Emma Read-along

Yesterday I pulled down my new copy of Jane Austen’s Emma in preparation for Bellezza’s read-along this December and read the introductory material. It’s the new Penguin edition edited by Juliette Wells. The introduction itself is fine — basic information about Austen and the publication and reception of the novel aimed at a general reader — but that is followed by a section called “Tips for reading Emma” that I found most unsatisfactory. It seems to assume that readers would struggle with the novel, instead of assuming they would enjoy it. The section includes tips such as “Pace yourself,” “Read passages out loud,” and “Try an audiobook,” all of which is okay, I suppose, but condescending in the way it assumes the reader is inexperienced at … reading.

More troubling is the suggestion that “If you’re feeling frustrated or bored because nothing much seems to be happening, remember that Austen’s own contemporaries commented on how little plot Emma contains and how ordinary its characters and events are.” Why presuppose the reader is going to be bored? That feels insulting and it also very much undersells the novel. Perhaps Austen’s contemporaries noted the ordinary characters for reasons different than we might note them today — that novels in Austen’s time often contained characters anything but ordinary — but aren’t we used to characters who are like people we know in the world around us?

Worst, though, is this sentence: “Long novels such as Austen’s are a workout for our attention spans and memories.” Please. People read long, long novels all the time these days, not to mention entire series of long, long novels, and they seem to enjoy themselves greatly.

To be fair, I think a large of part of the audience the editor is writing for here is high school or college students who will be assigned this novel for a class and who may not be experienced readers. She says this is advice she gives to her students (as well as her friends), and it makes sense that Penguin would want to market this edition to schools and colleges.

But still, this strikes me as a great way to inspire dread and not eagerness in potential new readers of the novel. It implies the entire endeavor will be a chore, work instead of pleasure. I’m not entirely sure how I would write my own “tips” if I had to, but I think I would try my best to avoid the condescending tone I found here.

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9 responses to “Emma Read-along

  1. Rohan Maitzen

    That’s really interesting, not least because I puzzled a great deal about what tone to take when I was setting up my ‘Middlemarch for Book Clubs’ site. I tried hard to be peppy and positive, even when acknowledging that some readers do / will find it challenging. I hope I don’t come across as condescending! It seems odd to include this kind of thing in a Penguin edition: at least my site is specifically intended to help relatively novice readers. Also, Emma hardly seems to need so much caution.

    Coincidentally, I just brought home an edition of Emma too because I was thinking of switching it in for Middlemarch in a class next year and I haven’t read it in ages. Maybe I should join the readalong!

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    • I thought about you as I was writing this, Rohan, because of your site and guessing that you had thought a lot about tone. I think the tricky part is writing with students in mind who aren’t necessarily picking the book up because they want to (although one hopes they want to!) whereas with book clubs, people have already bought in to reading the book. I’m guessing her tone is condescending because she’s trying to reach resisting students. I’m positive YOU are not condescending! It would be lovely if you joined in.

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  2. You have written so well about the perplexing “tips”, which for many of us are indeed insulting. As if I’ve never picked up a classic before. I am switching over to my kindle edition, because it’s easier to hold in bed where I need to read after Thanksgiving Break. Maybe I’ll just carry on in that digital mode until the end. How would Emma, or Juliette Wells, feel about that?!😉

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  3. What is especially odd is that right now, Austen is one of the world’s best-selling authors. Readers from a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience seem to figure her out all right.

    Wells, who I hope, but doubt, was paid plenty for those tips, singles out the ramblings of Miss Bates as particularly tedious! When they are actually hilarious. Rohan, once you reread you could compare Miss Bates to her yakky counterpart in Scott, Bradwardine in Waverley.

    Is Emma actually much assigned in high school or even in more general college classes? It is on the long side (my older Penguin is 450 pages). Long for a class, I mean, not for someone who has read all of Harry Potter four times.

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  4. Personally, I love Jane Austen (and I think Emma is more suited to high-school and college students than Persuasion or Mansfield Park, for instance – and isn’t there a rather good film version of it transposed to the present day with Alicia Silverstone in Clueless?). But I keep wondering why they don’t choose classics with more obvious appeal to youngsters, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or Moll Flanders or The Day of the Triffids.

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  5. Bardiac

    Just thinking about rereading Emma fills me with pleasure!

    When I ask my college first year students what they’ve read in HS, Emma doesn’t come up. I’m guessing it’s taught in some first year college courses (and lots in later college courses for majors). IF students read Austen in HS, that would at least be one female writer other than Rowling. It still, after all these years, seems like most of what they read is by white men. Beyond time for more diversity!

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  6. Ugh, those tips are insufferable. I hate to think of high school or college students reading those and having to “psych themselves up” for reading Emma. Sigh.

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  7. This pleasant and intelligent interview with the editor makes the “tips” even more depressing.

    I’ll bet Wells’s Austen class is outstanding.

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  8. If it wasn’t for the fact that she must have been dead many years now I would have thought my sixth form teacher must have written this. She managed to ‘kill’ ‘Emma’ for me when I was seventeen and I’m afraid that nothing has ever made me like the novel since. I hope the same thing isn’t true for anyone meeting the work for the first time though this current edition.

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