are well illustrated at Chawton, in an exhibition that mainly consists of books, open and closed, and manuscripts, placed around the house so that the visitor enjoys them diluted, as it were, by the marvellous visual variety of the oil paintings and other artefacts on permanent display there: a portrait of Kitty Fisher the courtesan in a corridor, say; scions of the Knight family in the gallery; a suit belonging to Edward Austen Knight in the dining room. Follow the correct course, and you are taken from copies of Emma itself (including a very rare copy of the Philadelphia edition also published in 1816) to copies of the books to which Emma Woodhouse and her fellow residents of Highbury refer (such as Robert Martin’s party pieces: Elegant Extracts and The Vicar of Wakefield), books and letters by Murray’s other female authors (including Germaine de Staël and the travel writer Maria Graham), sheet music for “Robin Adair” (as played by Jane Fairfax), and much more besides.

In fact, there is plenty to provoke thoughts of how writers may work between the world around them and the world of books – or at least how Austen did – in a cabinet at the foot of the stairs outside Chawton’s Lower Library. Here the exhibition draws particular attention to the groundswell of responses to Shakespeare among eighteenth-century women, inspired by Jocelyn Harris’s persuasive suggestion that Emma is Austen’s creative response to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here, for example, are brought together copies of books such as Charlotte Lennox’s Shakespeare Illustrated, Elizabeth Montagu’s Essay on the Writings and Genius of Shakespeare and Elizabeth Griffith’s Morality of Shakespeare’s Drama Illustrated; as well as a volume of the Knight family copy of Shakespeare’s Works. Here is a book that it is not too wild to imagine Austen herself seeing, handling and reading.

The imagination then turns excitedly to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, although it is perhaps only proper first to observe that this object enshrined the works that were, according to Henry Crawford, part of an “Englishman’s constitution”. Apart from anything else, Emma is a novel about inheritance; and Chawton is an appropriate place to think about that, not least in the presence of a Shakespeare edition (published in 1735) that is recorded in the Godmersham catalogue of Knight family library (also on display), and is now, splendidly, available for any scholar with the wherewithal to get to Hampshire to consult.

If the visitor has not skipped ahead to this Shakespearean cabinet downstairs, the heart of the exhibition will have first been encountered upstairs, in the exhibition room. It is here that Emma at 200 most impressively puts its subject in its contemporary place, as a product of the Murray firm. It is here firmly pointed out that, for all the fame of Scott and Byron, Murray also made mountains of money out of female authors such as De Staël, Graham and Maria Eliza Rundell, the author of A New System of Domestic Cookery. A letter of 1816 from Felicia Hemans raises the subject of the Elgin Marbles. Susan Ferrier, whose Marriage Murray published jointly with William Blackwood, remarks that Miss Woodhouse is “no better than other people; but the characters are all so true to life”. A somewhat belated warning for Austen appears in the form of a panel describing Rundell’s tribulations, as cordial terms between author and publisher gave way to a dispute over money and recourse to the law. Austen, likewise, did not perhaps gain as much from him in financial terms as she could have done. And after her death, he still had copies of Emma on his hands; they were eventually remaindered.

That said, Murray had evidently tried to boost Emma. Austen was grateful for Scott’s review, which Murray had set up, but the “total omission” of Mansfield Park, as she admitted to Murray in April 1816, was a disappointment to her. (This was only a couple of years after she had written to her niece Anna: “Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair”.) The alertness to an omission is revealing. In Austen’s mind – at least as she deigned to share it with James Stanier Clarke, the Prince of Wales’s librarian, through whom Emma’s dedication to his master was arranged – admirers of Pride and Prejudice might see her fourth “work” as “inferior in Wit”, while those who preferred Mansfield Park might judge it to be “very inferior in good Sense” to its immediate predecessor. Emma was no imitation of an established model; instead, as Rachel Brownstein suggests in Why Jane Austen?, Austen herself “seems to have thought she was doing something new”. It intrigues me that one Austen editor, Fiona Stafford, can refer on the second page to Emma’s “evasiveness”, in the light of “determined efforts to establish the authenticity of [its] portrayal of early nineteenth-century Surrey” and an “alternative tradition” focusing on the novel’s “riddles, puns and anagrams”. What is Emma? Nothing if not a “window on the past” but also a “dazzling” act of literary “deflection”, even at the moment of Emma’s acceptance of Knightly’s proposal: “What did she say? – Just what she ought, of course”.

Emma at 200 does not absolutely capture this sense of something elusive, fun yet urgent – and certainly beyond the norm. That is, however, asking too much. Down the road, at Jane Austen’s House Museum, the Prince’s fine copy of Emma is on display – an extraordinary, speculation-prompting item and, at the same time, rather a little book behind glass. You learn a great deal about such objects in the context of sensitively and creatively arranged exhibitions such as these two. At the same time, and if you can forgive the weak pun, Emma is Austen’s knight move. The lack of “story” to which readers could sometimes object (“there is no story whatever”, Ferrier remarked), and to which the contemporary French translation cautiously draws attention, is a mark not of incompetence but ingenuity. Describing the wonder of that particular achievement is not the work of one or two exhibitions in a country village, but of two centuries of delighted readers’ responses – pace Charlotte Brontë.

Hence, scattered around the house, copies of Bharat Tandon’s annotated edition of Emma, and the recently published Cambridge Companion to “Emma”; hence the excellent display of spin-offs, rewrites and the like, including a novel called Emma and the Vampires, various DVD cases, the children’s Emma-inspired “Emotional Primer”, a Manga Emma and Trixie von Purl’s knitted figures of familiar Highbury figures. I especially enjoyed the blurb of the French translation, published long after its modest predecessor of 1816, that likens Emma to “le meilleur des comedies de Marivaux” spiced with “la finesse de Musset”. What would Scott have made of that?

Emma at 200: From English Village to Global Appeal is at Chawton House Library until 25th September 2016.