This is not shocking to most who enjoy the works of Jane Austen and critique the film adaptations, but it must be noted that this version of Emma, with Gweneth Paltrow as the title character and Jeremy Northam as the gallant ‘Mr. Knightley’, was actually my introduction to Jane Austen. In theaters on the heels of Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, the modernized adaptation of Austen’s novel, both films were a great favorite in our household. (Never ask my sisters and I if we know any quotations from either movie, rest assured we have both memorized.) And we relished in the elegance and humor of both movies.
When I was in high school, someone or other, probably my mother, suggested I read Pride and Prejudice. I loved it. I’ve read it many times hence. I sort of enjoy the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth BBC teleplay; and I took arbitrary pleasure at seeing the Kiera Knightly version in theaters whilst actually in Enlgand. Some time later, I read Mansfield Park in Google Books and was somewhat shocked at the liberties filmmakers had taken in the 1999 Frances O’Connor/Jonny Lee Miller version of said film (Billie Piper and Blake Ritson’s 2007 portrayal on the BBC is so very much better than the former). Northanger Abbey I read sometime later (and thoroughly enjoyed Felicity Jones and JJ Fields as Catherine and Mr. Tilney); then later still I read Persuasion after seeing an extremely boring TV production starring Sally Hawkins and Rupert Penry-Jones. I could not, in good faith, believe one of Austen’s novels to be as boring as that. So I read it. And was correct.
The only, of the six, novel that I actively did not watch a film version of before reading the novel was Sense and Sensibility. My only knowledge of it was that it is a story of two sisters, in a 1995 attempt on the screen, played by Emma Thompson (whom I have loved ever since I first saw Much Ado About Nothing on Masterpiece Theater) and Kate Winslet (who’s Titanic fame never much warmed her to me). I was resolved to not let any movie adaptation color my opinion of the story as had happened with Emma and Persuasion. I have since read Sense and Sensibility, just last winter, in fact, and found it to be supremely charming (actually I hated it for a while, then I started to appreciate it — go here and read all about it).
I have a few times endeavored to read Emma, always assuming since I already am familiar with the story that it would be nothing. But every time I have been frustrated and found I must put the book down. Why? I cannot be sure. Sunday, December 1st, I was feeling amazingly grumpy about many things. A chance post on Tumblr of Neil Gaiman reading a short story he wrote about December happened to pull me out of my mood. Recently I have been enjoying this particular gentleman reading his works from the album “An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer” and desirous of hearing a story, rather than half listening to a movie or TV show, while I cleaned, I searched the Internet for audiobooks.
Free audiobooks are interesting hard to come by on the Internet.
But I landed on LibriVox. No Neil to be found, as LibriVox only caters to works within Public Domain, but I did find old Classics that I either hold dear, or have been meaning to read. I was going to put on Melville’s Moby Dick, but I thought better of it and discovered Austen’s Emma. It took a few tries to find a voice that was not objectionable, but find one I did (I recommend version 5, read by Moira Fogarty). And now, after two days’ listening, I can reasonably say that I have, indeed, read all of Jane Austen’s novels (although, now I do want to attempt actually reading Emma).
Upon ‘reading’ Emma, I have, now, a much greater understanding and appreciation of Jane Fairfax – why film adaptations gloss over her, as they seem to do, is quite silly – and I feel as though I have a better understanding of Emma herself. Generally her character is to be captured in adaptations, but I find that neither Gweneth, nor Kate Beckinsale really did her justice (although I’ve heard Ramola Garai is lovely). I now feel as though I understand the complexities of the story – it is more than your garden variety love story about a man who feels more and a girl who realizes almost too late. No, no, Emma is much more than that: it is a story about relations. The relationship between men and women, women and women, friends, neighbors, and family members. It is very much a delightful commentary on how we treat, and how we ought to treat, our neighbors and our friends. Also, strangers. Lest we forget Robert Martin. Emma shows us how, essentially, to be a good person.
I rewatched the 1996 version of Emma after finishing listening to the audiobook – and it was a letdown. I hated it. Most of it, anyway. Everything from how quick the pace of the story is, to Gweneth’s fake British accent (odd she played so many English women in her career). The most best parts of the movie remain the scene outside the ball when Emma and Mr. Knightly are talking, and when he’s just returned from London and runs into Emma in the lane. Because, I think, those two scenes retained the most of the original dialogue and sentiment from the novel. Mr. Knightly says to Emma things actually written out in the novel, and Jeremy Northam, I think captured Mr. Knightly, if not very well, then mostly (much better than whatshisface opposite the Beckinsale – although he’s supposed to be excellent in other things). But, my point being, I am saddened that I now find my introduction to Jane Austen so disappointing. It’s a shame really. The thing that gave me a taste, a thing so beloved and cherished for so long, is now an afterthought.
It is my own fault, I probably shouldn’t have watched it immediately after finishing the audiobook. I will, one day, watch it again and find it sweet and feel nostalgic, but not so close to reading the novel, I should think.