Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’: a masterpiece and its genre

The title of Charlotte Palmer’s It Is, and It Is Not a Novel (1792) could describe a lot of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century prose fiction. It was a time when novels could be declared on their title pages to be histories, adventures, tales, true stories, romances, narratives, or simply “a work”; their eventual lumping together under the label “novel” was a back formation. Palmer’s cheeky title and sharp preface point up perfectly the era’s classificatory disquiet.

It Is, and It Is Not a Novel crops up in Karen O’Brien’s introduction to her and Peter Garside’s collection of essays, English and British Fiction 1750–1820 (Volume Two of a planned twelve in The Oxford History of the Novel in English). There the obscure Palmer and her equally obscure epistolary fiction are credited with having anticipated “what now would be called ‘crossover fiction,’ as well as novels commenting on the process of fiction writing”. That may well be, but Palmer’s taxonomic precociousness doesn’t guarantee a good read. As Steven Moore concludes of Palmer’s creation in The Novel: An alternative history (2013), “Let’s just say it is, and it is not an interesting novel”.

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.

Emma declares itself “A novel” in its subtitle, and literary histories have long noted that Austen’s claim was a relatively bold one, amid all those true stories and romances. Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818), with its brief defence of novels, has emerged as our go-to text for illustrating the genre’s once fragile status. Newly available datasets (including the online database British Fiction, 1800–1829) allow us to put to the test such assumptions about the novel’s gradual reputational shift from trash to treasure. We can more reliably gauge whether Austen’s vindication of novels was behind, of, or ahead of, her time. (The best answer seems to be “of”, if we are talking about its first moment of composition in the 1790s, and “behind”, if we mean the 1810s.) Still, old habits of quotation die hard; the very frequency with which Austen’s defence is referred to props up the myth that hers was a lone voice in the literary wilderness.

The wilderness was hardly uninhabited. Certainly, there is no doubt, from a quantitative standpoint, that the numbers of novels (or whatever they were called) rose. Raven estimates that a total of 3,374 novels appeared between 1750 and 1819 of which 7 per cent are now lost to history. Steady growth each decade from the 1750s (231 titles) to the 1800s (778 titles) was followed by a dropping-off in the 1810s (667 titles). How many now recognize that Austen was publishing during the first decade that experienced a strictly numerical downturn for novels in more than half a century?

In studies of the novel in English, as in many humanities fields, such quantitative data can prompt groundbreaking new interpretations. The OHNE refers to this methodology as the “new bibliography”. (Siskin gives it, after Francis Bacon, a more science-fiction sounding name, the “new organon”.) Its work is notable for featuring graphs, tables, percentages and four- and five-digit numbers in every paragraph, no longer only for marking acts of Parliament or regnal years. The new bibliography propels the overturning of some truisms about novels, authors, books and reading practices, while simultaneously ratifying others, at least as numerical truths.

Throughout the massive OHNE volume for this period, thirty-four contributors consider the novel from an array of vantage points, describing the genre as a multivalent, powerful “cultural force”. OHNE’s Gillian Russell calls it “the novel complex”, evoking its “dynamic, expansive relationship with other media”. Siskin dubs it “novelism”, a “placement procedure” and “construction technique” that came to dominate other “overwritten kinds”. (By overwritten, he does not mean full of purple prose, but rather, in IT terminology, erased under.)

These grand claims are most convincing for readers who have taken in the OHNE’s entire concatenation of details, such as those in M. O. Grenby’s chapter on children’s and juvenile literature, one of the novel’s eventually “overwritten kinds”. Grenby describes how titles “originally aimed at adults . . . were quickly appropriated by or for young readers”. Sometimes forbidden to youth, adult novels were also placed in young hands in the absence of a defined body of children’s literature. Elizabeth Barrett Browning was reading novels designed for adults by the age of six. Charlotte M. Yonge, at the age of eleven, was allowed one chapter of a Walter Scott novel a day, provided she first read from a more “solid book”. Grenby’s chapter builds on and extends the arguments of others in the OHNE, such as Anthony Mandal’s in “Evangelical Fiction” and Anthony Jarrells’s in “Short Fictional Forms and the Rise of the Tale”.

Sabor’s Cambridge Companion to “Emma” provides fewer moments of cross-fertilization, but its twelve chapters set out to guide the reader to a deepened understanding of the novel from its creation to the present day in just 219 pages. It takes readers to many useful places the OHNE does not, including the period’s musical culture (Ruth Perry) and games, riddles and charades (Jillian Heydt-Stevenson).

New insights into Frank Churchill’s gift of a Broadwood piano and the now defunct meaning of charades productively shift our ability to read Emma better. The Companion and the OHNE cover some similar ground, albeit in different registers, such as looking at translations (Gillian Dow in the Companion and OHNE’s Wil Verhoven in “The Global British Novel”).

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