On a day that finally felt like spring—for a little while at least—JASNA-NY members gathered to celebrate the legacy of Jane Austen’s Emma. Hosted at the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen on April 14, 2018, “Emma Through Time’s Looking Glass” was a day-long conference with a variety of engaging speakers, lunch, and many cups of tea.
Peter Sabor from McGill University shared contemporary reader responses to Emma which ranged from the thoughtful to the absurd. Sir Walter Scott’s largely positive review is among the most famous and prompted at Austen’s publisher’s urging, but seven other periodicals reviewed Emma. While one reviewer described the novel as “not only readable but pleasantly so,” another “recommended the author create greater incident in her plots.” Austen gave a presentation of Emma to fellow author Maria Edgeworth, but unfortunately the writer found “no story in it” and was so unimpressed she left her copy unbound.
Recent AGM plenary speaker Devoney Looser (Arizona State University) explored Emma’s life on stage, arguing that from the 1890s-1940s there were many people who would have been introduced to Jane Austen through theatrical adaptations and not the novels themselves. One such production was a West End show staged at the height of WWII, starring film star Anna Neagle in the title role. At one memorable performance a V2 rocket landed not far from the theatre and shook the building to such an extent, the actor playing Mr. Weston appeared on stage to declare that a thief had violently broken into the turkey house, leaving the audience roaring with laughter.
The day’s final speaker, Vassar University’s Katie Gemmill provided an in-depth look at more recent adaptations of Emma, particularly 1995’s Clueless and the imaginative ways the film updates the novel’s world. Cher and Josh, the modern representations of Emma and Mr. Knightley, are equally matched in their relationship, knowing how to put each other in their place.
As the conference ended and it was time to return to the sunshine, JASNA members left with new insights into a favorite novel and the many ways readers have interacted with it over the centuries.
– Marybeth Ihle