The Private Reception of Emma: “Opinions of Emma”

It appears that Austen kept handwritten records of the opinions of certain readers on Emma, whether they were conveyed to her verbally or through writing, directly or through secondary sources. There are clues that Austen was occasionally personally acquainted with several of these reviewers through the way she presented each opinion. At times, she encloses the reader’s response in quotations, which suggest a personal reception of the review, in other instances, she specifies that an individual “wrote” their reaction. Additionally, we observed that many of the readers mentioned Austen’s other published works, “P.&P.”, “S.&S.”, and “MP”, leading us to question whether Austen considered only reviews by those who had read her other novels, or if only those who had read her other works were likely to give a review. While we are unsure of how she decided which reviews to include, we can see that Austen was interested in honest reviews, as she chose to record both praise and critique made on Emma.

It is also interesting to note that many of the reviews noted by Austen contained mostly references to “Characters.” Certain characters are mentioned more than others, with many readers responding positively to the implicitly entertaining portrayals of Mrs. Elton, Miss Bates, or even of Emma! In this way, Austen’s first readers may differ from present day readers, as we have a tendency today to judge a fictional character based on our subjective preferences for certain personality traits, whereas it seems that readers in Austen’s time might have considered the character’s likeability in terms of their entertainment and literary value in the context of the narrative. Even if the character is completely odious at times, readers seem to appreciate their role as important to the enjoyment of the plot.

In terms of how such responses might relate to the novel’s thematic concerns with reading, we recognized that Austen’s record keeping of reviews is reminiscent of Harriet and Emma’s handmade, handwritten quarto collection of riddles and poetry, which were also contributed by outside sources. Perhaps Austen discovered a similar sense of enjoyment in writing down and privately rereading reviews of her novels.

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