In a well-known September 1814 letter dispensing writing advice to her niece Anna Austen, Jane Austen declares that ‘3 or 4 Families in a Country Village is the very thing to work on’.[i] At a time when many Austen readers are hunkered down into social worlds that are even more confined than the neighbourhoods of Austen’s novels, Autumn de Wilde’s new adaptation of Emma is a welcome distraction. There are many things to appreciate about this fresh take on Austen’s novel, including lively music, stunning cinematography, vivid set decorations, and gorgeous costumes. I especially appreciate the intertextual references that provide opportunities to look back on Austen’s life, Austen’s writing, and earlier adaptations of Austen’s novels. For example, the cross Emma wears in several scenes recalls Jane Austen’s topaz cross now in the collection of Jane Austen’s House.[ii] And Cassandra’s drawing of Jane Austen now held by the National Portrait Gallery seems to have influenced one of Emma’s pictures.[iii] The film also alludes to Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in a couple of explicit ways. The first shot of Mr. Knightley (played by a rustic — and musical — Johnny Flynn) casts him as a kind of Darcy figure when he addresses Mrs. Reynolds, recalling the housekeeper at Pemberley.[iv] And later, the Donwell outing features a statuary harkening back to Pemberley as featured in Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (2005).[v] In this short review, I will focus on how the film’s portrayal of the relationship between Emma (portrayed by a haughty Anya Taylor-Joy) and Harriet (played by a trusting Mia Goth) reflects a larger trend in Emma film adaptations.
In an interview with Meredith Goldstein, Autumn de Wilde mentions the influence of the high school movie on her adaptation, pointing out that ‘Jane Austen wrote about the hubris of youth so well’, and contending that Clueless (1995) is one of the best versions of Emma.[vi] The influence of Amy Heckerling’s film on this latest version is especially clear in the evolution of Harriet as a character who learns to stand up to the heroine. In Autumn de Wilde’s film, Harriet’s bravery is particularly obvious in the scene in which she discloses her feelings for Mr. Knightley. Harriet points out the rivalry between herself and Emma — ‘You think of Mr. Knightley for yourself!’ — before calling out Emma for ruining her marriage prospects: ‘I refused Mr. Martin because of you!’. Emma, chastened by Harriet’s accusations, eventually mends Harriet’s romantic relationship by visiting Robert Martin’s farm to make her confession: ‘I have caused you suffering, as I have caused the suffering of my friend. My dearest friend.’ This marks a major diversion from the novel’s plot, as Austen’s Emma is surprised to hear Mr. Knightley’s report of the engagement between Mr. Martin and Harriet, which takes place in London.[vii] And, whereas Austen’s novel concludes with the acknowledgement that ‘the intimacy between [Harriet] and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill’, this adaptation suggests the friendship becomes more intimate as a result of Harriet’s courage.[viii] In fact, an additional invented confrontation scene features Harriet defiantly — yet nervously — announcing to Emma that her father (who has revealed himself to be a Bristol galoshes-maker) will soon be visiting Highbury. To Harriet’s surprise, Emma responds by asking her friend to bring him to Hartfield.
The idea that Harriet and Emma gain a more equal footing by the end of the story is a revision to Austen’s plot that is evident in several Emma adaptations that recast the story in contemporary settings. In Clueless, Tai (Harriet) speaks up for herself in response to Cher’s (Emma’s) claim that Tai and Josh (Knightley) do not ‘mesh well’. Tai’s reaction — ‘Why am I even listening to you to begin with? You’re a virgin who can’t drive.’ — is one of the most memorable lines from the film. As Linda Troost points out in a 2011 Criticks review, Aisha (2010), an Indian adaptation of Emma heavily inspired by Clueless, takes things one step further by showcasing several characters who challenge Aisha (Emma).[ix] Shefali (Harriet) accuses Aisha of treating her as ‘just a project’ rather than as a ‘friend’ in an extended outburst: ‘Because I don’t wear good clothes like you do. Because I don’t speak English like you do. My father isn’t as rich as you are. I’m middle-class. [. . .] You never considered me an equal to you.’ Moreover, even the usually meek Harriet from the YouTube series Emma Approved (2013-2014) speaks up for herself in Episode 68 (‘The Boy is Mine’) when Emma asks if she ‘might be confusing Alex [Knightley] being interested with you romantically with his general niceness to everyone?’.[x] Harriet offers an uncharacteristically sarcastic retort: ‘Right! Because someone like Alex could never really be interested in someone like me?’.
In A Memoir of Jane Austen, J.E. Austen-Leigh suggests his aunt anticipated that readers would be put off by Emma’s character flaws:
She was very fond of Emma, but did not reckon on her being a general favourite; for, when commencing that work, she said, ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’[xi]
Like other adaptations of Emma, Autumn de Wilde’s film revises the relationship between Emma and Harriet to make it more equitable. Ultimately, these updates to Austen’s story present us with a humbled and reformed Emma who can be forgiven by contemporary audiences.
Emma was released in the UK on 14 February and opened in limited US markets on 21 February. The film became available via streaming services on 20 March.
[i] Jane Austen’s Letters, ed. by Deirdre Le Faye, 4th edn (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011),
- 287 (9-18 September 1814).
[ii] Annalie Talent, ‘Topaz Crosses,’ Jane Austen’s House (Jane Austen’s House, 2020) <https://janeaustens.house/object/topaz-crosses/> [accessed 8 May 2020].
[iii] National Portrait Gallery, ‘Jane Austen: Extended Catalogue Entry,’ National Portrait Gallery (National Portrait Gallery, [n.d.]) <https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portraitExtended/mw00230/Jane-Austen?> [accessed 8 May 2020].
[iv] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. by Pat Rogers, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006), pp. 272-277 (Volume III, Chapter 1).
[v] Pride and Prejudice, dir. by Joe Wright (Focus Features, 2005) [on DVD].
[vi] Meredith Goldstein, ‘Emma: A Discussion with Autumn de Wilde and Anya Taylor-Joy’ (Brookline, MA: Coolidge Corner Theatre, 25 February 2020) [YouTube video], thecoolidge, 28 February 2020 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyDhhwDq-S4> [accessed 8 May 2020]; Clueless, dir. by Amy Heckerling (Paramount Pictures, 1995) [on DVD].
[vii] Jane Austen, Emma, ed. by Richard Cronin, Dorothy McMillan, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005), pp. 513-518 (Volume III, Chapter 18).
[viii] Ibid. p. 526 (Volume III, Chapter 19).
[ix] Aisha, dir. by Rajshree Ojha (PVR Pictures, 2010) [on DVD]; Linda Troost, ‘Aisha,’ Criticks Reviews: Media (British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, revised 2020) <https://www.bsecs.org.uk/criticks-reviews/aisha/> [accessed 8 May 2020].
[x] ‘The Boy Is Mine – Emma Approved Ep: 68’, Emma Approved, dir. by Bernie Su [YouTube video], Pemberley Digital, 7 August 2014 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-_yiKduuM4> [accessed 8 May 2020].
[xi] J.E. Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen, in J.E Austen-Leigh A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections, ed. by Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), pp. 1-134 (p. 119).