They call themselves—proudly, affectionately and, perhaps, with a wink—Janeites: the 5,000 members of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA), whose devotion to the works and life of the late-18th/early-19th century English novelist borders on the obsessive. And each year since 1979, the Janeites, with representatives from the society’s 75-plus U.S. and Canadian chapters (including one in Maryland), convene for their Annual General Meeting (AGM)— part literary conference, part toasting of the author and part dress-up party—all of them under the spell of their heroine, who, in her short life (she died in 1817 at 41), wrote only six major novels. But, oh, those books—Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Emma, among them—possess staying power, and have inspired both literary and cinematic adaptations.
“Readers are drawn to Austen’s writings by her wit and humor, her incredibly creative use of language, her recognizable characters, her insight into human nature, her delineation of family and social dynamics, and her conveyance of a very particular historical world,” notes Juliette Wells, the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Associate Professor of English at Goucher College, and the author of Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination (2011) and the editor of a 200th-anniversary edition of Emma (2015) for Penguin Classics.
Count Wells among the 850 Janeites who will converge on Washington, D.C., this month for the 2016 annual meeting. This year’s theme: “Emma at 200.” In fact, Wells will deliver one of three keynote speeches: “My talk concentrates on the first publication of an Austen novel in the United States—an 1816 Philadelphia printing of Emma, of which only six copies survive, one of them at Goucher.” (The school’s library maintains an extensive Jane Austen collection.) Published in 1816, the novel chronicles the exploits of Emma Woodhouse, who busies herself stage-directing the lives of others.
“Emma is the fourth novel that Austen published and the last that she saw through to press before her death, meaning that it was published in exactly the form that she approved,” Wells explains. “She was at the top of her game as a novelist. I’ve taught and written about Emma for years, but rereading it very slowly as I was preparing my new edition gave me a whole new appreciation for Austen.”
In addition to the trio of keynote addresses, AGM attendees can avail themselves of scholarly breakout sessions and workshops, special events (“Dining with Jane Austen,” for one) and, not incidentally, the annual Regency Ball, with period music (piano, flute, fiddle, concertina, bassoon), dancing (English country style) and attire (petticoats, gowns and mules for the ladies; ruffled shirts, boots and top hats for the men).
“I’ve been attending AGMs since 2001,” says Wells, “and the number of people in Regency dress has steadily increased year by year. I have yet to don a gown myself, but I did wear men’s clothing two years ago to portray Sir Thomas Bertram of Mansfield Park. I quite enjoyed the frock coat and breeches.”
Emma’s Best Selves
We asked Goucher College prof and Jane Austen expert Juliette Wells to weigh in on what she considers the most noteworthy Emma adaptations for the screen and page:
+ Director/screenwriter Amy Heckerling’s 1995 film “Clueless,” which updates Emma to Beverly Hills, is controversial among some Austen purists, but I really like it—Heckerling gets the wit and wordplay just right, and Alicia Silverstone is delightful as the Emma character.
+ The YouTube series “Emma Approved” (2013-2014) brings the characters even closer to our own time, again in an American setting; the casting of Joanna Sotomura, a multiracial actress, as Emma is especially inspired.
+ For self-titled period-dress productions, Gwyneth Paltrow’s feature-film performance as Emma (1996) shows the regal side of the heroine, while Kate Beckinsale’s in the 1996 British TV movie plays up imagination, and Romola Garai’s in the 2009 British TV miniseries emphasizes beauty, both of person and of setting.
+ In the realm of fiction, Alexander McCall Smith’s 2015 novel Emma: A Modern Retelling thoughtfully treats the supporting characters of Mr. Woodhouse and Miss Taylor.