Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, …and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.Emma, Jane Austen
So begins Jane Austen’s novel Emma, the last to be published in her lifetime. It is also the only novel by Jane that is named after its heroine, and Emma Woodhouse is certainly unique among Jane’s many characters.
Emma has everything. She is intelligent, beautiful, and the youngest and fondest daughter of a wealthy father who indulges her every whim. The only person who ever expresses any criticism of Emma is Mr Knightley, who owns the nearby Donwell Abbey and estate.. and you can guess the rest.
Unlike Jane’s other heroines who need to marry for status or money, Emma is only concerned about boredom (which was the word used by some critics upon its publication).
Despite this, Jane’s Emma as a character and story is usually voted second only to Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice. Emma sold the most copies of any of Jane’s novels at that time, and has only been surpassed by Pride and Prejudice in recent years.
1. EMMA WAS WRITTEN IN ITS ENTIRETY WHILST JANE LIVED AT CHAWTON
According to Cassandra, Jane started writing Emma on 21 January 1814 and finished it on 29 March 1815. She was then 39 years old.
Unlike three of Jane’s earlier novels which she started writing in her teens (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey), Jane wrote Emma in its entirety whilst living at Chawton Cottage. She started writing it once Mansfield Park was published and sold out which must have spurred her on!
2. JANE HAD DECIDED THAT EMMA WAS NO ELIZABETH BENNET!
Whilst Jane had described Elizabeth Bennet, ‘as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print’, she had told Cassandra that she was going to write about someone less perfect. ‘I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.’
As it turned out, many Jane Austen fans love her Emma and she is one of Jane’s most popular characters.
3. JANE REFERRED TO HER NOVELS AS HER OWN CHILDREN
Jane referred to her novels as though they were her children. She had called Pride and Prejudice her ‘Own darling child’.
Jane wrote in a letter to her niece Anna in 1815 (whose new daughter she had not yet seen), ‘As I wish very much to see your Jemima, I am sure you will like to see my Emma.’
4. EMMA WAS THE ONLY HEROINE IN JANE’S NOVELS THAT WAS NOT UNDER PRESSURE TO MARRY
Jane wrote the opening line of the novel, ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition ..and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.’ Emma is the only heroine of Jane’s that is not under pressure to marry – for love, security or status.
5. JANE WAS NEVER KNOWN AS THE AUTHOR OF EMMA OUTSIDE HER CLOSE FAMILY
Only Jane’s family and close friends knew Jane was the author of Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. When Emma was published the title page simply reads, ‘By the Author of “Pride and Prejudice, etc etc’.
Although Emma went on sale on 23 December 1815, the title page reads 1816 as it was so close to end of the year.
6. JANE’S FAME INCREASED IN THE LAST TWO YEARS OF HER LIFE
It was clear that Jane’s fame was increasing as the dedication inside Emma is to the Prince Regent.
It seems that whilst Jane was in London nursing Henry through a serious illness, his doctor was a friend of the Prince Regent’s librarian James Stanier-Clarke, and it was he who had made the introduction.
Although Jane disliked the Prince Regent as he was known to gamble and have many mistresses, she must have been flattered that he admired her novels and had copies in each of his residences. She sent a specially bound copy to Carlton House for the future King which is now in the Royal Household in London.
7. JANE’S NOVEL EMMA WAS ADVERTISED IN THE NEWSPAPERS
Much to Jane’s delight, the Morning Chronicle announced the publication of Emma on 23 December 1815.
8. JANE WAS WORRIED AS MOST AUTHORS ARE ABOUT THE SUCCESS OF EMMA
In a letter to John Murray written on 11 December a few weeks before Emma was published, Jane shared her worries about the public reception of her new novel. ‘I am very strongly haunted by the idea that to those Readers who have preferred P&P. it will appear inferior in Wit, & to those who have preferred MP. very inferior in good Sense.’
In receiving feedback and reading the reviews, it seems that the literary critics of the day enjoyed Emma and wrote positive reviews. Sir Walter Scott wrote in the Quarterly Review that he thought Emma was part of a new trend in fiction, ‘which has arisen almost in our own times, and which draws the characters and incidents introduced more immediately from the current of ordinary life than was permitted by the former rules of the novel.‘
9. JANE MADE THE LEAST AMOUNT OF MONEY FROM EMMA ALTHOUGH IT WAS HER MOST SUCCESSFUL
Written in 1814, Emma was ready in March 1815. Egerton was Jane’s previous publisher and he delayed publishing whilst he negotiated with Murray, another successful publisher. John Murray was a prominent London publisher of many famous authors and The Quarterly Review, which Jane read and admired which may be why she chose him.
They eventually agreed that Jane would publish at her own expense and as the first editions of her previous novels had sold out, it was decided to print 2,000 copies of Emma.
Murray received 10% of the profits and Egerton made a healthy £450 (around $600 USD) from this transaction.
The accounts show that Jane made much less at £222 (around $300 USD) from the initial sales. After the reprint of Mansfield Park was deducted, her royalties were £40 (around $55 USD) which she received in February 1817.
Although Emma was Jane’s most successful novel in the way of sales, it made her the least money.
10. JANE SHOWS YOU CAN BE HAPPY BEING SINGLE
Jane shows that you can be happy being single and marriage is not the key to happiness. (As long as you have a wealthy father, lots of shopping trips, great friends who forgive you, and a warm fire!).
FOR MORE EMMA:
You can read Emma on any device for free by downloading (or reading it online) through Project Gutenberg
Find more Emma on our 2022 Events page
Although a little dated you can hear a BBC 4 Radio program on Emma
You can read about the Royal Household copies of Emma in Jane Austen 200 as they were on display at Brighton Pavilion for Jane Austen 200
Gwyneth Paltrow is one of the best actresses that played Emma.