Monday, October 20, 2014

A History of Emma

Jane Austen began Emma in January of 1814 finishing March 29, 1815 and it was published the following December. (Near the end of her life she wrote that her initial profits from it had been 38£ 18s.)

While writing Emma, Jane famously said she was creating “a heroine whom no one will much like except myself,” but—though all her books still created only mild waves in her own lifetime—on its first publication, Emma was yet reviewed professionally more times than any of her other works.

Never out of print, Emma has been adapted to the screen numerous times as well as being made into several stage plays and at least one musical. And each of the four major, currently available film adaptations is quite unique from the next—allowing most delightfully for all sorts of personal tastes and preferences! In the following I’ve listed out all the film versions of Emma (currently found on Wikipedia). Also—to clarify—the pictures (with the exception of the last four) are all from other films and/or candid moments/publicity shots.

So! Along with other takeoffs of Emma, the story proper was adapted in: 

1948 by BBC starring Judy Campbell (who also wrote the screenplay)

In 1954 (by NBC) starring Felicia Montealegre

In 1957 starring Sarah Churchill (NBC Matinee Theater series) 

By BBC in 1960 starring Diana Fairfax (and this is a much later picture)

In 1960 by CBS starring Nancy Wickwire (another later picture)

By BBC in 1972 starring Doran Godwin

In 1996 (by Miramax) starring Gwyneth Paltrow

In 1996 starring Kate Beckinsale (ITV/A&E)

And in 2009 (by BBC) starring Romola Garai

To hearken back to the original book reviews: when Austen first published Emma, she was honored by a review in the Quarterly (penned by none other than Sir Walter Scott). Scott was a rather severe critic, but (at least in her correspondence) Jane took his opinion with quite excellent and praiseworthy charity and equanimity. (And in fact, in his journal, Scott later seemed to amend his opinion and, indeed, come to be a great admirer of her work.)

Austen also kept a running list of opinions and feedback from immediate friends, family, and acquaintance. There are a lot of these, so below I’ve copied out just a few of the candid and oft-times humorous and conflicting examples for your enjoyment: 

Captain F. Austen liked it extremely, observing that though there might be more wit in P. and P. and an higher morality in M. P., yet altogether, on account of its peculiar air of Nature throughout, he preferred it to either.

Miss Sharp.—Better than M. P., but not so well as P. and P. Pleased with the heroine for her originality, delighted with Mr. K., and called Mrs. Elton beyond praise—dissatisfied with Jane Fairfax.

My Mother thought it more entertaining than M. P., but not so interesting as P. and P. No characters in it equal to Lady Catherine or Mr. Collins.

Mr. Haden—quite delighted with it. Admired the character of Emma.

Mrs. Digweed did not like it so well as the others: in fact if she had not known the author would hardly have got through it.

Mrs. Lefroy preferred it to M. P., but liked M. P. the least of all.

Mr. Cockerell liked it so little that Fanny would not send me his opinion.

Mr. Fowle read only the first and last chapters, because he had heard it was not interesting.

Mrs. Brandreth thought the third volume superior to anything I had ever written—quite beautiful!

Countess of Morley delighted with it.

Mr. Jeffrey (of the Edinburgh Review) was kept up by it three nights.

Mrs. Dickson did not much like it—thought it very inferior to P. and P. Liked it the less from there being a Mr. and Mrs. Dixon in it.

Cassandra.—Better than P. and P. but not so well as M. P.

(And) Captain C. Austen wrote: 'Emma arrived in time to a moment. I am delighted with her, more so I think than even with my favourite, Pride and Prejudice, and have read it three times in the passage.'”

So there’s encouragement for persevering in the midst of conflicting opinions!!

Austen’s own opinion near publication was stated in a letter to the Prince Regent’s librarian: “I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those readers who have preferred Pride and Prejudice it will appear inferior in wit; and to those who have preferred Mansfield Park, very inferior in good sense.”

After Emma’s successful publication, however (and after exchanging pleasant letters with the literary and capable Countess of Morley) she said, “It encourages me to depend on the same share of general good opinion which Emma's predecessors have experienced, and to believe that I have not yet, as almost every writer of fancy does sooner or later, overwritten myself.”

Of the composition of Emma, her nephews state: “Although polished to the highest degree, it was more quickly composed than any previous work and gave evidence of a practised hand. It was also the most 'Austenish' of all her novels, carrying out most completely her idea of what was fitted to her tastes and capacities. She enjoyed having a heroine 'whom no one would like but herself,' and working on 'three or four families in a country village.' 

Emma appeals therefore more exclusively than any of the others to an inner circle of admirers: but such admirers may possibly place it at the head of her compositions. There are no stirring incidents; there is no change of scene. The heroine, whose society we enjoy throughout, never sleeps away from home, and even there sees only so much company as an invalid father can welcome. No character in the book is ill, no one is ruined, there is no villain, and no paragon. 

“On the other hand, the plot is admirably contrived and never halts; while the mysteries—exclusively mysteries of courtship and love—are excellently maintained. Emma never expresses any opinion which is thoroughly sound, and seldom makes any forecast which is not belied by the event, yet we always recognise her acuteness, and she by degrees obtains our sympathy. 

“The book also illustrates to the highest degree the author's power of drawing humorous characters; Miss Bates, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mrs. Elton in the first class, and Harriet Smith in the second. And the humour is always essential to the delineation of character—it is never an excrescence. It also depends more on what is said than on any tricks of speech; there are no catch-words, and every one speaks practically the same excellent English. Besides this, Emma also gives a very good instance of the author's habit of building up her characters almost entirely without formal description, and leaving analysis to her readers.” Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh


  1. This was SO interesting! Wow, I didn't know there were SO many movie adaptions!!! WHAT!
    Oh, the opinions on Emma from various different people in Jane Austen's life made me almost laugh out loud!!! Thanks for this! Of to read it all over again. :-)

    1. Naomi,
      I didn't either! It's kind of funny -- as it's like they'd go ten years or so and then there'd be two adaptations -- and then ten more years or so and another two. (Except, of course that there hasn't been a new one recently...which means the '09's pretty near perfection??? :)) Anyhow (somehow), I would really like to see the 1948 one someday. Judy Campbell just looks like she could be a really good Emma.

      And oh, I know! Aren't some of them just hilarious? The one where the man's daughter Fanny wouldn't send his opinion? And Mr. Fowle who read the first and last chapters??

  2. Thank you for a nice overview of Emma's history. I too liked the various comments by the people she knew. My own opinion resonates with many of them. I like Emma far, far less than P & P and somewhat more than M P.

    But I've only read Emma once (as well as only once for M P too). The other books by Austen I've read multiple times. But I'm encouraged to give Emma another read.

    BTW, I found your blog in the usual way. I was looking at one blog, followed a link to another blog, then saw your blog listed as one of that blog's favorites and thought, "Hmm, the Brandywine, that can only refer to the Brandywine River from LOTR." :)

    1. George,
      You're welcome and thank you for commenting! I'm glad you liked the quotes. It's very interesting to see what mixed opinions and reactions its had all the way back to its first publication! A really great book on Austen from a professor (and pastor, I believe) is Miniatures and Morals: The Christian Novels of Jane Austen by Peter Leithart. He has some great insights on all her books and really deepened my appreciation for both Emma and Mansfield Park in particular. It's available on Amazon.

      And about the blog, yes it does--thanks for stopping by!

    2. Thank you. I added that book to my wish list.

  3. I LOVE all those quotes, and that Austen recorded them! And you know something dreadful? I never noticed there's not a villain. I mean, there's Frank Churchill The Rascally, but he's not really a villain. How fascinating, especially from a writerly point of view. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

    (Also, I love your "hugs are splendid" button.)

    1. Hamlette,
      The quotes are so great, aren't they?? And about Frank, you're is pretty fascinating. That she could keep the momentum moving for that long of a story, etc.

      And about the button--thank you!! They're absolutely wonderful, aren't they?? :) (A note: I actually thought of you, too when I was making it--as I think we must be kindred spirits in that regard. ;) I'm so glad you like it!)

    2. Hee hee! Kindred spirits of the hugging variety indeed.

      (DKoren actually made herself a button to be her counterpart to mine. Hers says "Hugs are NOT my department.")

  4. Replies
    1. Ainsley,
      Isn't it lovely? And thank you for commenting! :)

  5. Wow, this was so intriguing! I never knew there were so many versions of Emma-and old ones at that! I would love to see the 1940's and 50's ones.
    I loved reading the history of Emma! Thanks for posting about it!

    1. Natalie -- Isn't it quite amazing?? And I agree! I think it would be so fun to see Emma in b/w.... :) And you're welcome, I'm so glad you enjoyed it!!

  6. This was a wonderful post! I didn't have any idea how many adaptations there were either. Kind of blows my mind.

    One book I can recommend is Jane Austen: A Life Revealed by Catherine Reef. I caught it at work a couple of years ago. It's full of information that any Austenite would love. Amazon has it here:

    1. Joanna,
      Thank you! It's pretty surprising, isn't it? And thank you also for the recommendation...I'll look it up! :)


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