Emma Anniversary

St Valentine’s competition

In our last newsletter, we had a competition ending on St Valentine’s Day that asked for the surname of the character Emma in Jane Austen’s romantic comedy Emma. The answer was Woodhouse. Congratulations to the two winners, who have been sent a hardback copy of our book Jane Austen’s England (the American version of Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England ).

200 or 201 years?

Emma has caused problems with anniversary celebrations. It is 200 years old, but should the bicentenary celebrations have taken place all through 2015 or in 2016? Jane Austen began writing this novel at Chawton in Hampshire in early 1814. A few weeks later, Mansfield Park was published, and the following year she finished writing Emma and started on Persuasion. Emma was then published, but what counts as the publication date? Her publisher was John Murray, which is still a publishing imprint today, and they placed a handful of adverts in the Morning Post and Morning Chronicle newspapers throughout December 2015, including one on the 22nd, showing that it was to be published the next day in three volumes:

To-morrow, in 3 vols. 12mo. price 1l. 1s.

EMMA: a Novel.–– By the Author of Pride and


Printed for John Murray, Albemarle-street


It was priced at one guinea, which was one pound and one shilling, a huge amount of money for most people – it seems strange that if you go into any cut-price bookstore today, you may find paperback copies of Emma at about the same price. Although Emma was published two days before Christmas 2015, the title page had the date of 1816, and most copies would undoubtedly have been purchased that year.

More than a love story

The novel is set in Highbury, a fictitious village in the real county of Surrey and quite close to London. The young Emma Woodhouse has already brought her governess and the widowed Mr Weston together, and she now tries to meddle in other matchmaking schemes. In particular, she tries to push her new friend Harriet Smith into an unsuitable marriage. It is a story of relationships and families, where nothing much happens apart from the melodrama of human life. Many readers love Emma, while others find her annoying, but the overall story can be far better appreciated by knowing about the way of life two centuries ago, something we set out to do in our book Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England. We therefore appreciate comments such as one online review: ‘Five stars … it helped me get an “A” in an essay on Pride and Prejudice in college.’

Emma covers many broad issues, including marriage, deception, misunderstandings, social status and medicine – Emma’s selfish father constantly fusses about his and everyone’s health. There are also small details that contribute to the humour, the plot and individual characters, such as when Emma and Harriet visit Miss Bates and her mother. Miss Bates talks at length about a short letter from her niece Jane Fairfax, even though, she says, Jane normally writes much more, using cross-writing. In fact, Mrs Bates often says to her: ‘Well, Hetty, now I think you will be put to it to make out all that checquer-work.’ Because the recipient normally paid to receive letters, extra sheets of paper increased the cost. Jane Austen’s readers would instantly understand that Jane Fairfax did not want to burden her aunt and grandmother with heavy postal costs, so she would write in two directions on the same sheet.

Several mentions of letters and the postal service occur in Emma, and when Jane Fairfax moves to Highbury, one plot device is for her to fetch her own letters, as she needs to keep her correspondence private. Mrs Elton tries to interfere, as she thinks a daily walk is unhealthy. She is a social climber and boasts that she can find Jane a good position as a governess, because she mixes with such fine people. Indeed, she once knew a woman where ‘every body was anxious to be in her family, for she moves in the first circle. Wax-candles in the schoolroom! You may imagine how desirable!’ Wax candles were of course thought to be wasted on children and governesses, when cheaper tallow candles were sufficient.

For more on the postal service and letter writing, see our newsletter 33 (for October 2013).