After months of going back and forth between this book and other, I finally devoted most of the last couple of days to it and managed to finish it. There is quite a contrast between the mild, wet English winters the characters complain about and the frigid below zero weather and blustery winds of the past couple of days in my neck of the woods… In between squalls that feel like the roof is going to lift off, I managed to concentrate enough to enjoy the genteel company of Austen’s characters.
The book centers around the title character, Emma, a single young lady who lives with her invalid father whom she takes care of, in a manor house in the fictional town of Highbury in Surrey (or Surry, as Jane Austen spells it), about sixteen miles from London. She professes she will never marry but loves to meddle in others’ affairs, even when she should not. There is much talk in the book, as in other Austen novels, of marriage, of the importance of marrying well, both in financial and social terms, of the propriety of behavior of young men and women of marriageable age.
The book describes the daily activities of members of the landed gentry in the UK, in the minute details of a slow-going life where catching cold can be life-threatening, where to find out if somebody is home you either have to walk over to their house or go there by horse-drawn carriage, and where the science of weather prediction did not exist. There are long discussions about the doings of local families and friends and acquaintances in other localities, and much talk about letters received and written.
Emma is the first Austin novel discussed in Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club. The characters in that book discuss mostly the characters in Emma, as well as class issues related to matrimony. Oddly enough that chapter ends with a description of how a dog show works, an explanation given by a member of the book club who is a dog breeder, with this final sentence: “The dog show emphasizes bloodline, appearance, and comportment, but money and breeding are never far from anyone’s mind.” That is so close to the discussions of possible matches in Jane Austen…