By Emily Hewlings and Sarah Karlen
Jane Austen, the celebrated author of “Pride and Prejudice,” was reported to have said during the onset of drafting her newest work that she planned to “take a heroine whom no one but [Austen] will much like.” That unfavorable heroine emerged as Emma Woodhouse, the acclaimed headstrong and self-absorbed protagonist in “Emma,” Austen’s fourth and last novel published during her lifetime.
The novel received generally favorable reviews shortly after its release in 1815 but was widely criticized by several readers for its lack of depth. Maria Edgeworth, author of “Belinda,” once said that “Emma” has “no story in it.” Publisher John Murray likewise claimed that the novel contains “no incident and Romance.” Even Charlotte Brontë, who is best known for “Jane Eyre,” rejected the story for not being “energetic, poignant, heartfelt” enough.
In spite of the novel’s mixed reception, “Emma” managed to outlive its creator. Now, 200 years since “Emma” was first published, the “handsome, clever, and rich” Emma continues to show no signs of ever going away. To celebrate the bicentennial anniversary of the publication of “Emma,” Penguin Books released its newest deluxe edition on September 29 titled “Emma: The 200th Anniversary Annotated Edition.”
The new edition, which features a bright orange cover surrounding a white silhouette of a woman and furnished with more colorful individuals donning Regency dresses and waistcoats—a design that seems to deviate from many earlier Penguin editions in terms of artistry—was edited and introduced by Juliette Wells, Associate Professor and Chair of the English Department at Goucher. Wells, a Jane Austen scholar, has published several essays and a book, “Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination,” which many critics call “the first book to investigate Jane Austen’s popular significance today.”
In light of the release of the new edition, Wells arranged for a Penguin Book Truck to visit the Goucher campus that same day. The truck—conspicuously orange with two large flaps on each side that, when raised, revealed shelves full of books—was found parked nearly all day on the Athenaeum driveway, near the entrance to the Hyman Forum. All copies of the new Emma sold out at the truck, according to Paul Gerczak ‘16, who was eager to purchase a copy.
Sarojini Schutt ‘18 and Katherine Thompson ‘18 were among the many students who visited the truck. Upon hearing about it, Schutt and Thompson jumped at the opportunity to browse the truck’s selection. At the time of the interview, Schutt was trying to decide between purchasing “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” and the collection of short stories written by Edgar Allan Poe. Schutt hasn’t read any of Austen’s novels.
“I would want to read [Austen] though, because she is a central essence to what literature is today,” Schutt said. “So, yeah, she is on the list.”
Thompson, who was empty-handed, said that she read “Pride and Prejudice,” as well as some excerpts from “Sense and Sensibility.”
“[Austen] uses a very sophisticated style of writing, and it is not conversational,” Thompson explained. “It’s not necessarily something that you can read for pleasure and be like, ‘Oh, I got ten minutes in between my class,’ and pick it up.”
Emma Mohney, who works in publicity for Penguin Books, said that it was her first time out with the book truck, adding that it was the truck’s first Austen-related event. Mohney and Ryan Murphy, who assists with marketing, drove from New York City, picked up the truck in New Jersey and arrived in Baltimore the day before the event. Mohney works closely with Wells in “getting the word out” for the new “Emma. “
Mohney called Austen’s novels “such good love stories.”
“People recognize themselves in her characters, the situations they find themselves in,” she said. “There are a lot of similar insecurities and stressors. It is sort of safe, because it is in this circumscribed society, and that works for people.”
Mohney also explained that while “Pride and Prejudice” has more recognition than “Emma,” having been Austen’s most successful novel, there is still value in exploring more about the life of Emma Woodhouse.
“I do think that for me, reading ‘Emma,’ there is something reassuring in the fact that not all of us can be Elizabeth Bennett,” Mohney said. “Some of us are Emmas, and she turns out okay, too.”
Katherine Mackie ‘17, who works at the Goucher Bookstore and helped out with the event, said that she didn’t favor Emma Woodhouse when she first read the novel.
“I found Emma [to be] really annoying,” Mackie explained. “But, by the time you get to the end, I liked that she changed.” Mackie added that Wells once pointed out that “Emma” is “the longest novel with the least amount of material,” which intrigued Mackie.
“I applaud Jane Austen for that,” she noted.
The Penguin Book Truck hosted a book release party from 3 to 5 p.m. in the Hyman Forum, during which Wells gave a speech and signed copies. Those in attendance included various faculty members and students, as well as colleagues of Wells, many of whom sported a black Penguin tote bag they received for free after purchasing a book from the truck. Gerczak, Gavin Fregeau ‘16 and Isabel DaSilva ‘16 were among those in the crowd who came out to support Wells.
DaSilva read “Emma” for her Jane Austen seminar—which is lectured by Wells—and “really liked it.”
“I liked [“Emma”] because she is not perfect, but she is very sharp about things,” DaSilva said. “She slowly gets what is going on, but you have fun watching her do it. The other characters were too good.”
Gerczak said that while he has yet to read “Emma,” he enjoyed Austen’s other works.
“I love the way she writes her characters and I really like the dialogue,” he said. “Even though [the books were] written over two hundred years ago, the characters are still relatable.”
Fregeau has read both “Emma” and “Pride and Prejudice.” Unlike his peers, Fregeau said he has difficulty getting “into that kind of novel,” adding that Austen’s descriptions do “a lot of telling”—a feature he doesn’t appreciate in literary works.
“[Austen] was a feminist of her time, and her writing might not seem radical now, but it was radical then,” Fregeau said. “It continues to inspire people today. I don’t know why, honestly. That’s what I hear.”
While Fregeau is not an Austen fan, he attended the event to congratulate Wells on her accomplishment and to hang out with his bookish friends.
According to Wells, the most common misconception among Austen fans, Goucher community members included, is that Austen’s work is “timeless.”
“I think it’s helpful to stop and think about that for a moment,” Wells said. “If her works were really timeless, there would be no need for the edition that I just did.”
Wells explained that there is a historical barrier between the original text and readers today and that she has made it her mission to help bridge that gap. Her initial intentions for the newly annotated edition were supported by Edna Rotor, a member of the Penguin Classics staff. Rotor worked with Wells on a previous Penguin-related project two years ago, and pitched the idea to design a new edition of “Emma” to celebrate its bicentennial.
“I wanted a version of Austen’s writing that would be appropriate for people who are not necessarily in school or English majors when they were in school,” Wells pointed out. “It’s directed towards people who are interested in Austen in some way, and would have a hard time reading Emma if they just opened it up and read it.”
To accomplish this, Wells wrote an introduction to the new Emma that contrasts with typical scholarly editions. As Wells pointed out, there are no critical interpretations of the text as a whole.
“I wanted the feeling of enjoyment to go through everything I was writing,” she said.
Wells did the writing for two months and then focused on the production process.
“We had a tight timeline from the beginning, because we wanted the book to be out a couple months in advance of the actual 200th anniversary of the English publication in late December,” Wells explained. “I wanted people to have them in hand so that they could re-read “Emma” for the anniversary and really think about it.”
Although Wells doesn’t have a favorite Austen novel, she agrees with critical assessment that “Emma” is Austen’s single greatest novel.
“Her artistry [in “Emma”] reaches a virtuoso level with only using very slight, narrow tools in this claustrophobic world,” Wells said. “The interest in the novel comes from how Austen is saying what she is saying and not what she is dealing with. The ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’ is something we talk about in literature in general.”
As Wells further explained, subtlety is not easy to appreciate nowadays in this culture. The new “Emma” offers tools that focus more on the subtlety of the original text.
“I am looking forward to hearing from readers that use this edition to let me know if I got it right,” Wells said. “I’m still an English professor, and even when I use my best judgment, it’s hard to get in the head of an ordinary reader.”
Both the Goucher College Library and English Department will host events in the coming weeks to further commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of “Emma”’ The “‘Emma’ in America” campaign team, managed by Special Collections, will host an opening reception in the Athenaeum on October 17th from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. Alexander McCall Smith, author of “Emma: A Modern Retelling,” will give a lecture in the Kraushaar Auditorium on November 3 from 7:30 to 9:00 p.m. In February, Jane Austen Scholar-in-Residence Kathleen M. Anderson, a professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University, will visit campus to give a lecture entitled, “Emma As Medieval Queen: Jane Austen’s Glorification of Female Hospitality.”