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Cardiff BookTalk: Jane Austen

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Jane Austen’s Emma

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BookTalk is delighted that Jane Austen's Emma will be the focus of our December 2020 event. Whether you know the novel in detail, or have never read this classic before, we invite you to join us for a lively discussion. Unlike Emma’s father the hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse, we do not need to fear snow or other treacherous weather conditions as we gather this winter, as you can join us from the comfort of your own home on Zoom. Enjoy three talks by expert speakers and then listen to further reflections on Austen’s work and submit your own questions. Perhaps earlier this year you watched the 2020 film adaptation of Emma directed by Autumn de Wilde, which presented the story clearly as a comedy rather than a drama – this new interpretation of Emma Woodhouse’s Highbury will be up for discussion, too.

Emma is introduced to us at the start of Austen’s beloved novel as ‘handsome, clever, and rich […] [she] had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’. Although ‘It is truth universally acknowledged…’ might remain Austen’s most famous opening sentence, it is the start of this 1815 work Emma, which followed the publication of Pride and Prejudice in 1813, that provides an indication of the text’s ground-breaking literary qualities. As Professor John Mullan has written:

'The narrative [in Emma] was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf.'

Here is a revolutionary novel that showcases Austen’s incredible talent. Amongst other qualities, readers might well ask: how does Austen sustain interest and intrigue when choosing an arguably selfish and deluded young woman, an anti-hero, as a protagonist? Like Elizabeth Bennett before her, Emma Woodhouse is keen to assert her own views in a society where women are often silenced. But unlike Lizzy, perhaps the quintessential Austen heroine, with Emma, it is more difficult to agree with her somewhat over-confident, overbearing and snobby ways.

This side of Emma is crucial to mention, because it is a very different tale than perhaps the more famous Austen works of Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility (1811). Austen herself wrote of Emma: ‘I am going to take a heroine whom noone but myself will much like’. Therefore, this protagonist and the narrative presentation of the text must be approached in a unique way, even if the setting of ‘three or four families in a country village’ (that’s a witty comment direct from Austen herself on the subject of a good novel) might appear parallel to her other works. And all this before we even start to discuss Mr Knightley, an Austen hero who again presents a specific and different depiction of early nineteenth-century masculinity.

The talks will focus on the novel in a variety of ways. In Emma, Austen’s characters famously travel infrequently. But the text itself travelled from the first year of publication, and more recent screen versions travel the globe; Gillian Dow will think about Emma abroad. Anthony Mandal will talk about Emma and Englishness, and Mariam Wassif will focus on the Greek myth of Pygmalion and relations of power in the novel.

About the speakers:

Gillian Dow (University of Southampton) specialises in the work of British women writers and translation in the 1750-1830 period. Her research interests include Jane Austen and contemporary literature and culture, and in the rise of the novel in the long 18th century more generally. She has worked closely with Chawton House Library.

Anthony Mandal (Cardiff University) has written books and essays on Jane Austen, the gothic, print culture and contemporary fiction. He is also interested in book history and digital humanities, and is the Director of the Centre for Editorial and Intertextual Research at Cardiff University.

Mariam Wassif received her PhD from Cornell University in 2018 with a specialisation in British and French literature of the long eighteenth century. She is currently a postdoc at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, studying notions of beauty, artifice, and style in literature and material culture around 1800.

Each of our speakers will present a 10-15 minute talk, and then there is an opportunity for audience questions and discussion.

PLEASE NOTE: This event will be recorded

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