Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)
Emma, the Movies, and First-year Literature Classes

Robert Eggleston (email: is an English professor at Okanagan University College in Penticton, British Columbia, where he teaches literature, composition, and communication courses. His area of specialization is Restoration and eighteenth-century literature.

The rise of Jane Austen as a major force in the motion picture industry seems to demonstrate that she has withstood the test of time and is, indeed, very much of our time. If Austen is good enough for Hollywood, which provides the world with what it wants to see, and rarely rushes to back a loser, then surely her work must be of a kind which appeals to late twentieth-century sensibilities.1 Until recently, I believed as much, and when I included Emma on the reading list of my first-year literature courses, I fondly imagined my students thanking me for introducing them to this novelist about whom they had heard so much. What I experienced during the attempt, however, has made me wonder both how Jane Austen and her Emma exist in our time and whether recent adaptations of that novel help or hinder the introduction of it into a first-year literature class. Indeed, I found that Austen's Emma might never have been more inaccessible to younger readers than it is today, and that recently produced variants (although useful for their ability to provide visual representations of fictitious people, places, and events in a historical setting) merely obscure the original and prompt students to equate reading the novel with the less strenuous act of watching it on television.

Austen’s comment about her main character in Emma--"I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like" (Austen-Leigh 157)--has been regularly repeated, and just as often its accuracy has been denied. Readers cannot, the critics say, but love Emma, for she is in the end "faultless in spite of her faults" (Austen, Emma 433). Less sympathetic readers, however, are quite ready to agree with Austen's assessment, and the students upon whom I inflicted Emma were more than pleased to dislike its heroine and the whole novel. From their point of view, Emma was simply not interesting. If Austen believed that "3 or 4 families in a country village is the very thing to work on," that was her business (Austen, Letters 401); for these late twentieth-century first-year students such material was not compelling.2 That there were few incidents in the novel was bad enough, but the fact that it was too "wordy" (and used words with which the students were not immediately familiar) made it unbearable. The language, the ideals, the manners, and the major concerns were all too distant from these students' experiences to allow them to "relate" to Emma, and if they could not relate they would not have anything to do with it. Even the promise of gaining insight into Austen-mania did not particularly strike them as a sound reason for reading this novel. They had little use for first-hand knowledge of the artist who lurked behind that rash of films and television productions; it was enough that such things were available, and their geneses were of little import.

Precisely why my students had such an antipathy toward Emma was initially difficult to gauge because they regularly articulated their displeasure through a less-than-critical statement: "It's boring." When I invited them to examine the presuppositions that informed this analysis of the novel, they recognized that it was based upon an expectation that literature (novels, at least) should be entertaining, and they readily admitted that this standard of judgment might be limited or even unfair. When I suggested, however, that they might want to reconsider their presuppositions and judge the work according to different standards, such as its effectiveness as a didactic work, they were horrified. This standard of judgment presupposed that literature was designed to instruct, and that was insufferable. What eventually became apparent was that Emma did not answer the students' expectations. Although they found a requisite amount of emotional turmoil in the novel--they conceded that Emma does cause a fair bit of trouble--they felt that it was lacking in what they called "action." Action, not surprisingly, involved fast-paced events of monumental significance (preferably life and death). Short, punchy scenes, the novelistic equivalent of sound bites, were what the students demanded, and although English professors might marvel at Austen's style and relish her deliciously long and complex sentences, these pragmatists had no taste for intricate syntax. They wanted to be able to pick up the novel and find 15 minutes of intensity, and anything that took any longer to make its point was deemed boring. This standard prevailing, then, Emma was doomed to be dismissed as not meriting the effort required to read it.

Of course, the difficulty of introducing long and involved novels to students raised on a diet of television sitcoms is not faced by the would-be teacher of Emma alone. Nonetheless, Emma has specific qualities which tend to make students less likely to engage with it, again because it seems to disappoint their expectations. Although the novel's concern with courtship and suitable marriage partners is not altogether foreign to students, and such issues can hold their attention, they very often do not care whom Emma marries. Another issue that has bothered my students is that the major reciprocal romance--between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill--is hidden from view throughout much of the novel. Students appreciate that Austen is creating mystery and surprise by exposing the Jane-Frank romance late in the day, but they do not appreciate that this bit of intrigue remains out of sight. The reasons for their disappointment are not difficult to locate: the apparent belief amongst the students is that such intrigue should be front and center if the novel is to be anything other than boring. They want to see the young people outwitting their elders and marrying in the face of parental opposition. What lurks behind this particular desire is harder to draw out because students will often describe the presence of such activity in fiction as "normal." However, students’ assertions that some sort of outwitting activity is the norm in comic texts suggests that they have been so frequently exposed to comic narratives (novels, films, or television shows) wherein youth outsmarts age, that they have adopted such activity as part of the model against which they measure similar texts. Needless to say, Emma does not play to such interests because it hides the elder-defying behavior of Jane and Frank. Thus, the novel's very structure and what it specifically focuses upon and hides, combined with that lack of action I mentioned earlier (and a lack of aliens, ax-murderers, and psychic mediums) conspired to make it less-than-appealing to my students.3

After several trying classes, during which the students' resistance to Emma only increased, I took decisive action and wheeled a television into the classroom. I did so with trepidation because I was worried that this act would be regarded as an admission that I had nothing valuable to say, that it was time for some "filler." The students, however, did not regard the arrival of their old friend as a sign of professorial weakness. Instead, the mood brightened considerably, and I suddenly had the sense that I was being viewed as progressive. Whereas the students had been a somewhat subdued group when confronted by their professor armed with a copy of Emma, they were now transformed into an attentive, even happy, audience. Nothing in my experience has so readily proved Janice Radway's assertion that "television is an empowering artifact and discourse for [young] people" (530), for the students responded to the television adaptation of Emma with an enthusiasm that they would never extend to their consideration of Austen's original novel.

The disparity between the students' negative response to Austen's Emma and their apparent embrace of a televised variant was alarming, but at least they were willing to consider something that resembled the novel, and there seemed the possibility that this new enthusiasm might be usefully directed toward study of it. To an extent, this was the case. Brief exposure to the recent A&E television adaptation, confidently entitled Jane Austen's Emma, led some students to reconsider the real thing. One student's observation, which was widely accepted by many others, was that the television production was "funny," and this fact made many appreciate that Austen's Emma might actually be quite humorous in its own way. Several students also confessed that the television production made them more aware of the distance between their own world and that which Austen presents; this realization led some to admit they had perhaps been unfair in making their appreciation of Emma conditional on its being relevant to their own experiences. These insights offered evidence of television's ability to bridge the divide that separated students and novel. Unfortunately, the television production also served to reconfirm what many students already knew: Emma, no matter how it was served up, was dull. Moreover, the students tended to become casting directors when watching Emma on television. That many had opinions on the matter of casting was fine, but those opinions did lower the level of discussion. Thus, Kate Beckinsale as Emma was too "witchy," while Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley was utterly unappealing. I was assured that, his great wealth notwithstanding, Strong's Mr. Knightley would not find many young women tolerating his criticism or accepting his bloodless marriage proposal. Similarly, several students who had watched the 1996 Miramax production of Emma (outside of class time) were less than charitable in their assessments of Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma. Paltrow, they claimed, was too blond and radiant, while her neck, which has received so much praise elsewhere, made her look like a "goose" in an "ugly dress."

Such commentary, although honest and amusing, did not indicate that the Emma variants were bringing the students that much closer to the original, nor did my own concerted effort clearly lead the students into more thoughtful discussion of the novel through consideration of its adaptations. We examined, for example, the manner in which the film versions tended to ignore certain features in the novel. One matter was the difference between the treatment of the Emma-Mrs. Elton rivalry in the novel and in the television production. Because the students had little sense of the hierarchical nature of the society Austen presents, I had lingered over the different world views of Mrs. Elton, the Bristol heiress whose attitudes are those of the prosperous merchant classes, and of Emma, the "old" money heiress whose traditional notions of social hierarchy do not leave much room for the recently rich to squeeze in. Austen repeatedly emphasizes the distance between the two, for Mrs. Elton sets herself apart from the more genteel characters through her egregious social missteps--as when she addresses the local squire as "Knightley"--and her grasping concern with possessions. In the television production, for reasons of expediency no doubt, such distinctions are ill-defined. The television production’s script (written by Andrew Davies) necessarily draws attention to Robert Martin's low station, but the position of Mrs. Elton in the social hierarchy is less apparent. Mrs. Elton is appropriately overbearing and materialistic, but that her family lineage is markedly different from the Woodhouses' remains understated. Much the same might be said of the treatment Mrs. Elton receives in the Miramax production; the emphasis here is placed on Mrs. Elton's smug self-love, a quality made manifest in her readiness to assure anyone who will listen that she would have no belief in her own skills and charms were her friends not continually drawing her attention to them. That other great Emma adaptation, Clueless, with which most of my students were familiar, also fails to capture the social basis of the Emma-Mrs. Elton rivalry. In Clueless, the Emma character, Cher, and the Mrs. Elton equivalent, Amber, are cut of the same privileged Beverly Hills cloth, although Amber is perhaps the less clueless of the two. They are obviously antagonists, but Amber does not function as a social upstart relative to Cher. In a sense, then, the adaptations provide only half of the details which make up Austen's original. In Austen’s novel, Emma's observation before she meets Mrs. Elton is that "what she was must be uncertain; but who she was might be found out" (183). Austen then proceeds to expose both "who" Mrs. Elton is, in terms of her social position, and "what" she is, in terms of her personality. In the adaptations, however, the representations of Mrs. Elton privilege personality at the expense of position.4 In any event, I had believed that discussion of these types of issues would provide the students with reasonable insights into the novel, but I became increasingly uncertain about what they were retaining; it was never clear if they were absorbing information about the novel itself, or if they were focusing on the differences between competing mediums. This uncertainty points to a problem which can arise whenever adaptations of novels are introduced into the classroom. Rather than making students think about the original in question, easy access to adaptations prompts them to treat the consideration of differences and similarities between mediums as an end in itself, and leads them to focus on the actors and actresses instead of the roles being fleshed out. A still greater problem in this particular case was that neither the television production nor the other adaptations of Emma killed off the students' indifference; in the end, my attempt to use adaptations to open the novel to examination was met with that catchphrase which permeates Clueless: "Whatever."

It is perhaps no surprise that the adaptations of Emma did not lead my students to regard the novel itself as more enjoyable or accessible. The adaptations might please readers already familiar with, and interested in, Austen's novel, but for readers who are not sympathetic to it or engaged by its content, the arrival of Emma in variant forms is not likely to alter their opinions. Yet worse still, the adaptations might make the original all the more distant since the wealth of alternatives they offer can create confusion: students who are uncomfortable making critical assertions about an "ancient" novel with an illustrious pedigree become even less certain of their judgments' worth when confronted with competing interpretations. Or, the adaptations themselves can come to stand as a replacement for the real thing. With the films' worth as works of art and their authority as interpretations regularly validated through all forms of media, it is little wonder that first-year students should equate watching the films with reading the original novel or that they should regard both activities as being equally significant.

Even with all the noise that the competing adaptations make in the publicity and praise they receive, it remains difficult to decide what place Austen and her Emma have in our time. For all the attention her writing receives from Hollywood, Austen's own Emma seems in danger of receding from view, all the more so because it gets lost behind an army of costumed performers who are all working from scripts designed to reduce the novel to a two-hour experience. Certainly the films' existence alone offers little guarantee that younger readers will read Austen's novel--although the demands of English literature courses might yet prompt them to do so--nor does the films’ existence ensure that those same readers will eventually embrace and enjoy the original. This concern, though, might well be beside the point, for the creators of the film projects do not necessarily have the reading public in mind. They might genuflect in Austen's direction and fall over themselves to praise her clever plot lines and memorable characters, but these same directors and producers quite happily obscure Austen's presence as they pare down her material in order to produce their own landmark works of art for the late twentieth century. It is unreasonable to complain that the recent films are not primers on early nineteenth-century novels, but when Douglas McGrath, the director of the Miramax Emma, glibly refers to Austen as a conveniently dead "collaborator" who does not argue "over who gets the bigger bun at coffee time" (qtd. in Purdum 11), Austen's role in the film-making process becomes somewhat more apparent. She provides the shoulders on which others stand, and once the climbers have found their perch and have assured their own fame, they seem less concerned with the body they climbed over during their ascent. The result is that Austen does have a place in our time, but not with her original title intact; rather than being Jane Austen, novelist, she has become Jane Austen, collaborator, idea person, screenwriter.


1 Writers in the mass media have offered a number of explanations for Austen's appeal. See, for example, Robert Cushman, "Wherever you look, there's Jane," Globe and Mail 20 Jan. 1996, final Metro ed.: C10. Cushman cites "nostalgia for pretty manners and pretty clothes," a "backlash against permissiveness," and "current economic pressures" as reasons behind Austen's rise.

2 Jan Fergus, Jane Austen: A Literary Life (London: MacMillan, 1991) points out that Austen's comment on the novel is not necessarily a definition of her own "deliberately limited territory" because most of her novels, except Emma, can only be partially described by it (2). This fact, however, seems to be of little comfort to first-year students who are forced to immerse themselves in the lives of Highbury.

3 It is perhaps worth pointing out that the course in which I taught Emma also covered George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In general, my students preferred Adam Bede to Emma, despite Eliot’s taxing discussions of Methodism and English rural life, because the action in Adam Bede was more compelling, including both a significant betrayal of personal trust and a murder for good measure. In order to teach A Midsummer Night’s Dream alongside Emma, I diligently mined Jocelyn Harris’s Jane Austen's Art of Memory (Cambridge: CUP, 1989), which discusses many similarities between Emma and A Midsummer Night's Dream (169-87). My diligence was apparently futile, however, for it did not make my students any more receptive to Emma.

4 Juliet McMaster, "Class," The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen, eds. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster (Cambridge: CUP, 1997) points out how Austen "brilliantly" dramatizes both of these "essential matters of personal identity"--the "who" and the "what"--in her novels, a quality which allows readers to get the "individual feel" of the characters (129-30). In contrast, the treatment of Mrs. Elton in the adaptations produces a considerably flattened character.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R.W. Chapman. 3rd ed. London: Oxford: OUP, 1933. Emma. Writer and Director Douglas McGrath. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Miramax, 1996.
Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters to her Sister Cassandra and Others. Ed. R.W. Chapman. London: Oxford UP, 1952. Emma. Writer Andrew Davies. Director Diarmuid Lawrence. With Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Meridian-ITV/A&E, 1996.
Austen-Leigh, James Edward. A Memoir of Jane Austen. 1870. Ed. R.W. Chapman. Oxford, Clarendon, 1967. Purdum, Todd S. "From ‘Saturday Night Live’ to Jane Austen." New York Times 25 Aug. 1996, sec. II: 11+.
Clueless. Writer and director Amy Heckerling. With Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd. Paramount, 1995. Radway, Janice. "Mail-Order Culture and Its Critics: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Commodification and Consumption, and the Problem of Cultural Authority." Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A. Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 512-530.

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