Between the Lines Book Club: Film Adaptations of Emma

between the lines book club logoEmma is an outlier among Jane Austen novels. Other Jane Austen novels feature a genteel but impoverished heroine who must triumph in the face of one or more rich mean girls. In Emma, the main character is the rich mean girl, although she’s not mean so much as misguided and, let’s face it, snobby. Austen always points out the many foibles of her heroines, but none are as entertainingly, gloriously, persistently and spectacularly flawed as Emma. Also, as Richard Rodi points out in Bitch in a Bonnet Vol 2, Emma is remarkably short on tension. If the Bennett girls (from Pride and Prejudice) don’t marry, they could end up on the street. If Emma doesn’t marry – so what? Even Emma is cool with not marrying. The person playing a high stakes game is supporting character Jane Fairfax, and most of her story happens off the page.


Both in spite of these things and because of them, Emma is probably Austen’ most beloved novel aside from Pride and Prejudice. Who can resist watching Emma miss every clue that is lobbed at her head?   Who can fail to roll on the floor laughing when Austen drops anvils of foreshadowing (“I shall never fall in love” HAHAHA EMMA YOU ARE SO FUNNY)? We hate Emma enough to enjoy seeing her humbled and we love her enough that we love to see her triumph. Plus this book has some of Austen’s most roll-on-the-floor funny supporting characters.


As part of my latest Emma immersion project I watched the two most famous film adaptations of Emma. The 1996 film version of Emma is a more-or-less period faithful adaptation starring Gwyneth Paltrow, while Clueless, from 1995, gives us a loose version set in high school with Alicia Silverstone playing Cher (Emma). So who’s the winner? Let’s break it down, shall we?


Best Emma: Gwyneth. She actually glows – did they just follow her around with a backlight, or what? Her concern for Harriet is sincere and so is her pride, and sad Emma after the picnic is the saddest sad ever. Also, she tries to cheer Harriet up by showing her puppies, and when Harriet isn’t sufficiently cheered she all but throws the puppies at her head in a desperate attempt to perk her up. You have to love that.


I had a very satisfying epiphany when I realized that Gwyneth is basically playing herself. The reason people hate poor Gwyneth is that she comes across as having all of Emma’s worst qualities – no sense of her own privilege, a compulsive need to give everyone advice (most of which is incredibly unrealistic, see: privilege) and a definite sense of herself as All That. But I always have a soft spot for her because I suspect the presence of Emma’s best qualities – by all accounts from people who know her, she’s a good friend who just wants to make people happy. Also she’s a hell of an actress, and she sure brings her ‘A’ game to this movie.


Best Clothes: Emma version again. Behold:




Best Mr. Knightly: Jeremy Northam. Sweet Merciful Heavens that man is sexy. I’ll be in my bunk.




Best Supporting Cast: Emma. Juliet Stevenson as Mrs. Elton, y’all. You can’t compete with that. Plus we get Ewan McGregor unleashing lethal quantities of charm as Frank Churchill.


Best Ensemble Cast: Clueless. The cast of Emma is full of standout, A-list actors who show off. That’s fine, because the characters in the book spend a lot of time trying to out-grandstand each other, and it’s funny. But a more central theme in the book is of community. Emma involves a core group of people who know each other all too well. Even the characters that arrive from elsewhere and shake everything up have been thoroughly dissected by gossip before they arrive at the village. So it’s really important that the cast of Clueless works as an ensemble. The high school works so well as a metaphor for a small village in which everything is everyone else’s business, and I believe that these people know each other intimately in a way that I don’t believe in Emma.




Funniest Movie: Aside from Juliet Stevenson mangling the scenery and clearly having the time of her life, Clueless is much more funny than Emma. Maybe that’s because I like simple pleasures, and the humor in Clueless is more accessible than Emma. But I think that Emma focuses more on contemplating society and Clueless just rips society to shreds and throws popcorn all over the remains. I give you Brittany Murphy’s greatest burn (“You’re a virgin who can’t drive!”), Cher’s desperate efforts to improve herself (“I thought they declared peace in the Middle East.”), and the tumultuous relationship between Cher’s friends Dionne and Murray. The one-liners just keep coming, and even though they are relentlessly 1990’s they also tie in perfectly with the themes of the book.


Most Heartwarming: I’m gonna go with Clueless again. Take the scene in which Cher points out the best qualities of all her friends, or the scene in which her father reminds her that she takes care of everyone in the family. A lot of the heartwarming comes from the fact that while in general I think Gwyneth is a better actress than Alicia, Alica is wonderful at showing how badly Cher wants to be a good person, and how hard she tries.


Most Romantic: Emma. Did I mention Jeremy Northam. Here, have more Jeremy.





Between the Lines Book Club: Sir Walter Scott Reviews Emma

between the lines book club logoThis month, we are reading Emma in book club.  Leave a comment below, and/or join us in person at Arden Dimick Library, on February 28th at 10:30AM!

Jane Austen published anonymously, but her identity was such an open secret, an  d her books had achieved sufficient acclaim, that the Prince Regent asked her to dedicate a book to him.  The book she dedicated was Emma, and it was quite awkward as she loathed the Prince Regent but there are some requests that one cannot easily refuse.

The job of reviewing books is about as old as the job of writing them, so Austen’s books had a lot of contemporary reviews, mostly positive.

In 1815, Sir Walter Scott reviewed Emma.  In the review, Scott defends the practice of reading novels (novels were considered a mite scandalous – certainly a big waste of time and brain power).  Scott gives a short history of the novel, discussing how the fantastical novels that were fashionable for so long are giving way to a new genre – the realistic novel:

We, therefore, bestow no mean compliment upon the author of Emma, when we say that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality,that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of
uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners and sentiments, greatly above our own. In this class she stands almost alone; for the scenes of Miss Edgeworth are laid in higher life, varied by more romantic incident, and by her remarkable power of embodying and illustrating national character. But the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country
gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis
personae conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances. The kind of moral, also, which these novels inculcate, applies equally to the paths of common life, as will best appear from a short notice of the author’s former works, with a more full abstract of that which we at present have under consideration.

The review is interesting not only because it’s exciting to hear what Austen’s contemporaries think about her, but because Scott gives such a detailed picture of how different Austen’s novels are, and why they work:

The author’s knowledge of the world, and the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize, reminds us something of the merits of the Flemish school of painting.  The subjects are not often elegant, and certainly never grand; but they are finished up to nature, and with a precision which delights the reader.

You can find the full review at Only A Novel.

Between the Lines: What to Read While You’re Reading Emma

between the lines book club logoOne of the fun things about reading Austen is that so many people have written about Austen.  Her books are light on the surface (the plot is usually who will marry who) and dense underneath (history, class, gender, satire).

These days my favorite collection of Austen commentary is the hilarious and astute Bitch in a Bonnet:  Reclaiming Jane Austen from the Stiff, the Snobs, the Simps and the Saps by Robert Rodi.  I don’t always agree with Rodi but he’s fun to read, fun to argue with (mentally) and very astute.  You can read my review of Vol 1. at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.  He covers Emma in Vol. 2.

What Matters in Jane Austen, by John Mullen, is a book of commentary that points out the social clues and the themes that appear in Austen.  For a preview check out this article, “Ten Questions on Jane Austen”, several of which apply directly to Emma.

Study guides get a bad reputation because sometimes people read the guide instead of the book.  Dude.  Don’t do that.  Having said that, I find the website Shmoop to be a great resource.  I read it either after the book or alongside it and no matter how many college degrees I acquire, the authors of Shmoop always manage to point out something I’ve missed.  Here’s a link to their page on Emma.

Just for fun:  I like to read Austen while flipping through my beloved copy of The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Joy Fowler.  It’s a lovely book that was made into a lovely movie – and it involves the Sacramento Public Library!



Between the Lines Book Club: Emma, By Jane Austen

between the lines book club logoReady for a light romance for Valentine’s Day, with some pointed comments about gender, relationships, manner, and class?  This month in Between the Lines Book Club we are reading Emma, by Jane Austen.  If you’d like to join us in person, we’ll meet live at Arden Dimick Library, in Sacramento, CA, at 10:30AM on February 28, 2015.

Emma is a classic novel about a young woman who believes herself to be a wonderful matchmaker but who is, in fact, completely clueless about matters of the heart.  Jane Austen wrote of the novel, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  Despite this prediction, Emma is Austen’s best-loved novel aside from Pride and Prejudice.  Emma is young, smart, beautiful, and rich, and finds herself with not much to do.  She settles on matchmaking as an occupation, which is a disaster as Emma knows nothing of her own heart or anyone else’s.  Hilarity ensues.

You can join us online here or in person on February 28th.  Enjoy!