Victoria and Abigail McCabe wish Jane Austen Happy Birthday!

My first Austen was Emma! I read it when I was about 9 or 10, and like all my reads at that time was supplied by my grandmother. She went to lots of garage sales and thrift stores as well as regular bookstores, and lots of people gave her books, too. So there were always boxes of wondrous paperbacks stacked in her hall closet, oodles of Heyers, old Fawcett Regencies by authors like Joan Smith and Marian Chesney, Cartlands, and classics. When we visited her in the summer, I would hide in that closet to get away from my wild cousins and read, read, read!

An old copy of Emma was in one of those boxes, and as I was currently on a 19th century England obsession, I was delighted. I had just finished Jane Eyre and loved it. Emma was a very different book, with a very different heroine, but I loved it, too.

At the time, I knew little about Austen and her stories and didn’t realize that: 1) there was a ‘mystery’ in the story (I took it for granted all along that there was something going on between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and Emma was silly for not seeing it. On the other hand I was shocked–SHOCKED–by the appearance of Bertha-in-the-attic in Jane Eyre, so was not a very perceptive child), and 2) that I was not supposed to like Emma.

Austen herself wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” But how could I help but like her?? She was “handsome, clever and rich”; everyone in the story seemed to like her; and she seemed well-meaning and good-hearted, even if her schemes didn’t often work out very well. She had perhaps “a disposition to think too well of herself,” but at age 9 I liked her self-confidence, her popularity and sense of belonging, and the cozy little world of Highbury. I guess I still like those.

Later on, I was surprised to find that Emma was unique among the Austen heroines in that she had no financial concerns (unlike poor Jane Fairfax!). Her worries were more subtle. She was an intelligent woman who wanted to do good, even though she was not sure how to achieve that to the best ends. She had little to engage that intelligence, so perhaps it was mostly boredom (plus a lot of that self-confidence!) that led to her misguided machinations? She really had no power to change her location or routine, which, as a shy and dreamy 9-year-old who wanted to be Jane Eyre, I identified with strongly!

After Emma, I ran to the library and grabbed the other books, quickly consuming Pride and Prejudice (plus a video of the Rintoul/Garvie series), Sense and Sensibility (I liked the sisters in that one!), Northanger Abbey (Catherine was my favorite heroine at that age), Persuasion, and Mansfield Park. I didn’t much like Persuasion and MP then–I was just too young for them, I think, much like Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, and Madame Bovary (no, my parents didn’t pay much attention to my reading habits!). Persuasion is now possibly my favorite book of all time, but I do have a soft spot for Emma. Thank you, Miss Woodhouse, for starting me on this journey!

I like both the ’96 film versions of Emma (Paltrow and Beckinsale) though they are very different from each other, and neither is quite the story in my head. I’m not sure such a thing is even possible! I’m just grateful for all the Austen books and films out there to fill my rainy days. They always brighten things up.

Happy Birthday, Jane! From all your fans here at Risky Regencies.

(And check out High Seas Stowaway on Eharlequin for special savings this week. What could be better in a cold December than warm, sandy beaches and hunky sea captains??)