Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’: a masterpiece

Be174cf0-f67d-11e5_1217995hDevoney Looser at The Times Literary Supplement:

Jane Austen’s Emma, on the other hand, is an interesting novel, full stop – a masterpiece, if not the masterpiece, of the genre. Emma’s opening line is not as famous as Pride and Prejudice’s “It is a truth universally acknowledged”, but provides just as much to mull over. Of Chapter One’s first six words, “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich”, the critics ask why is the heroine handsome not beautiful, clever not intelligent, rich not wealthy? Austen famously quipped that Emma was “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. This unusual novel – about a privileged, matchmaking, misreading but redeemable young woman whose story may teach us to be better readers ourselves – is celebrating its bicentenary. The question is: when?

The title page of Emma is dated 1816, but the book first appeared in print on December 23, 1815. Such post-dating is briefly mentioned by Jan Fergus in Peter Sabor’s Cambridge Companion to “Emma”. But it is in the OHNE that one learns of the banality of the practice. As OHNE’s James Raven argues, in a tour-de-force chapter on “Production”, “post-dating was common, designed to extend the currency of the novel . . . . Novels printed and published in August or even as early as April carried the date of the following year”. Bicentenaries of Emma are rightly celebrated in both 2015 and 2016, something likely to remain confusing to all but diehard Janeites.

The OHNE attends to very different bicentenaries. In his “Afterword: The rise of the ‘rise’ of the novel”, Clifford Siskin calls attention to two of them – “the shared anniversaries of the novel and Literature”. He marks the moment of the novel’s securing a place in the canon, alongside the emergence of the first English Department and the establishment of a body of texts that comprised Literature (with a capital L) in Britain. Siskin dates these twin phenomena to the 1810s and 20s.

more here.