Friday, July 24, 2015


Yeah, that was the perfect name for the translation of Emma to the contemporary world of Alicia Silverstone’s movie. Emma is clueless about what makes Robert Martin a worthy man. She’s clueless about what makes Mr Elton an unworthy man. She’s clueless about what she does to Harriet. Above all, she’s clueless about both the qualities and the affections of Mr Knightley. Not that she’s as ignorant or air-headed as Silverstone’s Cher. Emma understands much of human natures and thinks carefully and analytically about herself and her friends. It’s just that she starts with pet premisses and then can’t ever let them go.

But worse is her penchant for meddling and her occasional thoughtlessness. I cringe when she nearly ruins Harriet’s best chance for happiness, and her insult to Miss Bates is excruciating to read. In some ways, she’s the least likeable of the Austen heroines. But then she sees the error of her ways in the end and actually repents, and if she hadn’t done so many terrible things, we shouldn’t care so much about that repentance.

My favorite aspect of the book this time through was the deft way in which Austen handled all the misunderstandings. Chapter after chapter, she gives her characters lines that very naturally express exactly what the speaker wants to say and yet very naturally sound to the hearers as if they mean something completely different. What a tour de force!

Once a year in first-year music theory, I find one opportunity, when some melody or chord progression or key scheme that we’re studying resolves to C, to say, “That’s right, it goes to C. Just like the third son in a Jane Austen family.” The class is silent but attentive. They know there’s a joke in there somewhere, but they don’t get it yet. After a moment I explain: “You know. The first one gets the estate, the second one goes into the church, and the third one goes to sea.”

I’ll make a paragraph break to leave readers an appropriate amount of time for laughter.

Now, I’ve done this schtick for at least twenty-five years. And for the first twenty-four of those years, I got the same response: continued silence from most of the class, but giggles and groans from several girls and, usually, one guy. That’s OK. I like strengthening a bond with an elite few, and I get to make a pitch for one of my favorite authors to the students who haven’t read her. But this last year, the class gave me nothing at either stage of the routine; they didn’t laugh at the set-up before the pause, and they didn’t laugh after the pun was revealed. So I asked them, as usual, who had read any Jane Austen. Again, for twenty-four years, I had received an encouraging response: several students always attested that they had read some Austen, and they agreed with me that the books are as wonderful as books can be. But this year, only one student had read any (or was willing to admit to it), and he (that it was a “he” only added to the string of surprises) only shrugged his assessment. Ahí, caso acerbo! Another treasure of civilization gone from the consciousness of our youth!

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