Sometimes I think I read Jane Austen for the same reason I watch movies like Sleepless in Seattle. There’s a part of me that wants to experience that tinge of apprehension in the will-they-won’t-they moment, but only because I know everything will come together beautifully in the end. It is a roller-coaster of emotions, but it’s a predictable one and always satisfying.
I feel this delightful anticipation most of all with Emma. Although I think in part it’s because I always connect with Emma’s fear that Mr. Knightley wants to marry someone else, even though I know he doesn’t, but I believe it can mostly be attributed to the fact that we aren’t told explicitly that our hero and heroine are in love until nearly the end of the novel. Sure, we know it is headed in that direction, and we can feel the tension building, but, unlike the four preceding novels, there is no admission of love by either of the two, either to themselves or one another, until Emma discovers her feelings later in the story.
I admit that this is the first time I’ve ever noticed this small fact. Regardless of whether or not this was a conscious decision; this is an abrupt shift in Austen’s style of romantic suspense. I can’t help but wonder if this change was the result of a major event in her life that occurred before Emma was written. The death of Austen’s father in 1805 and the moving of her family from Bath to Chawton both happened before Austen began working on Emma in 1814. This would clearly affect anyone’s views on life and love. However, this notion of mine does not account for Mansfield Park, which was the first novel to be written at Chawton.
I do not know much about Austen’s relationship with her father, but I suspect that he may have been in her thoughts during the writing of Emma. Even though he is something of an absurd character, Mr. Woodhouse is described with a tone of affection. Though his health concerns are nonsensical, they stem from his deep love for and innate need to protect his daughters. Emma herself is quite attached to her father and shares his separation anxiety in a smaller degree. Perhaps this could even explain the fatherly attentions of Mr. Knightley to Emma and his efforts to guide and correct her because of his love and respect for her.
Clearly this is all purely conjecture. Not to mention that I have not really accounted for what might have happened in Austen’s life in the nine-year gap between her father’s death and the beginning of writing Emma. So for now, I will do Jane Austen the courtesy not to speak for her on the subject, especially without further research. Nonetheless, I will continue to muse on the possibility of Emma containing Austen’s ruminations of a lost loved one.
“He called for a few moments, just to leave a piece of paper on the table containing, as he said, a charade…”
–Emma by Jane Austen
I have always been a bit tickled by Emma and Harriet’s collection of romantic riddles. I admire a pastime that encourages a quick wit to participate. It seems that most games these days are lacking this cleverness.
“My first doth affliction denote,
Which my second is destin’d to feel
And my whole is the best antidote
That affliction to soften and heal.” —Emma by Jane Austen
These rhyming word puzzles were known at the time as charades. Obviously they are a bit different than the game we now associate with the term. They originated in France and became popular in English books and magazines during the Regency. Clearly, using this kind of guessing game as a confession of affection leaves an uncomfortable amount of room for personal interpretation, as is evidenced when the riddle Emma weasels out of Mr. Elton causes such a fiasco with Harriet’s emotions:
“My first displays the wealth and pomp of kings,
Lords of the earth! their luxury and ease.
Another view of man, my second brings,
Behold him there, the monarch of the seas!
But ah! united, what reverse we have!
Man’s boasted power and freedom, all are flown;
Lord of the earth and sea, he bends a slave,
And woman, lovely woman, reigns alone.
Thy ready wit the word will soon supply,
May its approval beam in that soft eye!” –Emma by Jane Austen
I decided to try my hand at a few charades myself. Let me tell you, it was not as easy a task as I had anticipated. I have come up with six riddles for some of the major characters. I’ve listed the names at the bottom in case you want to take a go at guessing the answers. The riddle structure works as follows: “the first,” “the second,” and “the last” refer to the first, second, and last syllable, and “the whole” refers to the entire answer. Just to make it extra difficult, some of the answers are first and last names, one is just a first name, and two are just last names. I know, I know, too complicated. What can I say? These things are tough to create! Have fun guessing!
My first is a typeset as wide as it is tall;
My second, an exclamation of surprise;
My whole claims to read the hearts of all,
But is blinded by vanity and pride.
My first leaps to escape the pursuit of hounds;
The last, forges iron in flame;
My whole’s dull wit and fickle heart confounds,
And seeks to discard a maiden name.
My last is a code of chivalrous behavior;
My first, our nations patron saint;
My whole with a dance was a gentleman-savior,
And regards highly one lacking in restraint.
My first provides the material for
My second, which shelters and protects;
My whole’s anxious heart flutters
At the thought of illness and neglect.
My first is synonymous with plain;
My second describes quite the opposite;
My whole from extroversion abstains,
and is to one undeserving devoted.
My first is a directness of speech;
My second a place of worship;
My whole to a friend will ardently beseech,
But to true love offers only a quip.
2. Harriet Smith
3. (Mr.) Knightley
4. (Mr.) Woodhouse
5. Jane Fairfax
6. Frank Churchill
If you are an Austen fan and have never heard of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, then you are missing out, my friend. The Emmy award-winning series captured the suspense and entertainment of Pride and Prejudice for a modern audience without losing any of the charm or integrity of Austen’s original masterpiece. But that is the subject of a later blog post. The good news is, the creators of The Lizzie Bennet Diaries are currently producing another modern adaptation of an Austen novel which is perfectly timed for my purposes: Emma.
To give you a little context, Emma Approved is a web series created by Hank Green and Bernie Sue and, obviously, adapted from Jane Austen’s beloved novel, Emma. In the series, Emma Woodhouse is a lifestyle coach and professional matchmaker for her father’s entrepreneurial business which is managed by the one-and-only Alex Knightley. Don’t ask me why they changed it from George, but I can only give them the benefit of the doubt that perhaps they had reasons why it better suited the series. I don’t want to give the whole production away, but to sum up the supporting characters so far: Harriet Smith is Emma’s sweet, unsuspecting assistant that is sadly lacking in confidence, Martin is the friendly, down-to-Earth I.T. guy who has fallen head-over-heels for Harriet, and Senator Elton is a charming but scum-baggy politician who hires Emma to find him a wife. That’s about as far as we’ve gotten so far into the story. There have been some recent episodes with Emma’s sister Izzie, but I haven’t had the chance to catch up on those yet.
I recently reread Emma and have discovered so much from this reading, but, what really struck me, was how many of the novel’s themes are so prominent for every generation that it translates quite easily to a twenty-first century production.
If you haven’t already, I greatly recommend immersing yourself in The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved as soon as possible. These major themes that the novel and web series have in common are largely important and inescapable in most human lives. It just contributes to the insurmountable evidence that readers will be connecting with Austen for generations to come.