Emma in Seattle, Collecting Emma, PLUS Thoughts on Episode 2…

I first published this review in October of 2009 when Emma aired on the BBC, so some of the links and broadcast references will be out of date.

The Book-It Reperatory Theatre in Seattle is presenting a version of Emma from 10/22-11/22. More information here and here.

For those watching the Emma collectibles market, here is an interesting piece on buying and selling various older editions of the novel.

Now on to Emma 4, episode 2.  But first…

Another caveat – these are random, temporal, stream-of-consciousness thoughts.

I still like this adaptation, though there are certain elements that are starting to get on my nerves.

This Emma is wayyy too fluttery and gushy when it comes to the as-yet-unmet Frank Churchill. I didn’t like her almost sycophantic finessing of the Constant Enscombe Delays situation, even if she did do it for Mr. Weston’s benefit.  In the novel, Emma tries to be positive for his sake.  It seems apparent to her, however, that something is amiss in Frank’s constant excuses (although she will go on to advocate for the Devil when Mr. Knightley expresses annoyance at Frank’s inability to get his crap together).  She is not so enamored of the idea of Frank Churchill as to go on about the “fineness of spirit” ostensibly exemplifieid by his devotion to Mrs. C.  In fact, novel-Emma shows her Junior George Knightley stripes when she says to Mrs. Weston, “one cannot comprehend a young man’s being under such restraint, as not to be able to spend a week with his father, if he likes it.”

But it’s not just this Emma’s girlish mooning that bugs me.  In general, she lacks the poise and elegance of mind that the original character continually self-cultivates.  She’s sometimes too perky, too excited, too upset, too…on the edge of her emotions, I suppose. Certainly novel-Emma is to blame for most of the pointed and unfair Jane Fairfax discussions between herself and Frank Churchill, but this new Emma actually proves herself to be perfectly conscious of and hardly unapologetic for that fact in gushing out, “Excuse me for gossiping, but…” And this comes without the Mrs. Weston of the novel reminding her, “You get upon delicate subjects, Emma…” (not that Mrs. Weston’s gentle interjection stops novel-Emma for a moment, but…well…meh).

I did, however, enjoy the inclusion of the following scene:  “Her views of improving her little friend’s mind, by a great deal of useful reading and conversation, had never yet led to more than a few first chapters, and the intention of going on to-morrow. It was much easier to chat than to study…” Even if novel-Emma is smoother than Romola Garai, she’s still no Miss Taylor and still way too ADD to properly finish a book!

Louise Dylan’s Harriet is sensitive, earnest, and naive – the more I see of her, the more I like her.  Unlike the Miramax Harriet, this version of the character doesn’t play primarily for slapstick laughs.  Toni Collette’s Harriet had some semblance of a wise heart within her, though the buffoonish part of of her nature was usually highlighted at the expense of her more complex traits.  Most people don’t give Harriet Smith a lot of credit for being “on the ball” as it were, but I think she comes equipped with quite a bit of simple, gentle common sense and generosity.  She’s well-liked at Mrs. Goddard’s, contributing admirably as a teaching assistant and possessing what appears to be good aesthetic sense (she has beautiful handwriting and her riddle scrapbook is as handsomely-rendered as anything).  Further, the sensible Martin family loves and respects her.  She is impressionable, but it is mainly her youth and respect for and deferrence to Emma’s out-of-line meddling that makes a fool of her and NOT any overriding stupidity.  It is this side of Harriet that the newest adaptation has highlighted for the most part, and for that I am grateful.

In the aftermath of Elton’s proposal, Harriet is touchingly penitential.  Her words and mannerisms during the lamentation belie not a childish fool, but a disappointed young woman who knows that she should have known better.  Earlier in the episode, her side of the poverty/celibacy/contemptible conversation is solidly in line with the novel, but Emma’s money shot lines don’t make the cut.  Curious.

As for Mr. Elton’s riddles – the girls’ collection is now particularly described as being comprised of  “romantic” pieces.  I didn’t think it was necessary to be that obvious.  If anything, this seemingly minor alteration makes Elton look like less of an insensitive jerkface than Austen seemed to intend.  Novel-Emma wasn’t forcing Harriet to baldly fish for love notes, as it were – rather, Elton was brashly and carelessly exploiting the riddle collection as an opportunity to scattershot impropriety in the girls’ general direction, not taking care to consider that Harriet might misunderstand him.

Aside from Emma’s somewhat obnoxious Frank gushing, I liked the Westons’ Christmas scenes.  Mr. Elton’s esoteric sheepskin comments made the cut – something I can’t recall from the other adaptations.  Like Doug McGrath, Sandy Welch made good use of Elton’s “dreadfully ill-timed civilities” toward Emma, which cause our heroine to miss Mr. Weston’s latest news of Frank Churchill.  The general result was authentic, though the pacing wasn’t nearly as crisp as in the Miramax version.

This John Knightley is sufficiently cynical (“How very cozy we all are!”) and also tremendously ANGRY.  LOL.  At Hartfield, there is the requisite discussion of Cromer, Mr. Wingfield, and Mr. Perry, which allows John opportunity to exhibit the temper which “was not his great perfection.”  However, he is much too combative.  Further, he very purposefully abandon’s Emma to solitude with Elton in the carriage home from the Weston’s, which is inaccurate as well as uncharacteristically malicious.

Isabella is still wrong. WRONG. A simile involving Frank Churchil and a “dog on a lead” lost this characterization all credibility. 😛

I loved the Emma/Knightley/Baby Emma makeup scene.  It establishes tremendous warmth between the characters, while Emma’s contrition proves that her heart is truly in the right place.   Her “Be infinitely cleverer and not half so conceited” line makes it to the screen almost entirely intact.

Though I did enjoy the PORK conversation, Miss Bates’ Yatchfactor is rising. She annoyingly insists very directly that Jane is much prettier than Mrs. Dixon, perhaps suggesting that Mr. Dixon should logically prefer Jane to his wife. I thought that was improper and out of character for the usually generous and solicitous Miss Bates. Further, Jane Fairfax herself almost speaks too much and too earnestly for a person who is “disgustingly” and “suspiciously” reserved. This Jane comes off merely as modest and fed up with her aunt’s constant fawning.

While we don’t get novel-Knightley’s anti-Frank discussion with Emma, we do get some choice lines that echo his sentiments. He remarks that Emma is “always in the company of the prodigal son,” which absolutely cracked me up.

The Coles’ party (and Emma’s egoflap over the invitation which preceeds it) is so far my favorite segment of the entire series, as it allows Mr. Knightley and Emma to have their “nonsensical girl” banter. Emma pointedly exclaims that Knightley’s arrival is that “of a gentleman at last!” His expression as she retreats is mischievous, showing that Mr. Knightley isn’t too much of an old guy to have chemistry with a young woman.

Further, this collection of scenes makes sufficient light of Emma’s distaste for rich, respectable families in “trade.” Still, it doesn’t quite hammer home the irony inherent in such short-sighted, somewhat old-fashioned (for the period), and selective snobbery. As modern people with democratic values, perhaps we don’t really need a lesson in Georgian social and economic virtue to know that Emma is being ridiculous when she puts herself above the Coles, but I am ALWAYS struck by how arbitrarily Emma (in virtually all versions of the story) applies traditional social rules to the people around her. Harriet’s money negates her illegitimacy in Emma’s eyes, for example, and Mr. Weston – who made his money in trade – is unquestionably considered a social peer to the Woodhouses. Yet the Coles – who appear to be as rich as God and as respectible as the Westons – are to Emma scourgey middle-class upstarts. This strikes me as particularly silly because it’s difficult to clearly account for the Woodhouse fortune. In a world where legal tradition dictated that land ownership was the primary measure of ultimate social power (you couldn’t even vote unless you met minimum property requirements), Mr. Woodhouse himself presents a somewhat perplexing case. Unlike Donwell, Hartfield is NOT a large agricultural estate, and Mr. Woodhouse has much in the way of liquid assets. Did most of it come from Emma’s mother? What were Mr. Woodhouse’s particular origins? One can assume that to a great degree, it doesn’t really matter. In the wake of the political philosophies of the Enlightenment, Industrial Revolution-era economic shifts and middle-class investments in the British government and its wartime endeavors meant that “new money” and middle-class values were playing more of a central role in British social culture. Even in Highbury, it seems that all you had to do was buy a house with a bit of space around it to sufficiently legitimize your money.

Random thought. I wonder when we will ever have a true hazel-eyed Emma. I mean, it’s the one and only directly distinguishing feature the author gives us as to the character’s appearance, so…

2 Replies to “Emma in Seattle, Collecting Emma, PLUS Thoughts on Episode 2…”

Leave a Reply