Bicentenary celebration of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’

The 200th anniversary of Emma, one of Jane Austen’s most popular novels, is being marked with a special exhibition at Chawton House Library in Hampshire – supported by the University of Southampton.

Emma at 200: from English Village to Global Appeal, celebrates the global nature of the novel, its reception through the centuries and its enduring popularity.

Jane Austen wrote and revised some of her most famous works, including Emma, while living in a cottage in the village of Chawton near Alton, making frequent visits to the neighbouring Chawton House, owned by her brother Edward Knight.

Executive Director of Chawton House Library and University of Southampton Associate Professor in English, Dr Gillian Dow, is curator of the exhibition. She comments: “Jane Austen’s Emma is often considered to be the most ‘accomplished’ of her novels, and it’s the one that is truly inspired by her setting of ‘three or four families in a country village’.”

It has been suggested that Donwell Abbey in Emma was modelled on Chawton House and that the book’s fictional village of Highbury was based in part on nearby Alton.

Among the many items on display in the exhibition is an English first edition of the novel, alongside a first edition from America and a first French translation – both published in 1816. The book has since been translated into numerous languages worldwide.

Dr Dow says: “Many people are surprised that England’s Jane Austen was published in countries beyond England in her own lifetime – she had no idea, of course, that Emma was in Paris booksellers in 1816. Certainly her popularity accelerated in the 20th and 21st century making Jane Austen the global phenomenon she is today. I am delighted to be organising and hosting this exhibition to help reflect this novel’s impact worldwide.”

Another fascinating item on display is an original letter of 1850 from Charlotte Brontë (born 1816, the year of publication of Emma) giving her critique of Emma. Literature referenced in the novel, such as by contemporary authors Ann Radcliffe and Maria Roche, will also feature, along with a manuscript music book – one of 18 in the Austen Family Music Books – a collection of albums containing around 600 scores that belonged Jane and her relations.

Emma was the first of Austen’s books to be released by John Murray (II), a high profile English publisher of the time whose authors included Byron, Sir Walter Scott (Rob Roy) and Washington Irving (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow). Part of the exhibition highlights other women authors published by Murray, including some of his correspondence with them.

Emma at 200 at Chawton House Library runs until Sunday 25 September, 2016.