Dr. Gillian Dow, of the Chawton House Library and the University of Southampton in England, considers women's reading in the Regency period as well as the authors that inspired Austen in Emma, and those who in turn were inspired by it.
"Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through — and very good lists they were — very well chosen, and very neatly arranged — sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen — I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time; and I dare say she may have made out a very good list now. But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding."
So says Mr. Knightley to Mrs. Weston, Emma's former governess, in chapter 5 of Jane Austen's Emma. Knightley's objections to his future bride are to what he sees as Emma's lack of application as far as her reading is concerned: "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition" she may be, but she is too flighty, and has not read enough for a well educated girl of her privileged position and class.
Knightley's anxieties about his future bride are very much of the time in which Austen created her hero. Austen's name must always be linked with the Regency period (1811-1820), and indeed Emma was dedicated to the Prince Regent, the future George IV. In England, the Regency period was an age that debated the issue of female education and suitable reading for women in newspapers and magazines, in boarding schools and in private correspondences, and indeed in the pages of novels themselves.
Another of Austen's romantic heroes, Mr. Darcy, famously says in Pride and Prejudice (1813) that a well educated woman must not simply excel at the female accomplishments (music, singing, drawing, dancing, and modern languages, as defined by Miss Bingley), but must add something "more substantial" and look after "the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.'' Elizabeth Bennet is suitably teasing that Darcy cannot know any such creature — but then she demonstrates that she is very well read herself.
What was "extensive reading" to consist of for Austen's female contemporaries and her fictional heroines? Certainly, a diet of pure fiction would not suffice. Indeed, many late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century novels employ the device of a warning from the narrator, directed at their female reader: beware of the dangers of fiction, the young woman is told, it enflames the mind and leads to romantic flights of fancy.
Jane Austen herself is all-too aware of this fear of fiction, and plays with the theme in Northanger Abbey (1818), where Catherine Morland's flights of fancy are shown to be influenced by her reading of Gothic fiction, those "horrid books" that she and her friend Isabella take such pleasure in. Austen's narrator does, however, stand up for the novel in Northanger Abbey: she calls novels by her contemporaries Frances Burney and Maria Edgeworth works in "which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed" and are "conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language." Austen is not afraid to claim the novel as a work that can educate and instruct as well as entertain, and in so doing, she pays homage to earlier female practitioners.
In Emma, the education of the young heroine is in many ways an exercise in learning to read, and many works that are now long-forgotten are mentioned in the course of the novel. Emma herself moves from a misreading of many characters and situations in Hartfield and Highbury to reading correctly, with Knightley's guidance and help.
What characters actually read (or fail to read) can even serve as a device that informs Austen's intricate plot. As a committed matchmaker, Emma is determined to turn her protégé Harriet Smith's attentions away from the farmer Mr. Martin as a potential suitor. Emma first meets with success when she reminds Harriet that he has failed to get either Ann Radcliffe's The Romance of the Forest (1791) or Regina Maria Roche's The Children of the Abbey (1796) — both popular novels that Harriet has recommended to him. From planting the seeds of doubt about Robert Martin in Harriet's mind, Emma then moves on to recommend Mr. Elton to her friend by employing him in reading aloud while she draws Harriet's portrait: "Mr. Elton was only too happy" the narrator tells us, "Harriet listened, and Emma drew in peace."
These misreadings about Harriet, Mr. Martin and Mr. Elton, along with the misunderstanding about Frank Churchill's feelings, and the nature of his relationship with Jane Fairfax, threaten to ruin Harriet's happiness as well as Emma's own. But Austen gives us a finely plotted happy ending, with order restored and everyone marrying their intended partner. The very last mention of a work of fiction in Emma is of the French novel Adelaide and Theodore (1782), by Stephanie-Felicite de Genlis: a work in which another well-read young heroine finds a happy ending in a suitable marriage.
What have Austen's readers made of Emma? Her contemporaries recognized that there was something new in the novel, and that it was representative of a new style of prose fiction that took inspiration from the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Sir Walter Scott, who was to become the most popular novelist in Europe for a large part of the nineteenth century, said in his 1816 review of Emma that Austen's greatness "consists much in the force of a narrative conducted with much neatness and point and a quiet yet comic dialogue." The author Maria Edgeworth seems to have felt much the same:
"There is no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet's lover was an admirer of her own—& he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow—and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma's father's opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel."
Where Edgeworth recognizes the comic value of Austen's characterization, another literary woman, the celebrated Charlotte Brontë, has less praise to offer:
I have likewise read one of Miss Austen's works Emma—read it with interest and with just the right degree of admiration which the Miss Austen herself would have thought sensible and suitable—anything like warmth or enthusiasm; anything energetic, poignant, heartfelt, is utterly out of place in commending these works: all such demonstration the authoress would have met with a well-bred sneer, would have calmly scorned as outre and extravagant.
Brontë recognizes the refined and the ladylike in Austen's novels, but her romantic hero, Mr. Rochester, and the passion simmering beneath the surface of the mid-nineteenth century Jane Eyre and Villette, are very different to Austen's style.
In more recent times, however, Emma has been recognized as the best example of Jane Austen's technical perfection — it shows an author at the height of her literary skills. As an example of a novel that can be read and reread while finding something new in each rereading, Emma is hard to beat. It should certainly be included in any list of reading for a twenty-first century wannabe heroine or hero!
Visit the Chawton House Library online for more information about the library collection and activities, including the online library catalogue and author biographies of Frances Burney, Maria Edgeworth and Ann Radcliffe.
Editor's note: The Chawton House Library and the Jane Austen House Museum are not affiliated, although they share a strong working relationship.
Chawton House Library is a Centre for Early Women's Writing, 1600-1830. The impressive library collection is situated in the Elizabethan Manor House in Hampshire, England, that once belonged to Jane Austen's brother, Edward Austen Knight. It holds early editions of many of the works that Austen read and that inspired her in her own fiction.
Stephanie-Felicite de Genlis
Sir Walter Scott