By DAVID CONCEPCION
As this year marks the 200th anniversary since the novel, “Emma,” by Jane Austen, which was published in 1816, Juliette Wells, professor of English and chair of the Department of English at Goucher College in Towson, Md., chose to celebrate with a special themed lecture.
“Emma” is a novel comprised of a tight knit community, and includes social class issues surrounding an independent, rich heroine who is determined to play matchmaker in her small English village. This novel influenced the ways that regency era readers viewed classes, gossip and above all, what a single woman was to do with her life in a masculine world.
On Oct. 20 in Lee Hall 411, Wells gave a lecture about how “Emma” produced an insightful dialogue about English society through a new lens- the history of its publication in America.
Often classified as “chick lit,” a term that defines a novel based solely on its feminine, romantic themes, Austen’s novels have much more to show than courtships and heartbreaks. Throughout the past 200 years, “Emma” has become a part of classic literature as well as a cultural icon, seen in the reimagined 1995 version, “Clueless.”
Professor Marie McAllister, a professor in the Department of English who teaches severalAusten-themed classes, introduced Wells’ as a distinguished Austen scholar and a book detective.
McAllister said that Wells’ research gives today’s readers a better understanding on how readers in 1816 responded to Austen’s sassy novel.
“Juliette Wells has done a lot of work on Austen’s readers, from fans to scholars,” McAllister said, “now her detective work has helped us understand how Emma reached America and how different readers responded to it.”
Wells’ passion and enthusiasm for Austen was seen throughout her thorough research and travels while searching for the first American edition of an Austen novel.
In the 19th century, there were no international copyright laws to stop countries from publishing international editions of a book, and it was only by chance that “Emma” fell into the hands of an American publisher, Mathew Carey.
Known as the “Philadelphia Emma,” only six copies of the edition were originally published, making it rarer than the existing 238 editions of Shakespeare’s “First Folio” or even the 11 editions of “Bay Psalm Book.”
Her lecture about the Philadelphia edition of “Emma” provided an informative look on how it became popular around the world in the following years, from Sweden to Japan. While showing the audience the various covers adorning editions of “Emma” all around the globe, Wells’ reactions ranged from praise to annoyance.
Passion for the book’s cover art was also discussed, and occurred when she showed the beautiful gilded etching on many of the calfskin bindings, showcasing how highly the previous owners regarded Austen’s fourth novel.
Wells also spent time criticizing an illustration inside an edition that depicted the relationship between the character Emma and her father as comfortable. “The relationship between Emma and her father is often troubling to 21st century readers, it is controlling, confining for Emma, [and] this picture takes it to a different direction,” Wells said.
Today, many academics question the seemingly oppressive relationship between Emma and her father, since their relationship remains center stage throughout its entirety. Rachel Ewalt, a senior English and environmental science major, said that the event was not what she had expected, but found the historical context interesting.
“It wasn’t quite what I had expected; I was expecting more of a criticism of Emma,” Ewalt said. “It was very interesting about hearing about the backstory of how the books were made.”
Although Wells’ lecture was not centered on the content of the novel, she emphasized the influence that Austen has maintained in pop culture even hundreds of years after her death, and the publication of “Emma.” From modernized film versions to fan fiction, Austen’s “Emma” is still relevant to today’s readers 200 years later.