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Review #2 – Emma (Back to the Classics – 19th Century Classic)

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Dates: 3 January – 23 January

TL,DR: Mr Knightley still > Mr Darcy.  Discuss.

Firstly, this is my first book that I have read for the Back to the Classics challenge: a 19th Century Novel.

Let me just get this out of the way:  I love Jane Austen.  I’ve read all of the major novels.  I’m not an expert or anything, and I haven’t read much in the way of the juvenalia or Sanditon or anything, but it’s telling that I would have a hard time ranking five of those six novels in any sort of sensible order.  This one, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion are probably my favourites, but I don’t have an order in which I could sensibly put them.  Then Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey sort of bounce around somewhere below that – they both have things I mildly dislike but I don’t think I’d go so far as to find actual fault in them.  I loathe Mansfield Park but that’s down to me just plain (probably unreasonably) hating the main character.

But if I had to pick one heroine that I identify the most with, for worse and for better, it’s Emma.

I feel like she’s got a bit of that “only-child” syndrome (despite not actually being one).  She’s headstrong, and self-assured, and like a lot of people, definitely thinks she could run other people’s lives better than they could.  Unlike Emma, I’m not comfortably wealthy (or, at least, I wasn’t brought up wealthy).  So my machinations have mainly been contained to complaining archly to my boyfriend.  But, I don’t know, there’s just something about me that loves Emma’s silliness, loves how she really does think she’s doing the right thing, and how she learns to finally actually do it.

Her relationship with Mr Knightley can seem a little bit weird to a modern audience.  He’s a bit older than her, and he can tend to be a bit paternalistic towards her.  What I liked about their relationship, though, and why I tend to be forgiving towards it, is that it has a naturalness and, in particular, an honesty which I felt was refreshing.  Mr Knightley is never double-faced to Emma (or at least not intentionally.  It’s arguable that his jealousy of Frank led him to criticise him more strongly than was necessary to Emma, but I’d wager that was not consciously done, as such).  He tells her what he thinks because he respects her enough to know that she can handle it.  In a lot of ways, he does actually treat her as an equal – he knows the upstanding kind of person she can be and he expects her to live up to that.  Mr Knightley would never be rude or sullen in the mode of a Mr Darcy.

One thing I enjoyed even more this time around was the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill.  Because I was properly watching out for it this time, I noted a lot more of the clues from before Mr Knightley airs his first suspicions of the truth.  I enjoy Frank’s enthusiasms, even though they don’t always come from a place of sense.  And I like Jane a lot more than I did previously.  Also, this book has some of Austen’s best side characters – Mrs Elton is a particular treat.  She’s so excruciating that I couldn’t help but cringe every time she opened her mouth.

Emma has had several modernisations recently, including the Austen Project one I mentioned earlier, but probably more notably the Emma Approved series brought to you by Pemberley Digital, the Youtube channel that created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries.  It’s not as good as LBD – the characterisation and cast weren’t quite as on point – but it’s definitely worth a watch if you enjoy Austen and like modernisations of her work.  In particular, the actors who play Emma, Mr Knightley, and Frank, are really interesting, fun interpretations of what the characters could be in a modern day setting.  Harriet is a bit one note, and I had a strong dislike for their characterisation of Jane Fairfax, but I think that was mainly due to the slight change to the nature of her relationship with Emma which I felt made it deeply inappropriate for her to behave as she did.

There’s very little for me to say about this book that hasn’t been said already.  I’d encourage anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice to go here next.  Emma is a deeply flawed heroine, but I think that’s why I love and identify with her so much – even the most flawed of us can come good.  Even the most flawed of us can be loved.

I give Emma ten out of ten.

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This week, I will mostly be reading…

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This week,  I will mostly be reading…

Pictured above, from top to bottom:

Emma by Jane Austen

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake

So here’s what I’ll mostly be reading this week! You’ll notice that there’s not been much of a change from the start of this month.  I’ve not spent as much time reading lately as I’d like.  This is odd, as I’d been going really well until the turn of the year.  Hopefully it’s just a tired patch.  Anyway, the first book there is Emma, which I’m about 40% of the way through as of today.  I’m only making slow progress with it as I’m not reading it at home, only on my commute and lunch break.  I’m really enjoying rereading it, as I’m picking up on so much more of the foreshadowing of things that happen towards the end of the book than I did the first time through.  I’ve got Alexander McCall Smith’s modern rewrite lined up for afterwards, and I’m really looking forward to that too.  I like modern rewrites a lot, even though they don’t always do anything innovative with the text.

Everything is Illuminated is what I’ve got lined up for after I finish Gormenghast. I’m kind of nervous to read this one.  I read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close near the end of 2013 when I was in a pretty big reading slump and was generally pretty depressed.  Although it was pretty self-conscious and a bit pretentious,  I really enjoyed it and it really spoke to me, especially the meditations on grief.  So I’m hoping that this one will still work for me now that I’m in a much better head-space.  Foer has a bit of a rep for being pretentious and not being as clever as he thinks he is, so we’ll see how I get on with this one.

Finally Gormenghast.  I’m about one third of the way through the second book in the trilogy, and I hope to finish it by the end of this week (I said this last week, and the week before…) The thing about these books is that they’re very dense.  Even though I don’t find the language difficult, or what they’re describing hard to imagine, there’s just so much of it.  It’s been said by many that Peake writes like a painter and that’s true – his imagery is so alive with colour and artistry that it works so much better for me than most other extremely visually descriptive writing.  If I could make one small criticism, he’s a little a repetitive.  For example Steerpike’s “high shoulders” or Fuchsia’s “inky black” hair is referred to at least once every couple of pages.  I’m not sure, maybe it’s intentional, but it doesn’t really work for me.