Emma Study Guide

“Emma” was first published by John Murray in December of 1815. It was the last of Austen’s novels to be published before her death, and, like her earlier works, was published anonymously. Shortly before the publication of “Emma,” Austen was invited to meet with the Prince Regent’s librarian, who encouraged her to dedicate her next novel to the Prince Regent a great admirer of her work. Although Austen was not particularly fond of the Prince, she chose to follow the librarian’s suggestion and later satirized her meeting with him in “Plan of a Novel, according to hints from various quarters.”

There were two thousand copies of “Emma” printed in the first edition, but more than a quarter remained unsold after four years. The novel was generally well-received by the public. Unfortunately, Austen earned very little from its publication: most of the profits were used for the ill-timed printing of a second edition of “Mansfield Park” a few months later, and she ultimately only earned 40 pounds from the novel in her lifetime.

“Emma” was a departure for Austen because, unlike her other novels, the work focuses on a wealthy and beautiful heroine with no financial concerns or need to marry. The quest for financial security and an appropriate husband is central to her other works and adds a serious element to their narrative structures. “Emma” has a generally lighter tone because it lacks this dramatic conflict. The heroine of the novel is also unique because of her seeming immunity to romantic sensibility. It is only at the end of the work that Emma succumbs to love; before that point, she shows minimal romantic interest in any of the male characters.

Because Austen’s works were published anonymously, they received little critical attention during her time period. Although her books sold well and were favored by prominent figures in British society (such as the Prince Regent and his daughter), Austen received only a few short reviews. After her death, her works continued to be steady sellers but were not widely popular among readers in the 19th century. In general, audiences preferred the dramatic style of George Eliot and Charles Dickens over Austen’s mild forays into British society.

However, Austen’s work was still highly praised by prominent literary scholars. Authors Sir Walter Scott and Henry James and philosopher George Henry Lewes lauded Austen’s narrative style; Henry James, in particular, compared her writing to that of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Henry Fielding. After James Edward Austen-Leigh published his biography of his “dear aunt Jane” in 1869, Austen was introduced to the wider public, who clamored for new editions of her works. Austen-Leigh’s biography also spurred a rift between the literary elite, who called themselves “Janeites,” and the larger public, who was presumed not to properly understand her works.

In the 20th century, Austen’s works began to receive major scholarly attention, specifically with the publication of A.C. Bradley’s essay on Austen in 1911. The 20th century also saw a surge of adaptations of Austen’s works, including films, prequels, sequels, and revised novels (such as Seth Grahame-Smith’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”). “Emma,” in particular, has been adapted for film multiple times, including the 1995 film “Clueless” with Alicia Silverstone, and revised as comic horror novel “Emma and the Werewolves” by Adam Rann.