Today in Literary History – December 23, 1815 – Jane Austen’s Emma is published

Jane Austen’s Emma was first published on December 23, 1815 (although the copyright says 1816). It was the last novel she published before her death in 1817. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were both posthumously published in 1818.

The title character of the novel is Emma Woodhouse, a pretty and intelligent 20-year-old woman who is also headstrong and rather flighty. Austen said she wanted to write a heroine “whom no one but myself will much like.”

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Emma has vowed not to marry and spends much of the novel trying her hand at matchmaking among her friends with dismal results. It’s hardly a plot spoiler to say that by the end of the novel Emma herself has fallen in love.

Jane Austen was a shrewd businessperson. She didn’t like the offer her publisher (who had published her earlier Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park) made to her for Emma, so she had 2,000 copies of the three volume book printed at her own expense.

Emma gained mostly favourable reviews, although some critics complained of a lack of a plot. It sold well in Britain and later in America and in a French translation.

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Austen dedicated Emma to the Prince Regent (the future King George IV) who expressed appreciation for her previous novels.

There have been many stage adaptations and television films and mini-sieries of the novel. A movie version in 1996 starred Gwyneth Paltrow as Emma. A modern take on the book, Clueless, came out in 1995.

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