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The Complete Jane Austen "Emma" by Erica S. Perl

Masterpiece Classic

When PBS asked me to write about Emma, my first reaction was to be flattered.

My second reaction was to panic because of how ill-suited to this task I am.

Practically all of my female friends swoon over Jane Austen and Austen-esque fare. Your Merchant Ivories, and all that. Rooms with views. Howards with ends. Not me. Don't get me wrong - I love almost everything on PBS. Except period pieces. Crumpets, corsets, carriages... none are my cup of Nestea.

Put it this way: I prefer South Park to Gosford Park.

Maybe it's because I write books for kids and I devote a lot of my time to thinking like a kid. Some might call my tastes unsophisticated. I prefer to think of them as refreshingly modern. But I'm a grown up. A professional writer, too. Surely, I could give this assignment a chance. Right?

Wrong. The DVD of Emma arrived and sat on my coffee table for days. Weeks, even. From the cover, Kate Bekinsdale smirked at me. What are you going to do? She taunted me. Pretend you watched Emma? Finally, I couldn't take the pressure any longer. I popped in the DVD.

In the first scenes, my hackles were up. Emma's governess was getting married and Emma's father was boo-hooing about this situation. All the women were wearing hats that looked like Easter baskets and Emma's father was sporting a rather elaborate dickie. Everyone was talking in that flowery old-fashioned way I despise. I sighed, resigned to my fate.

It was going to be a long two hours.

And then, something happened. I'm not exactly sure when, but my hackles came down. It might have been when the egotistical, self-satisfied Emma and the absurdly-rich-yet-unpretentious Mr. Knightly swapped their first flirty smile, or it could have been when the gullible Harriet Smith (Samantha Morton) appeared like a vision to the trolling-for-a-DIY-project Emma. All of a sudden, the characters seemed complex, edgy and flawed. In a word: modern. Not in their dress, or manner of speech, of course. But their emotional frankness and sly sense of humor took me by surprise. And hooked me.

For example, throughout the story Emma and Knightly have a real, flirty friendship. Sort of like Carrie and Big on Sex and The City, but without the sex or the city. Emma is self-centered and unconcerned with the potential harm in indulging her whims, and Knightly calls her onto the carpet for it. She repents and transgresses and he busts her every time. Now that's what I like to see.

And then there's that expensively-coiffed cad, Frank Churchill, who briefly out-flirts Knightly until it is revealed that his mischievously malicious murmurings about Jane Fairfax are a carefully concocted crock. And Jane Fairfax herself, who is so believably irritating for being so very, very - irrrr! - reserved. Olivia Williams captures the essence of this enigmatic creature perfectly.

There are so many perfect little moments in here. When Emma's brother-in-law grouses about having to make an obligatory social call on a cold Christmas Eve, he is every man of every era. When the whole cast troops off into a field to have an absurdly formal lunch all fresco and Emma makes the mistake of having sport at the expense of the poor, pathetic Miss Bates, she is every pretty girl who has ever gone Too Far.

I guess that's what got me, in the end. This production is so incredibly well-cast, well-photographed, and well-written that I quickly forgot about the fussy clothes and trappings of the time period. I lost touch with all of that and followed the characters loyally as people - not actors - as if this was some strange time-traveling reality show. When Harriet mourned after she took Emma's advice and gave the kind and earnest Mr. Martin the brush-off, I cringed as if I had suffered her fate myself. When Emma learned the truth about Frank and Jane, I could have reveled in her comeuppance... but I didn't because I had come to care about her. The triumphant conclusion culminating in the harvest supper and dance was so satisfying I went back and watched it again.

Because this was an unusual foray for me, I couldn't be sure whether my newfound appreciation for the thoroughly modern humor and heart of Jane Austen was due to this particular adaptation or not. To find out, I'm planning to re-read Emma (or, perhaps I should say, to read it, since I'm now fairly certain that what I read in tenth grade was not Emma, but was in fact Henry James' Daisy Miller).

And on March 30th, I'm looking forward to watching Sense and Sensibility.

Comments

Thanks, Erica, for a review that is both insightful and hilarious, which are two of the qualities that have made me a confirmed Austen addict. I'm happy to see that you were seduced by the story and characters in spite of your preconceptions, that you were able to strip away the "hats that looked like Easter baskets" (very funny) and see that Austen is indeed timeless. I'm sure you will enjoy your first reading of Emma, but be forewarned: Austen is habit-forming. Then again, it looks like you've already discovered that for yourself.

I would be interested to know, once you (and I) have seen both, what your opinion of Gwenyth Paltrow's Emma is to that of Kate Bekinsdale... to compare one version to the other.

But then, like potato chips, you couldn't stop at just one. You'd have to go on to Emma Thompson and Keira Knightly and.. perhaps off to Jane Eyre after that!

Erica - I really enjoyed reading the perspective of someone who is so anti-costume drama and was still won over. As Emma herself says, "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other." but this production seems to have made it click for you. What you say about how the direction, casting, etc. allowed you to look past the details and connect with the characters is spot on. I think that the reason her novels have such a timeless quality is that her characters just come alive off the page. Emma seems to be an especially "modern" feeling novel in the pace and tone. Austen's tone feels fresher, breezier, and her language more energetic and playful than, say, Sense & Sensibility where there are very long, convoluted, "stuffy" sentences and most emotions are fairly repressed. Emma is unique in that we read Emma's thoughts, and Miss Bates talks in almost a stream-of-consciousness way. I think you'll really enjoy reading it, especially now that the film has piqued your interest.

I re-watched the harvest scene too. I think it was a great ending, even though it was added by the director. It's not in the book (but the wedding is briefly summarized). I think Austen herself would have added the harvest ball if she'd seen this film! Knightley's speech seemed a bit stuffy (about how he would still manage the estate and take care of his tenants) but I think that underscored just how unusual his moving into his father-in-law's home would have been for an independently wealthy gentleman. He REALLY must love Emma to do that!

Wonderful review Erica! "Easter baskets" and Harriet Smith appearing like a vision to the "trolling-for-a-DIY-project Emma" - LOL!

As a huge Jane Austen fan, I also love it when those unfamiliar with her work discover that they enjoy it. You say that you're unsure whether your newfound appreciation for the modern humor and heart of Jane Austen was due to this particular adaptation or not. You'll definitely find that humor and heart in all of the novels, but not all of the adaptations have captured it equally well. This version of Emma is one of the best at doing so, along with the 1995 Persuasion starring Amanda Root and, of course the classic P&P mini-series. Sense & Sensibility (the book) also has quite a bit of humor in it, but most of it comes from information - and more importantly, how it's conveyed - in the narrative voice: very difficult to turn into a 'scene' on film. There aren't as many 'amusing' moments as in Emma. Still, I enjoyed the new adaptation very much. Elinor, in particular, as the older daughter who does her best to stay practical, sensible and emotionally strong, is outstanding. Even if you're not asked to review that one, I'd love to hear your take on it!


Must say that I love costume pieces with the buckles and bows AND the manners and mores.

I decided to waste a few minutes watching this adaptation just long enough to assure myself that it would not, could not measure up the Paltrow/Northam movie version. Can't say at what point I got hooked, but I'm glad that I had set it to recorded "just in case" (after all it IS Jane Austen). Looking forward to watching it again.

Unlike the movie version, I empathized with this Jane Fairfax. Her character's vulnerability, unhappiness and the inauspiciousness of her situation were really delved into. Here she comes across as part-victim, part-unwilling accomplice, instead of a willingly, conniving schemer.

By-the-by. Love the reviews and comments, especially when a nuance Iíve missed, or an interpretation that had not occurred to me is discussed. It makes subsequent viewings that much more enjoyable.

Loved your review -- very funny & spot on about this adaptation. (I may never be able to watch again without thinking about Harriet Smith as a DIY project!)

I hope you will enjoy the novel, which is definitely better (as are all of Jane Austen's novels compared to any of the adaptations). But I am glad that this particular adaptation won you over. :-)

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