Pride, Prejudice and a Publishing Punch-Up; as Emma-Mania Hits the Screen, Two Rival Sequels to Jane Austen's Classic Are Battling It out in the Bookshops. One Portrays Her as S Dutiful Wife, the Other as Bisexual. Rachel Billington and Emma Tennant Defend Their Very Different Portrayals of a Literary Heroine
In writing Perfect Happiness, I was not interested in `my Emma' but in Jane Austen's Emma. My aim was to extend a book I loved, to add to it, in the same spirit and style, rather than in competition. I reserve that kind of invention for my own novels.
This does not mean I disapprove of another writer taking dramatic licence. Since Emma was published in 1816 there have been 52 sequels, adaptions and completions. Two of Jane Austen's nieces were at it shortly after their aunt's death and in the 20th century the strangest works have seen the light of day. Some scramble all the novels together and others even drag in the unfortunate author herself. My favourite of these is titled, Antipodes Jane: A Novel Of Jane Austen In Australia.
I would have to be a miserable killjoy to condemn such innocent pleasures. My only objection would be if anyone tried to pretend this sort of approach had more than a passing reference to the brilliant author who sat down and wrote six great novels nearly 200 years ago.
`Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite the best blessing of existence...' This is our heroine, as described by her author in the very first sentence of Emma. Only the `seemed' gives a hint that she is not a paragon of virtue as well as a very lucky person. She is an heiress; she is in command of her own home since her elder sister married; she has no mother and an ineffectual father; she is clever but ill-educated; she is queen of the little town of Highbury but she is dreadfully underemployed. The departure of her governess, Miss Taylor, to be married, is not just a sadness but a real tragedy because she has been Emma's only real companion, `more the intimacy of sisters', as we are told.
This is the story set up for us on page one - a story utterly of its period - a young woman, not yet 21, who is without proper occupation, until marriage should come to take over her life. Isolated by her sense of superiority which is exaggerated by `a disposition to think a little too well of herself', Emma is in serious need of a woman friend, a confidante, or even merely a companion. So begins one theme of Emma: our heroine's choosing the witless Harriet Smith as her intimate.
Harriet is important: she is important in Perfect Happiness but she is, in one way, curiously incidental to Emma who has that characteristic, shared by any strong-minded person, of seeing others the way she wants them to be.
Emma needed Harriet, but any idea that she was drawn to her through physical attraction is as absurd as suggesting that Jane Austen was having an incestuous affair with her beloved sister, Cassandra.
I bring this up here because the last time I went to Chawton House, Jane Austen's last home, I was told that this was a deduction drawn by some modern visitors who were surprised by the smallness of the bedroom the sisters shared, and even by the fact they shared at all. Lesbian love and incest seemed, apparently, a neat and logical way to solve this problem. So modern sensibilities rewrite history!
If Emma opens with the loss of one woman friend and the rather disastrous replacement by another, it soon centres on two love stories - both strongly heterosexual: one between Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax and the other, let there be no doubt about it, between Mr Knightley and Emma.
It is impossible to read any of the long passages of dialogue between these two and not recognise the sexual tension between them. They spar with each other, flirt in witty disagreement, are always more alive, more sharply honed, in each other's presence. Their closest literary cousins are Beatrice and Benedict in Much Ado About Nothing. We, the readers, can be certain, almost from the start, that here we have our heroine, our hero.
Our pleasure in seeing Emma imagining herself in love with Frank Churchill is that we know she is not. …