Jane Austen

A Very Austen Sort Of Day

Last Saturday one of my favorite events occurred. The Washington Romance Writers meeting when Kathy Gilles Seidel, A WRW member, RITA winner and Austen scholar, speaks about one of Austen’s books and the movies made from it.

This year it was Emma, comparing the book and four movie versions: The Gwyneth Paltrow version, the Kate Beckinsale version, the recent BBC mini-series, and Clueless.

The very first WRW meeting I ever attended (back in 1995), Kathy spoke on Austen’s use of the celebration in her endings. Being so very new to romance writing and still under the influence of the popular disparaging viewpoint of romance being “less than” real books, I was thrilled beyond words to hear this intelligent discussion. Since then I’ve heard Kathy speak several times on Austen and on other romance-writing topics and she never disappoints.

Kathy usually speaks at our January meeting, cancelled this year due to snow and rescheduled to June. We had a smaller group than usual, probably because it was a beautiful day and a busy time of year. It worked out marvelously, though, because the talk became a discussion, casual enough for everyone to feel comfortable speaking up, light enough for plenty of joking and fun.

Here are a few random points made throughout the day-long workshop.

1. Emma is not a romance, but a “woman’s journey”story and essentially a book about power. As a story about power, the movie that comes closest is Clueless.

2. In Clueless the heroine, Cher, is constantly underestimated; in Austen’s book, Emma is constantly overestimated. She is seen as doing no wrong, but, in reality, she gets everything wrong.

3. As a story about power, Austen shows how the power is shifting in the society of her day. The book shows the rising power of the middle class and the decreasing power of the landed gentry. Emma starts the book with lots of social power in her community, but her power is challenged by the Coles, representing the rising middle class, who almost do not invite her to their party, and, towards the end, by Jane Fairfax, who refuses her visit.

3. Within Emma, there are lots of secrets characters keep from each other, but in the book Austen gives subtle hints as to what is really going on. Sometimes the hints are only a few words in a long paragraph. It takes an alert reader and many readings to catch these subtleties. Because of this (and for many other reasons), the book is a classic where you discover new things with each reading.

4. Jennifer Enderlin, editor-in-chief, St. Martin’s Press, and Kathy’s editor, says that, in the first chapter of a book, the writer should give the reader someone to love and someone to hate. But Austen sets herself a great challenge in that she gives the reader many reasons to dislike Emma in the first chapter, and few reasons to like her. The reader must learn to like Emma as the book progresses.

5. We watched clips of the beginnings of the four movies. The moviemakers, though, tried to give viewers clear reasons to like the Emma character. In Clueless, we can forgive Cher her self-centeredness, because she is a teenager. Paltrow’s and Beckinsale’s Emmas are very sweet, especially to their fathers. The BBC version goes back in time and shows Emma’s mother’s death and really pulls on the viewers’ heartstrings.

There was so much more in this stimulating discussion, plus both lunch and dinner with writing friends. What could be better?

What’s your favorite sort of day among like-minded people?
Did you read Emma or see any of the movies? What’s your take?

Don’t forget the Harlequin Historical Authors Summer Beach Bag Giveaway. Today starts week two with plenty more prizes and more chances to win a Kindle Fire!

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Cara King
10 years ago

Ooh, that sounds like a fascinating talk!!! I so wish I could have been there. And to top it all, I love Seidel’s writing — a friend gave me her Regency soap opera book years ago, and then I went and read everything else, too, voraciously. Her books are just so amazing.

I envy you!

Jane George
10 years ago

It’s time to watch Clueless again! This is a great post.

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

Oh, Cara, I wish you could have been there, too! I thought of you more than once during the talk. You’ll be happy to know that Kathy hates the Kate Beckinsale version of Emma, too. As I recall you didn’t like it either.

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

I was thinking the same thing, Jane. I re-watched the Paltrow Emma but didn’t get around to watching the others. I’d forgotten how cute Clueless was.

Amanda McCabe/Laurel McKee

LOL! Maybe we should have an online “rewatching Clueless” party together–it’s been ages since I saw it, and it’s so adorable. 🙂

Wish I could have been there too!

Cara King
10 years ago

LOL, Diane! You’re right, I don’t particularly care for the Beckinsale Emma. I like parts of it, and respect other parts, but for me, Beckinsale just didn’t get Emma.

That’s one reason I loved Clueless — because in Cher I saw someone who was extremely selfish, but also extremely lovable…and that’s how I think Emma was.

Diane Gaston
10 years ago

I think we should do a Risky viewing and discussion of Clueless!!!!
What fun that would be!

Elena Greene
10 years ago

Sounds great to me!

I feel like I also need to rewatch the Beckinsale Emma. I vaguely recall having some issues with it but I’d like to give it another chance.

10 years ago

Thanks for a most interesting post. What an insightful look at Emma. These sessions must be terrific. It would be a wonderful way to spend a day or better yet a weekend. That way, you could watch all the movies to compare and discuss them.

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