Emma’s readers (and rereaders)
"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich . . .". In the latest episode of TLS Voices (see below) we draw out the bicentennial celebrations for Jane Austen's Emma. As a forthcoming review in the TLS notes, the novel first appeared in print on December 23, 1815, after being advertised as published "this day" a week earlier; its title page, as above, is dated 1816, as was conventional for books published so late in the year. Walter Scott's perceptive review of it appeared in the Quarterly Review for October 1815, which seems to have actually appeared in March 1816. Within another few months, a few more reviews came out; they were generally kind, but hardly the stuff of literary legend . . . .
This lukewarm initial reception perhaps only goes to confirm the view that Austen, who was herself a great rereader of novels, is a novelist whose books become better appreciated, both collectively and by the individual reader, as they are reread. This mattered greatly, as the editors of the Cambridge edition of Emma point out, at a time when novels might be generally regarded as disposable: "Readable books could be borrowed from the circulating libraries, only rereadable books need be purchased". What could matter more to a writer struggling for money working in a genre struggling for respectability?
That said, Scott saw much in Emma to enjoy on first acquaintance, but he was already interested in her work ("The author is already known to the public by the two novels announced in her title-page") and would certainly go on to reread Pride and Prejudice, "for the third time at least", with great pleasure in the author's "exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting". His review of Emma suggests how it struck him as being representative of a whole new stage in the evolution of the novel:
". . . a style of novel has arisen, within the last fifteen or twenty years, differing from the former in the points upon which the interest hinges; neither alarming our credulity nor amusing our imagination by wild variety of incident, or by those pictures of romantic affection and sensibility, which were formerly as certain attributes of fictitious characters as they are of rare occurrence among those who actually live and die. The substitute for these excitements, which had lost much of their poignancy by the repeated and injudicious use of them, was the art of copying from nature as she really exists in the common walks of life, and presenting to the reader, instead of the splendid scenes of an imaginary world, a correct and striking representation of that which is daily taking place around him. . . ."
(I hope this means, incidentally, that Scott knew people in real life who resembled the plain-speaking Knightley brothers, the pretty vacant Harriet Smith and Mr Woodhouse, "a valetudinarian all his life": "Mrs Bates, let me propose your venturing on one of these eggs. An egg boiled very soft is not unwholesome. Serle understands boiling an egg better than any body. I would not recommend an egg boiled by any body else . . .")
"We, therefore, bestow no mean compliment upon the author of Emma, when we say that, keeping close to common incidents, and to such characters as occupy the ordinary walks of life, she has produced sketches of such spirit and originality, that we never miss the excitation which depends upon a narrative of uncommon events, arising from the consideration of minds, manners and sentiments, greatly above our own. In this class she stands almost alone; for the scenes of Miss Edgeworth are laid in higher life, varied by more romantic incident, and by her remarkable power of embodying and illustrating national character. But the author of Emma confines herself chiefly to the middling classes of society; her most distinguished characters do not rise greatly above well-bred country gentlemen and ladies; and those which are sketched with most originality and precision, belong to a class rather below that standard. The narrative of all her novels is composed of such common occurrences as may have fallen under the observation of most folks; and her dramatis personae conduct themselves upon the motives and principles which the readers may recognize as ruling their own and that of most of their acquaintances . . . ."
At that stage, of course, 200 years ago, no reviewer could know that the author of Pride and Prejudice (which is soon to be unleashed in zombie form at the cinema) was also the author of Northanger Abbey and three youthful volumes of skits and pastiches. Between them, those early works show how Austen's own imagination was highly amused by the wild variety of romantic fiction. Instead, in her hands, and at the level of the story itself, the new style of novel acknowledged by Scott seems to involve reaching a fundamental accommodation between romantic "excitements" and the "common walks of life". Catherine Morland is said to be seventeen years old and all too fully immersed in a Gothic world view; Emma Woodhouse is three years older but not much wiser. She sees her situation as being completely, contentedly settled, with no prospect of marriage taking her away from her father's house. The "unperceived" danger, if it can even be called that, lurks within her, a heroine nicely described by Emily Auerbach as a "woman with artistic capability but no sense of higher purpose or appropriate field for her powers" who is liable to mix up trivia with more important matters, and who regards matchmaking as "the greatest amusement in the world".
Its publisher John Murray appears to have had high hopes for Emma, since he gave it a first run of 2,000 copies, over 1,000 copies more than was normal. (The Antiquary by Scott himself, published in 1816, sold out a run of 6,000 copies in a few weeks; see Kathryn Sutherland's essay in the fifth volume of The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain for more such business-like details.) Yet more than 500 copies remained unsold in 1820, and were remaindered. Austen herself saw relatively little profit from the book; part of the deal was that she had to pay production costs, including advertising in Murray's own catalogues. Hence perhaps her famous comment on him, from October 1816: "He is a rogue of course, but a civil one". The rogue had asked Scott to review Emma, it's true, but without much enthusiasm: "It wants incident and romance, does it not?"
Perhaps he should have reread it.