ON the latest count there were over 650 Cambridge Companions, 364 of them falling under the umbrella of ‘Literature and Classics’. Most of these are general introductions to a period, genre, or author but there are four volumes which each concentrate on a single text. There is a Cambridge Companion to Paradise Lost (one can perceive the usefulness), one to To the Lighthouse (a less obvious choice), one for Pride and Prejudice, and this one, for Emma. These last two are in addition to the Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen and Austen remains to date the only author to have had three separate Cambridge Companions devoted to her. Even the most fervent admirer of the divine Jane might experience a qualm at the cultural equivalence thus unintentionally implied between a single Austen novel and—say—‘Canadian literature’, which likewise merits one Cambridge Companion volume. Still, Austen sells, and sells widely, and even university presses cannot ignore the market. The Cambridge Companions to both Pride and Prejudice and Emma were timed to coincide with the bicentenaries of the publications of their respective texts, in what is an unusually calculated move for an academic press. Putting questions of calculation and bottom lines to one side, there is much to admire about The Cambridge Companion to Emma. The editor, Peter Sabor, has collected a stellar international line up of contributors; indeed, when the contributor lists for the three Austen Cambridge Companion volumes are put together, they read like a Who’s Who of nearly every prominent academic who has published in the field in the past twenty years. The further reading list includes everything you would want to direct a student to. Several of the chapters succeed in the ne plus ultra of combining useful surveys of a particular aspect of the novel (or its reception) with insightful, suggestive analysis, couched in an accessible and unintimidating style; others fall short, however. The book consists of a short preface by Sabor, and twelve individually-authored chapters, none of them lengthy. Sabor suggests that the chapters can be collected into five groupings and he is probably right; in spite of the focus on just the one novel, and the best efforts of some of the contributors, the volume lacks an overall sense of cohesion. There is an inconsistency of tone and of expected audience. There are also—as other reviewers have remarked—noticeable lacunae. The first grouping of chapters is the least successful, if we consider who the Cambridge Companions are for—the engaged but as-yet unskilled or uninformed reader. Logical as it is to begin with Jan Fergus’ chapter on the composition and publication of the novel, the material, of its nature, does not make for an easy read. Fergus’ slightly combative engagement with Kathryn Sutherland’s work may also make an inexperienced reader uneasy and should, perhaps, have been more overtly addressed. Bharat Tandon’s contribution on the literary context also risks confusion. Discussion of other work by Austen is relevant, and readily justifiable, even in so short a piece; Tandon’s choice to include half a page on Dickens’ boyhood reading while not even mentioning a text like The Romance of the Forest, explicitly referred to in Emma, is less so. The piece is interesting, but it is a little missold here. Nor does the third chapter (on the historical context, written by Jonathan Sachs) evince much more concern for the needs and expectations of the reader. Sachs makes little or no attempt to tease out even the most famous of the novel’s glancing historical references (that ‘fling at the slave trade’), instead pondering what context is, anyway, and whether it might not ‘simply be a distraction from more timeless themes and issues’ (39). A student is likely to want some guidance on the temporal setting of the novel, (not entirely straightforward, and not forthcoming), and on precisely those social norms and conventions which Sachs questions the necessity of understanding. The next chapter—Robert Hume, on money and rank—offers a brisk, informative trot through some helpful facts, figures, and critical texts, a corrective to the blunter Marxist analysis which lingers on. Edward Copeland’s summary of ‘contemporary’ (pre-1870) critical responses to Emma is extensive, although not every reference he identifies as appearing in later fiction is equally plausible. Linda Bree focuses on style, structure, and language, and John Wiltshire on the heroine herself. However, if both these chapters showcase the strengths and merits of close-reading, Janine Barchas’ chapter on setting and community, which follows, shows the risks. Bree and Wiltshire’s detailed explorations illuminate the novel; Barchas at one point argues, reasonably convincingly, that Austen has deliberately sited her fictional Highbury inside what were once the grounds of Nonsuch Palace, but without ever showing why it matters. Ruth Perry, on music, and Jillian Heydt-Stevenson, on games and charades, foreground apparently minor elements of the text, to daring interpretative effect. Both are helpful and suggestive for readers. The final chapters concerning the afterlives of the novel operate by way of conclusion, Gillian Dow dealing with translations, and Deirdre Shauna Lynch with visual-media adaptations. These chapters, too, are insightful, detailed, even enjoyable. At its best, The Cambridge Companion to Emma covers vast amounts of ground with lightness and liveliness, offering the reader the information they need in the way that they need it. Its weaknesses are those which often, perhaps inevitably, crop up in multi-authored works involving the bigger academic names; there are hobbyhorses insufficiently controlled, personal intellectual tangents pursued at the expense of relevance (for the reader, at least). This is a valuable volume, but it is a companion to the novel rather than a guide or a handbook, and, like Emma herself, its preoccupations and viewpoint cannot always be wholly relied upon. © The Author(s) (2018). Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes and Queries – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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