Edward Austen's Emma Reads Emma

By McDonald, Kelly M. | Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, Annual 2007 | Go to article overview

Edward Austen's Emma Reads Emma


McDonald, Kelly M., Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal


JANE AUSTEN'S FIRST BIOGRAPHER, her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh (known as Edward), shared with her the history of a Steventon parsonage childhood: Jane's father, George, and Edward's father, her eldest brother, James, between them held the Steventon living from 1761 until 1819. The parsonage went with the job. At the time of Jane's death, Edward was nearing his nineteenth birthday, old enough to have accumulated useful memories of her and talented enough to put them into words. He based his Memoir of Jane Austen on personal recollections, Jane's correspondence, and family lore. In it, Edward endorsed the idea that her novels have enduring interest due to "the fidelity with which they represent the opinions and manners of the class of society in which the author lived," and he recognized that "the value of such a faithful likeness must increase as time gradually works more and more changes in the face of society itself" (144-45). Edward highly esteemed his aunt's last three novels (146); the poignant significance of Emma in Edward Austen's courtship of Emma Smith verifies this commendation.

The Rev. James Austen ministered to congregants in three villages nestled in Steventon's corner of Hampshire. Many Sundays, he took dinner with William Chute, M. P. and his wife Eliza, owners of The Vyne, the foremost estate in his parish of Sherborne St. John. Edward sometimes accompanied him. The two Austen men shared a common interest with the master of the house who was also a master of hounds: hunting. Mrs. Chute's niece Emma Smith first mentions being in company with "Mr Ed. Austin" at The Vyne in late September 1821, notating the surname in the same manner her aunt always did. (1) Seven years later, the Austens and Chutes would share something much more binding than sporting interests: on 16 December 1828 Edward Austen married Emma Smith.

Emma Smith had grown up within an extremely literate family, its appetite for a wide variety of reading matter traceable through letters and diaries of several of its members. Excerpts from Emma's own diary reveal that Emma was the book of choice in September 1828, when Edward Austen visited their estate Tring Park.

   Before luncheon Mr Edward Austen came we walked in the wood
   In the evening we read Miss Austen's novel of Emma--(September
   12)
   Music & then reading Emma ... (September 13)
   morning service Mr Austen preached ... (September 14)
   We walked to Leith Hill & Wigginton Common--after Luncheon
   Spencer Mr Austen & I rode through Ashbridge &c. In the evening
   Emma & Chess.... (September 15)
   This day proved one of the most important in my life--We read
   Emma in the morn:g after luncheon Mamma & Fanny met to call
   on Mrs. Badcock--We all walked towards the woods of Terrets &
   during the walk I was engaged to marry Mr Austen on our
   return home Mamma was spoken to & most kindly gave her consent--I
   afterwards walked with him in the Shrubbery Mr Lacy
   dined here Music (September 16)
   We read Emma in the morning & then walked in the town towards
   little Tring & the silk mills--I afterwards walked with Mr. Austen
   in the flower garden--In the even:g Aunt Emma & Elizabeth
   Gosling arrived here (September 17)

Since Emma uses the phrase "we read," Emma was presumably read aloud, shared within the family circle. Writing of her parents' courtship, the Austens' daughter speculated, "The reader of 'Emma' may have chosen that book from a love of its title," the implication being that the main or sole reader had been Edward Austen (M. A. Austen-Leigh 37). "[T]his he often did, most admirably as to tone of voice, manner, taste, and judgment. Nothing was wanted in his rendering either of light or of serious authors. When the subject was dramatic, he could always make the characters, to use his Aunt Jane's expression, 'speak as they should do'" (161-62).

That Edward was conducting Emma's first encounter with Emma should not, however, be assumed. …

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