George Justice, Editor

The Fruits of the MLA

Approaches to Teaching Austen’s

Edited by Marcia McClintock Folsom.

Modern Language Association, 2004.
xliii + 200 pages.
Hardcover, $37.50; Softcover, $19.75.

Reviewed by George Justice.

Edmund Wilson’s cantankerous essay “The Fruits of the MLA” is often cited by lovers of poetry and novels who despise the academic profession of “English literature.” In his essay, Wilson attacks the Modern Language Association—the main professional association for college teachers and scholars of English literature and foreign languages and literature—for promoting the kind of research that leads to unreadable editions of great authors, thereby killing the patient the authorized editions were supposed to cure.

Approaches to Teaching Austen’s Emma, is one of the latest volumes in the MLA’s “Approaches to Teaching World Literature” series, designed for college faculty looking for ideas when designing lesson plans for important works of literature. This particular volume, ably edited by Marcia McClintock Folsom, shows what the MLA can do right—and as such serves as a model for the intersection between recent literary theory and the very practical concerns of the classroom. The volume consists of a long introduction by Folsom that sets the stage for a number of short, interesting, and useful essays by a variety of prominent scholars whose work has concerned Jane Austen.

The essays range from short essays that provide information and model scholarly inquiry for students and teachers (for example, Devoney Looser’s essay on 18th-Century feminism and female patronage) to essays chock full of practical tips (for example, “Teaching about Free Indirect Discourse” by Dorice Williams Elliott and Folsom’s own “‘I Wish We Had a Donkey’: Small-Group Work and Writing Assignments for Emma”). Several of the most interesting essays do both, in particular Patricia Howell Michaelson’s “Language and Gender in Emma,” Laura Mooneyham White’s “The Experience of Class, Emma, and the American College Student,” and Jo Alyson Parker’s “Teaching Emma’s Narratives and the Narrative of Emma.”

Although some of these essays are clearly written for a practical purpose, others can be enjoyed as well-written appreciations of Austen’s literary technique and place in a broad literary history. Julia Prewitt Brown’s essay, “The Everyday of Emma,” makes us see and understand anew what we might too easily take for granted: Austen is a revolutionary artist who devises ways to represent an everyday life that has, in her time, achieved preeminent value as the focus of an individual’s life. John Wiltshire contributes two fascinating essays, one on Emma as “comedy,” and the collection’s final essay, “Health, Comfort, and Creativity: A Reading of Emma.”

For every essay on literary form (for example, Joseph Wiesenfarth’s “A Likely Story: The Coles’ Dinner Party”) there is an essay on a controversial element of social history (see one of Ruth Perry’s two contributions to the volume, “Jane Austen, Slavery, and British Imperialism,” which attempts to provide a nuanced answer to Edward Said’s infamous denunciation of Austen as complicit in the large enterprise of British domination of the world).

Miss Bates and the Box Hill episode come in for great amounts of analysis, particularly in interesting essays like Jonathan Grossman’s “Manners in Emma” and Pamela S. Bromberg’s “Learning to Listen: Teaching about the Talk of Miss Bates.” Attention is also paid to literary history: Lorna J. Clark’s “Emma, the Eighteenth-Century Novel, and the Female Tradition” could be useful to book groups looking for novels that predated Austen while Celia A. Easton’s “Emma and Richardon’s Sir Charles Grandison” might give those same reading groups an idea of what Austen’s favorite novel contained without having to go through the Herculean labor of actually reading it. Carol M. Dole’s “Classless, Clueless: Emma Onscreen” suggests ways in which the film adaptations can be used to focus attention back on the novel.

The volume usefully reproduces the collection of others’ opinions on Emma that Chapman includes in his standard edition of the novels (the list is used by Annette M. LeClair in her “Exploring Artist and Audience through Austen’s ‘Opinions of Emma’”). In addition, the volume’s Works Cited might stand in as a useful introductory bibliography for students beginning to do research of their own on the novel.

Teaching Emma is hard. It’s relatively easy to provide enough background literary and cultural information for students to understand the aspects of daily life and cultural history that Austen explicitly and obliquely relies upon in the novel. What’s more difficult is “teaching” that there is no one correct interpretation of the novel, that Emma rewards rereading and reconsideration. Teaching Emma involves debunking the certitude that students often expect from professors. Reading Emma in a class, or in any similarly structured environment, may mean being confronted with new ways to understand a novel many students have read before on their own and may be loath to examine under a literary critical microscope. This volume, by showing different, even conflicting ways of understanding Emma, will push teachers and students of the novel to question their own interpretations in productive ways, heightening their appreciation of Austen’s literary art.

George Justice will be stepping down as Book Review Editor of JASNA News at the end of the year. He will be revising Stephen Parrish’s Norton Critical Edition of Emma in 2008.

JASNA News v.21, no. 2, Summer 2005, p. 18

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