Some years ago (too many to mention, I fear), I was the enfant terrible at the Ursuline Academy of the Sacred Heart and Sister Frances Therese, our English teacher, was the formidable éminence noire who gave out the obligatory Jane Austen assignment. Youve all seen that assignment, or perhaps you have given it: compare-and-contrast blah blah blah. For a dreamy fourteen-year-old intent on running away with Fitzwilliam Darcy, it was one thing to read Austens novels and to visit Pemberley with Elizabeth or to eat strawberries with Mr. Knightley; but it was quite another thing to write a comparison-contrast essay on my favorite author for a grade. I cant quite remember the details of the assignment, but I do remember the fundamental thesis of my paper.
I blush to admit itand admitting to this jejune essay is something I have never done in printbut I compared Elizabeth Bennet to one of the popular cultural icons of the time: Gidget. My character delineations were bold; my comparisons of Elizabeth and Gidget outrageous; my linking of the social landscape of the Meryton marriage market with the Southern California surfing scene something I can only vaguely defend today. But after reading this collection of papers about how Jane Austens Emma translates to film, I decided that I was on to something big even then.
The essays that make up this collection of Occasional Papers: Emma on Film confirm yet again that Austens characters and situations transcend time and cultural barriers. As readers and viewers, we never tire of re-visioning the novelsof seeing such characters as Emma and Harriet and Miss Bates played by a variety of actorsand of debating the results of the film-makers art. We like to see how a director depicts the libraries and drawing rooms and other interiors that we can see in the minds eye. We worry about whether the exterior landscapes of Highbury will match up to the images we have created and lived with for so long. If the cinematic re-creations of the novel remind us that we see the things we read in different ways, the papers included in this collection remind us that we even see the things we see in different ways.
Luckily, my high school English teacher (who always reminded me of Mr. Bennet) tolerated most of my literary aberrations. Sister Frances Therese laughed when she read how I had recast my heroine Eliza Bennet as a thoroughly modern ingénueor perhaps it was a nervous snort that covered her questions about my futureand I laughed whenlike helloI saw Clueless. And even though Amy Heckerling and Andrew Davies and Douglas McGrath are raking in the royalties, I can live with that. These writers and directions were bold enough to envision new and diverse ways for readers and viewers to "see" Jane Austen's Emma and her society.