Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

catherine morland

Northanger Abbey is not an Austen you often hear lauded; hardly anybody says it’s their favourite, and there are no Hollywood movie adaptations or fan clubs for its characters (why not? is my question. I’d buy an I ❤ Tilney badge with pleasure!). It’s not even usually found in a stand-alone edition; many vintage or antique copies have it as a two-for-one with Persuasion, and today Oxford World’s Classics publish it with a selection of Austen’s unfinished work. Northanger Abbey seems to have long been considered an inferior novel, not worthy of attention in its own right; the focus on its tongue in cheek jibes at Gothic literature have overshadowed everything else about it, leading many to think of it as merely a bit of juvenile fun and a dry run for her longer, more polished works. I must admit that I was of this persuasion before I re-read it for the first time in ten years. I have always dismissed Northanger Abbey as second rate; I read it immediately after the soul wrenchingly beautiful Persuasion (as I had one of those two-for-one editions) and was disappointed by its brevity in comparison. Catherine was no Anne, and Henry Tilney no Captain Wentworth. Back on the shelf it went, and there it has stayed for almost a decade. I had forgotten absolutely everything about it, and last week, when a colleague at school asked me who the main characters were and I couldn’t tell them, I decided it was probably about time I gave it another go. No English teacher worth their salt can be without a comprehensive knowledge of Austen, after all.

I re-opened the pages of Northanger Abbey expecting to be thoroughly underwhelmed. Instantly, I realised I had been labouring under a misapprehension for many years. There’s nothing inferior about it in the slightest! Everything we know and love from Austen’s other novels is here; the wit, the sarcasm, a flawed yet loveable heroine, a knee weakeningly attractive hero, a couple of nasty pieces of work and a selection of rather empty headed older women. I was drawn in from the very first page by the delightfully naive Catherine, whose romanticism, overactive imagination and blind good faith in people is refreshing rather than irritating. Her innocence may seem unrealistic to the modern day reader, but when we stop to consider that her life has been spent cloistered in a small rural village with nobody but Mrs Allen to call upon for the past 17 years, she really cannot be blamed for thinking that the world she reads about in novels actually exists. She has never travelled far from her own front door, and met few people outside of her family circle. She has never had cause to believe that she cannot take everyone at their word, and the narrowness of her experience allows her to believe that anything could be possible beyond the boundaries of her village. In another Austen novel, Catherine’s innocence might have been taken advantage of by a bad man, causing her to spend the rest of her days in shame and poverty. In a Gaskell novel, it almost certainly would have. Thankfully for us, this is not such a tragedy, but it certainly hints at what traps innocence could lead a girl into. If it wasn’t for Henry Tilney, Catherine could have found herself forced into being Mrs Thorpe, and what a bleak outcome that would have been.

I would class Northanger Abbey as an early example of a bildungsroman more than a romance. Catherine matures nicely during the course of the novel; at the beginning, her wide eyed innocence is unsullied, and she is enthusiastic about everything and trusting of everyone. She has had no experience of life to shatter her childish illusions, and her heartfelt belief that her life will truly begin from the moment she sets foot in the magical city of Bath is very sweet indeed. Of course, she soon discovers that it’s really not all that much fun to spend hours hanging about in a sweaty room making small talk while men appraise your worth like cattle (plus ca change!), and she also soon realises that not everyone can be taken at their word and many people are quite willing to take advantage of others to suit their own ends. I loved how ashamed she was of herself after each incidence of realising she had been led astray either by others or her own imagination; her ability to self discipline and her desire to correct her faults reminded me very much of Emma, and melted my heart. What is wonderful about Austen’s characterisation of Catherine is that by the end of the novel, she has not lost her goodness of heart and her enthusiasm for life; she has just had her eyes opened to a greater understanding of herself and others, and has a more realistic and practical outlook. She will certainly not be taken advantage of again, but she will also never cease to think the best of others regardless, and this faith in humanity is what makes her so endearing. No wonder Henry Tilney was prepared to throw over his dastardly father to make her an honest woman!

Aside from Catherine, Austen has outdone herself in the creation of Isabella Thorpe. She is a marvellous villain, in the vein of the odious Lucy Steele; her shameless self promotion and careless trampling over others on her way to the top is so wicked that it’s delicious to read. Catherine cannot see through Isabella’s false behaviour because she takes everyone at face value, but the reader can instantly see that Isabella portends nothing but trouble (because who amongst us has never met such a woman?!) and we wait on tenterhooks to see what the little madam is going to get up to. Isabella’s brash vanity is mirrored by her boorish brother John, who made my toes curl in just the same way Mr Collins always does. His forcing Catherine against her will to take the carriage ride out to the country made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and again reminded me of how close Catherine could have come to danger throughout her time in Bath; her powerlessness in this scene is truly frightening. Mrs Allen’s ineptitude is also quite disturbing; she is a female Mr Bennett, turning a blind eye to impropriety and barely lifting a finger to ensure Catherine’s safety. If it wasn’t for the Tilneys, I fear Catherine’s ending would have been very different indeed.

Finally, what can be said of Henry Tilney as a hero? He is a fascinating character; intelligent, good humoured, outspoken and witty, his kindly teasing of Catherine reveals that he too is a novel reader, and not only that, but he knows his stuff when it comes to choosing the right muslin for a dress. His love for Catherine is never in doubt, and neither is Catherine’s for him, so unlike Austen’s other novels, we do not see any tension, suspense, agony or brooding. As such, his relationship with Catherine is light hearted and truly romantic; there are no cryptic conversations in shrubberies or awkward, sexually charged silences. What you see with Henry is what you get; he knows how he feels and is unafraid to show it. He is perfect for Catherine, whose innocence is protected by his sensible yet sensitive personality. We know that Henry will be a good husband because he is a good brother and clearly respects women. We also know that he will be a good husband because he defies his father in order to marry Catherine; this strength of character reveals the sincerity of his affection and shows that he will do whatever necessary to ensure Catherine’s happiness. Henry Tilney will probably never enter the highest ranks of best ever literary heroes because he is so straightforward; women love vulnerability in a man, and he has none. However, I think he is a remarkable hero, and his brilliant banter with Catherine is amongst the best I have read in an Austen. Who can’t fail to punch the air in agreement when he denounces the use of the word nice? “this is a nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – it does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.” 

Overall, I thought Northanger Abbey was an absolute delight from start to finish. It is far more than a parody of Gothic literature; in fact, there are really only a few paragraphs that mention this at all. It is a ultimately a charming, witty and very truthful depiction of a girl’s first exposure to the world, and as such I think it should be required reading for all teenagers. I wonder why Emma was made into a film set in a High School and not Northanger Abbey? It would have been perfect to have Catherine as the new girl, shamelessly used by popular girl Isabella and almost forced against her will by John, who would undoubtedly have been the school star football player. Northanger Abbey may have been written 200 years ago, but the dynamics of teenage behaviour never change, once again proving how truly timeless Austen’s novels are. This is a wonderful gem, that is sadly overlooked by many. I am glad I, like Catherine, have had my eyes opened, and have another novel to add to my list of all-time favourites.

 

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Happily Ever After: Celebrating Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice by Susannah Fullerton

Book-illustrations-mr-darcy-and-elizabeth-20710753-493-769

I joined a bandwagon, I admit it! It was the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice last month (just in case you missed it) and lots of lovely new books about Jane and her novels have been released to coincide with such an important event. I’ve mainly been reading about Shakespeare lately, but to be frank, I’ve had enough, and the Pride and Prejudice bicentenary seemed a perfect excuse to jump ship and reach for the familiar and much loved ground of Austen instead. It still counts as work anyway, because I’ll be teaching Pride and Prejudice next term and I am simply getting a head start! As such, I was considerably intrigued by the premise of Susannah Fullerton’s ‘celebration’ of this much loved novel. Alongside some enjoyable literary criticism, Fullerton has also written chapters on Pride and Prejudice in translation, Pride and Prejudice sequels and adaptations, Pride and Prejudice on film, Pride and Prejudice illustrations and editions, and Pride and Prejudice marketing materials, all of which are topics I don’t often see discussed. Opening the pages of this very attractive, copiously illustrated collection of essays, I was excited to discover new insights into the book I love so much.

I whizzed through the essays on the characters and the style of the novel; there wasn’t much new in there, but the discussion was lively, intelligent and enjoyable nonetheless. Where my interest really became piqued was in the chapter on translations. So much of Austen’s brilliance is in the subtlety of her language, and I have always wondered how well that can be captured in another tongue. Apparently, until recently, the answer to that question has been ‘not very’. The first translation of P&P was a few short months after its first publication; in a time when there were no such things as rights, Austen probably wasn’t even aware of its existence. It was a cheap, much abridged and much adapted French version, amended to suit the tastes of the French public. Forty of the original sixty one chapters were left out entirely. Subsequent French translations followed the same theme; in fact, until very recently, the main translation of Austen available in France was a decidedly dodgy early 19th century one, which makes it no surprise that Austen has spend most of the last two hundred years being barely read in the country.

I was shocked to find that the situation was much the same across Europe, until very recently. Austen’s language is complex, and harnessing her wit and clever turns of phrase outside of her native tongue must be a nigh-on impossible task. I certainly wouldn’t like to attempt it. Fullerton raises the excellent point that the title Pride and Prejudice is itself a minefield, before even getting started on the text; both ‘pride’ and ‘prejudice’ have multiple meanings in English, and the correct understanding is often gleaned through context. Where there is no direct translation available, which understanding do you take as the dominant? Arrogance or dignity? Presumption or suspicion? The more you dig, the more tangled you get. In recent years, mostly since Colin Firth turned millions of women on to the charms of Mr Darcy, a new wave of translations have appeared that have led to a new interest in Austen outside of English speaking countries, but I still wonder whether they can truly have the same experience as those of us who can read the original text. I’d love to hear from people who can comment on Jane Austen in translation, as I really am intrigued by this!

Another chapter that I really enjoyed was the chapter outlining the various editions and illustrations of Pride and Prejudice that have been produced since its first publication. Originally it was published in cardboard wrappers, as the book buyers of the early 19th century would have taken their copies to a book binder and had them bound to their own specification. In the later decades of the 19th and early 20th century came a huge explosion in Austen’s popularity, and a range of attractively produced volumes were made available. From the luxurious and still much coveted ‘Peacock‘ edition (it has been my dream for many years to own this edition; I live in hope of coming across a copy in a charity shop!) illustrated by Hugh Thomson to cheap ‘yellowbacks’ decorated with pictures of Elizabeth and Darcy in High Victorian fashion, there was something for every pocket. Fullerton reproduces many illustrations, most of which I’d never seen before. I had no idea that Helen Sewell, illustrator of the first editions of the Little House on the Prairie books, had illustrated an edition, though her Lizzy Bennett looks rather too po-faced for my liking. I rather like the look of Chris(tiana) Hammond’s illustrations from the late 19th century, which are very detailed and show Lizzy to great advantage. My own edition of Pride and Prejudice is a 1902 Macmillan copy with Austin Dobson illustrations; I like it very much, but now I know the range that is available, it’s made me itch to find an upgrade! Not that I think any illustration can truly do the characters justice; there can surely be no better picture than that us faithful readers can conjure in our own heads.

Overall, this is a lovely book that looks at Pride and Prejudice from a wide range of intriguing perspectives, bringing us right up to the modern day with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and the action figures die hard fans can buy to create their own Jane Austen worlds at home! I feel enlightened by it, and I think that understanding more of the context surrounding the novel has certainly enriched my appreciation of what a wonderful book it is and how lucky I am to be able to access it so easily without the barrier of language to block my enjoyment. I am very thankful to the publisher Frances Lincoln for sending it to me, and I can’t recommend it enough. It will make a brilliant teaching tool when I finally get to spend my days talking about Darcy and Lizzy rather than Romeo and Juliet!

What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

jane austen novels

There are many books out there about Jane Austen, some more successful than others. There are the novelty type, which give us Jane’s advice on dating, domesticity, social etiquette and so on, which seem to be largely designed to fill the shelves of charity shops, and there are the very serious literary criticism type, destined to live lonely lives gathering dust in university libraries, as not even die hard fans can be bothered to plough through impenetrably dry paragraphs on the finer details of how Jane uses adjectives or some such similar pedantry. In the middle sit a rare breed of Jane books; those that manage to explore Austen’s writing with critical depth and intelligence, while remaining humorous, engaging and accessible to the common reader. They don’t require a university degree, a dictionary or superhuman levels of patience to decipher; instead, the only prerequisite for their enjoyment is a jolly good knowledge of the texts and an enthusiasm to find out more. John Mullan’s collection of essays is a perfect example of this; it’s wonderfully insightful, brilliantly witty, impressively broad in its scope and full of ‘oh I never even thought of that before but now it all makes sense!’ moments. I have loved every second of reading it, and now I want to read my way through Austen all over again with the insights I have gained. Plus, I want to finally get around to reading the unfinished works…something I have been meaning to do for years!

There are a huge range of essays in this volume, dealing with the meaty topics of sex and money as well as seemingly more trivial issues, such as weather and the seaside. I have preferred exploring these lighter topics, as these are the ones I never gave much thought to before, and which have surprised me with their significance. The seaside, for example, features throughout Austen’s novels; for some it is a more prominent plot device than others, and in the ones where it is only vaguely mentioned, it can be easy to miss its importance. For example, in Emma, Weymouth is the scene of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax’s fateful meeting; by the sea, away from their usual environment and, perhaps, buoyed up by the good spirits one often has when on holiday, they have turned their backs on the usual restraints of society to undertake a very risky secret engagement. In Pride and Prejudice, not only does Georgiana Darcy get whisked away to the seaside to be taken advantage of by the dastardly Mr Wickham, but Lydia Bennett does too; in Brighton, away from her family and influenced by the heady atmosphere of a holiday resort, she is induced to run off with Wickham, who has absolutely no intention of marrying her.  In Persuasion, Lyme is an entirely respectable place to visit, but Louisa Musgrove’s foolish behaviour, perhaps induced by her high holiday spirits, turns her seaside holiday into a disaster. However, this episode is the event on which the whole novel turns; after all, as Wentworth says, ‘no one is so capable as Anne’ when it comes to dealing with a crisis. It allows Anne to demonstrate her best qualities, and Wentworth to be reminded of them once more. The seaside is often not seen but frequently heard in Austen’s novels; as a location, it serves a vital purpose, and the astute reader should prick their ears up when they see it mentioned, as it usually imports a plot twist ahead.

What of the weightier topics? Well, money fascinated me; I had never thought of it in these terms before, but Mullan spells it all out so clearly – isn’t it intriguing how everyone in Austen’s world knows exactly how much everyone else is worth? In today’s society, the discussion of personal wealth is a bit of a taboo, and certainly in Britain, it’s considered crass to discuss your earnings. In Austen’s day, people’s fortunes were public knowledge. Emma knows that Mr Elton has only proposed to her because she has £30,000. In Pride and Prejudice, everyone knows Wickham has dumped Elizabeth for a Miss King because she has come into £10,000, and Mr Bingley and Mr Darcy’s fortunes are accurately calculated and delighted over by Mrs Bennett. In Sense and Sensibility, John Dashwood knows just how much his stepmother’s income is, and can calculate down to the penny how ‘comfortable’ she and his half sisters will be without him having to cough up any cash. Austen is incredibly precise about amounts; in doing so we can well understand that Austen’s contemporary readers would have known just how much these amounts signified, and that they would have been able to make judgements about characters based on these. For example, when Tom Bertram says that the cost of the theatre production in Mansfield Park is ‘only £20’, the contemporary reader would know that this would be a yearly wage for the average working class man. This kind of thoughtless extravagance reveals much about Tom’s personality and fecklessness that today’s reader would perhaps miss. Purchases are also important; the crucial carriage Mr Perry is thinking of buying in Emma would have cost around £1,500 and marked him out as a very well to do gentleman. Mr Perry’s ability to buy a carriage demonstrates just how well he does out of his wealthy clients, and leads us to wonder how much of his attentiveness is down to true compassion.

There are so many fascinating insights throughout the twenty essays in the book that I could go on picking out examples and discussing them for weeks. It’s just the sort of literary criticism that I love; illuminating, intelligent and thought provoking with exactly the right hint of humorous gossipiness to allow it to be a book I can still quite comfortably read at bedtime. I have been reading a chapter a night for the last couple of weeks and I am sorely sorry to have finished. However, I know this will be a book I shall dip in and out of frequently, as it is an invaluable companion to reading Austen, which, as every discerning reader will, I am sure, agree – should be done as often as possible. Forget all of the novelty Jane essay compendiums; this is the only one you need. If you’ve still got time to put this on your Christmas list, please do – it really will be your most treasured present! Talking about presents, this was a present to me from the lovely Jane Brocket; thanks very much Jane! 🙂

On Timeless Novels

I recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird in preparation for teaching it to a class this half term. I last read it when I was a teenager, and remember being enchanted by the beautiful descriptions of the faded small town of Maycomb, the closeness between Jem, Scout and the wonderful Atticus and the childish games of Jem, Scout and Dill and their obsession with the mysterious figure of Boo Radley. I was fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the terrible events of the novel; the awful treatment of Tom Robinson, the casual racism of the characters and the frightening behaviour of the Ewells. This was a world that was both a children’s paradise and the stuff of nightmares; the innocence of the young is so cleverly juxtaposed with the often disturbing and upsetting realities of adult life. As Jem and Scout grow up and understand with increasing maturity the actions and decisions of the adults around them, their interests and habits change as they realise life is not a playground, and things are not always fair. The success of this novel is not just in its unflinching and – for its time – daring portrayal of the prejudice and cruelty that many adults show towards others who are different to themselves, but also in its timeless portrayal of childhood and the way innocence is slowly stripped away as we age, the realities of the adult world gradually encroaching upon the boundaries of the playground until they can no longer be ignored.

To Kill a Mockingbird is often described as ‘timeless’, despite its very specific historical and cultural setting, and reading it has also made me think of what other novels can truly be called timeless, and whether there are hidden treasures that deserve this title and have unjustly fallen out of favour. For example, I am currently reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. Before Persephone republished Whipple, she had been out of print for half a century, totally forgotten and doomed to languish as a mere footnote in 20th century literary history. And yet, when you read her books, you are transported into a world that is both wonderfully antiquated and startlingly familiar. Ellen in Someone at a Distance is forever rushing around, with never enough time in the day to get things done. She is cook, cleaner, mother and wife; if she’s not driving someone somewhere, she’s at the shops; if she’s not cooking the dinner, she’s doing the washing up. Perpetually busy, perpetually the lowest priority; married, single, mother or childless, all women can relate to this role of constant frenetic activity to fit it all in.

Louise Lanier is a femme fatale, and her cold and somewhat calculating personality certainly leaves something to be desired. However, her boredom with small town life, her longing for something more, her love of beautiful things and her desire to be noticed and appreciated are aspects of character and situation that are completely universal. Reading how she feels about being trapped in her home town, living with her parents while watching her friends marry and build successful adult lives struck a loud chord with me; so many young adults go through the fear of being left behind and the frustration of feeling stifled in a life they have outgrown. And what of Avery, tempted and flattered by the attention received from a younger woman? Can we really blame him for a lack of willpower, when we all fall down in this respect from time to time? Someone at a Distance‘s sensitively and beautifully written portrayal of relationships and desires is astounding and timeless in its understanding of human nature, and yet it has not, and never will, reach the heights of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s fame. Why not? Is it, perhaps, too class conscious? Too domestic in its focus? Lacking a wider societal view? Perhaps, but these descriptions could all be applied to Jane Austen’s novels too, and hers are certainly considered to be timeless. So what is the criteria for a timeless novel, I wonder?

When I think of the timeless classic I most often turn to for entertainment and inspiration, Jane Eyre comes most vividly to mind. I love the character of Jane; plain, penniless, with no relations and no one to care for her, she makes her own way in the world out of sheer self discipline, will power and faith that something better is to come. A lack of love does not stop her from loving; a lack of compassion does not stop her from extending compassion and forgiveness to others. She does not seek revenge for the wrongs done to her, nor does she sink under the repeated difficulties of her circumstances. She stands for what is greatest in the human spirit: resilience. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre gives us a model of what it is to be human, and reminds us of the tremendous force for good that is within all of us. It might be written in a didactic style, with a fair few dodgy coincidences and a good deal of gothic melodrama, but the story transcends the conventions of its period through its ability to capture an essential truth and inspire and encourage its readers to fulfil their potential, no matter what hurdles they may face.

Perhaps this is it, then; timelessness is not just about being able to relate to the experiences of the characters, but by being moved, encouraged and inspired by their fates. A timeless novel is not one that merely explores the human condition, but that leaves us with a desire to become better people, to grow in self discipline, in courage, in kindness, and in understanding. Timeless stories are those that stay with us because they mean something vital. They inspire us to be more than we are, and remind us of all we could be. I think the novel I have read most recently that is a truly neglected timeless classic has to be Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. In its magnificent and ambitious exploration of the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of a corner of pre war Yorkshire, it reveals the essential goodness of humanity, and the need for each and every one of us to live our lives with passion, courage and hope. It moved me to tears, and the night I finished reading it was the night I finally decided to face my fears and apply for teacher training. It showed me what I could be capable of, and made me dare to believe that I too had the potential to make a difference to other people’s lives. The power of the written word is not something to be underestimated, and those words that are truly timeless are those that give us a vision of the greatness that is within our reach, if only we would rise up and grab for it.

So, perhaps there are two types of timeless novels; those that have a universality of experience, such as those of the unjustly neglected Dorothy Whipple, and Jane Austen; and those that inspire and move us in their portrayal of the potentiality of the human spirit, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre. The character of Atticus Finch has to be one of the greatest in literature; his compassion, understanding and courage are heart melting as well as inspirational. What makes him resonate so strongly with so many people is because he is an everyman; he is not wealthy, he is not overly handsome, and he doesn’t have a particularly charmed or interesting life. He lives in a rural backwater, alone with his children in a town where nothing happens. His days are uneventful, filled with the petty arguments of his uneducated neighbours and the trials and tribulations of parenting two lively children. What elevates Atticus into the extraordinary is simply his strength of character; he makes a stand against what he knows to be wrong, daring to fly in the face of the accepted social norms of his town. He is prepared to risk everything in order to do the right thing. Atticus requires nothing to do this but the resources he has inside of himself. Reading his story, we can believe that we too could be capable of doing the same thing, should we be called upon to do so; we don’t need any material trappings or heaps of brain cells to be able to emulate Atticus’ example. All we need to do is summon our courage, and raise our heads above the parapet. If Atticus, a thoroughly ordinary man, can do it, so can we. It’s the same with Jane Eyre; she has nothing that we don’t have; in fact, in many cases, she has a good deal less. Nothing but our own fear can prevent us from demonstrating her bravery, and if someone with as few opportunities and options as Jane can overcome her fears to leave everything she knows behind to strike out on her own, then we certainly can.

I’d love to hear other people’s views on timeless novels, and to know what books you turn to time and time again. My recent run of disappointing reading has made me hanker for books that are truly special, and that will leave me feeling moved and inspired. I am adoring my re-read of Someone at a Distance, and I want to follow it up with something of an equal quality, so any reading inspiration that can be offered would be much appreciated!

Emma: A World Apart

I have been thinking about Emma in comparison to other Austen novels and I find it intriguing that it is the only one to remain static in its setting. In Sense and Sensibility, the Dashwoods move from their home county (Sussex I think?) to Devon, then Marianne and Elinor decamp to London for the major part of the novel. In Mansfield Park, Fanny goes back to Portsmouth for several months to visit her family. In Pride and Prejudice, Jane goes to London, Elizabeth goes to Kent and Derbyshire and Lydia goes to Brighton. In Persuasion, Anne goes to Uppercross, then Lyme Regis, then Bath. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine goes to Bath and then Northanger Abbey. All of Austen’s major novels – bar Emma – feature the heroines leaving their homes for pastures new, usually for a considerable period of time. As such, very little narrative attention is paid to their local area and we certainly don’t become acquainted with the goings on of their neighbours; they don’t feel rooted anywhere in particular. By contrast, Emma is solidly rooted in Highbury; she has never been anywhere else and she has no desire to travel. As such, the narrative viewpoint remains firmly fixed within the boundaries of this small Surrey village. Despite this narrow focus, however, it is arguably the most action packed and intriguing of all Austen’s works. By choosing to ground the action in a local community, Austen allows us to become a part of the lives of a wide and diverse cast. Highbury becomes a character in its own right, a lively harbinger of gossip and intrigue that feels rich and vital. It also offers a fascinating insight into turn of the 19th century village life across the social spectrum that Austen’s other novels cannot give.

So, how does this setting impact upon the novel? Well, for starters, it offers further insight into Emma’s personality. Emma frequently mentions that she has never travelled; not even to the local landmark of Box Hill, which is a few miles’ drive away. She has never seen the sea, or been to London. She has lived her entire life within the confines of Highbury and has had no opportunity to broaden her experience of the world through meeting people from other backgrounds to her own. In Highbury she is used to being first in consequence, deferred to, respected and adored by the villagers. No one has ever come along who has contended this position and Emma has never been placed in a situation where she must defer to a woman of greater social standing. As such she is the undisputed Queen of Society and she has the self confidence – bordering on arrogance – of someone who has always been in such an elevated position. As she has no equal nor rival, she has never been pushed to improve herself, woefully neglecting her studies and failing to become as accomplished as she should be. Her ignorance of the larger world gives her a naïveté that she is totally unaware of; her unthinking trust in Frank Churchill and her inability to see the advances of Mr Elton are classic examples of this. Emma is a big fish in a very small pond; she may think she knows it all, but deep down her reluctance to never leave Highbury is rooted in a fear of the unknown. It is only when she marries Mr Knightley that she dares to leave the village and go out into the world. Mr Knightley has always challenged Emma and tried to broaden her horizons; as such, it is very apt that he takes her to the seaside for their honeymoon trip, symbolising Emma’s change in status from sheltered innocent to married woman of the world.

Another key aspect of Emma is that instead of going in search of action and pleasure, like her fellow Austen heroines, Emma stays put and merely creates it out of the ingredients she is given. If she had a few months here and there in Bath or London to look forward to, she wouldn’t need to invent love affairs for her friends and relations and speculate about the lives of her neighbours. As she has no such pleasures to distract her, Emma sets about inventing her own, with Highbury as her inspiration. The hapless Harriet is less a friend and more a project; Emma doesn’t really want a confidante, she wants something to occupy her time. Along comes Harriet and instantly there is an unsuitable proposal to ward off, a new love interest to encourage and an endless source of gossip and conjecture to indulge in. Not to mention the fact that Harriet is also a bottomless pit  of praise and flattery. When Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill arrive in town, there is even more to keep Emma’s boredom at bay. Frank Churchill can be flirted with and dreamed about, and the mystery of Jane’s piano and her relationship with her friend’s husband provides plenty of food for speculation. Highbury might in reality be a very sleepy village with not a lot going on, but with the aid of Emma’s overactive and underused imagination, it becomes a hive of seething passions and illicit secrets that keeps the reader guessing throughout.

Keeping the action in one place also allows for a multitude of narratives, which are essential to the plot of the novel. Highbury is the stable centre from which everything else flows; it is the constant that provides a sense of order and context. Emma has a huge cast of active characters compared to the other Austen novels; usually Austen keeps things limited to a central family circle, a couple of external characters, usually love interests, and perhaps a friend or two or a couple of nasty sisters. As people are frequently moving around, this keeps things manageable and the plot moving forward without confusion. In Emma, there are a range of characters who are not related to one another and have no link save their shared geographical location. These characters provide a range of stories that intertwine, allowing for the intricate and misleading plotting that encourages the reader to wander off into a number of false conclusions and misunderstandings. They also serve the purpose of creating a community in which we can become involved and also in which we can see characters reflected in a surface that is not Emma’s biased eye.  Mr Knightley’s benevolence to Robert Martin, his respect of Mr Cole and his sensitivity to the situation of Miss Bates shows us that he is a good man, sensitive to and accepting of societal change, while still remaining conscious of his duty to those living on his land. Emma’s mixed attitude of both pity and exasperation towards Miss Bates shows that she has a good heart but she still has much to learn about her responsibilities. The deference and consideration shown to Emma, Mr Woodhouse and Mr Knightley by the villagers show how well liked they are and how their status as landowning gentry will always place them above everyone else of consequence. However, the begrudging attitude of the Eltons also shows that they can no longer take this position of authority for granted when a new class of rich merchants such as Mrs Elton’s family and the Coles are rising up to yap at their heels.

Despite being a novel where not a lot happens and nobody really does anything, Emma feels surprisingly action packed and densely plotted. I think this is because of its basis in a community setting. We are exhausted after Emma has spent a morning talking over one of Miss Fairfax’s letters with Miss Bates; Emma has done nothing but sit and listen, but the sheer weight of information imparted to the reader, the pages packed with dialogue wandering off into trains of thought totally unrelated to the subject matter, is enough to make us feel like weeks have passed. When an outing or ball is planned, we are given the opinions of the whole community, with everyone having a great deal to say. This gives the impression of a gravity that the occasion usually does not warrant; a mere wander around Mr Knightley’s garden to pick strawberries takes more organisation than Elizabeth Bennett’s life altering trip to Derbyshire! Placing the novel within the boundaries of a small community also allows Austen’s sharp eye for character detail to shine. No stranger to village life herself, she captures the village gossip, the local girl done good, the prodigal son, the querulous old landowner and the self satisfied society madam perfectly. Giving herself a broad canvas on which to work allowed Austen to create a very different novel – and perhaps a more socially aware novel – to the others she had already written, breaking away from her usual narrow field of upper class aristocrats and country house dwellers to give a more accurate picture of typical British life. Emma is a wonderfully entertaining and engrossing novel, with a cosiness that comes from the intimacy of its stable setting. It also has a heroine whose misguided nature can only be adequately explained away by her complete lack of exposure to the world, and for that reason, Austen had to stay in one place. I am glad of it; it makes Emma as standout novel amongst the rest, with a narrative complexity that surprises and rewards anew on every read.