Read partly because I love Clueless
, of course, but also because I very much enjoyed reading Pride and Prejudice
at school, and have enjoyed the odd film or TV adaptation of her books here and there since.
Like Pride and Prejudice
, what I liked most about it is the range of character types depicted, and the way their interactions allow Austen to demonstrate and explore her themes of character and society. I guess you could argue that some of them are a bit one-dimensional in both novels - like the flirty Lydia in Pride and Prejudice
or the aunt who can't shut up (Miss Bates) in Emma
. But they're also very comically drawn, which makes up for it, and in any case the principal characters (again in both novels) are much more complex, and really do change and grow over the course of the stories.
My Mum was pretty surprised when, as a teenager, I expressed enjoyment over reading P&P
(by contrast, I hated Jane Eyre
). She'd had to read it at school too, and couldn't believe how vapid the concerns and conversations of all the characters in it were. She's forgiven Jane Austen more recently, and started reading some of her other books (I forget which), but reading Emma
with that perspective in mind gave me a wry smile every now and then.
There's one chapter, for instance (ch. 34), almost entirely devoted to a conversation between several of the female characters about how Jane Fairfax should not risk her health by walking to the post office in the rain. (You would be amazed by how much conversational mileage they manage to get out of this topic.) Now, obviously, from a modern point of view that sounds ridiculous. A typical woman (or indeed man) today might very well walk to the post office in the rain, give a lecture, chair a meeting, write a report, deal with a friend's personal crisis and go out to a party in the evening, all on the very same day. But I think it was supposed to seem just a little absurd to Austen's contemporary female readers as well. It's a comic parody of gossipy socialite conversation, it reveals quite a lot about the characters of the people having it, and it also actually does have quite important plot resonances later on, when you discover the 'twist' about Jane Fairfax.
Talking of the plot, it was of course also interesting to read in the light of Clueless
. The plots of the two aren't exactly the same, and nor is the cast of characters, so knowing the one gives you a rather bizarre half-knowledge of the other. I could tell as I read that Frank Churchill in Emma
had been the inspiration for Christian in Clueless
, for example - but I was pretty sure he wasn't going to turn out to be gay! On the other hand, I was instantly struck by how much the light, breezy narrative voice-overs from Alicia Silverstone in Clueless
actually do match the tone of the authorial voice in Emma
. OK, so what they're talking about is a little different, and Jane Austen is remarkably free of Californian high-school lingo. But sometimes, it really was as though I could hear Alicia Silverstone reading the words to me in my head.
In short, an excellent read, which has also made me appreciate Clueless
all the more. I've got Sense and Sensibility
waiting on my bookshelf, so I think it won't be too long before I'm pursuing my Jane Austen trail a little further.