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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

False advertising?

Like many Janeites, I know scattered bits of Austen by heart. I can proclaim the first sentences of Pride and Prejudice and Emma, recite Wentworth’s letter to Anne Elliot (swoon), or offer up the odd zinger from the lips of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Bennet, or Henry Tilney.

But I was suitably impressed a few weeks ago when I came across a Guardian Q&A with the British writer Katherine Rundell that was headlined “My party trick is knowing Jane Austen’s Emma off by heart.”

Now, that is quite a party trick. Online calculations vary slightly but generally suggest that Emma, Austen’s longest novel, clocks in at something like 156,000-160,000 words—shorter than the last four Harry Potter books, but about twice as long as, say, The Picture of Dorian Gray or The Catcher in the Rye. It’s a capacious memory indeed that can proceed unchecked from “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich. . .” all the way to “. . . the perfect happiness of the union.”

And once you read past the headline, it doesn’t appear that Rundell’s memory is quite that capacious after all.

Under the heading “My comfort read,” here’s what she actually says about Emma: “When the world looks bleak and chaotic, I read Jane Austen’s Emma. It’s my favourite book. I’ve never ceased to find it perfect; so funny, so sharp, and every reading offers something new: a new patterning, a new joke. My party trick is that if you read me one line, I can usually tell you the next (this is not a party trick that is in great demand).”

So, that headline is a tad misleading, albeit not as misleading as suggesting that Jane Austen's birthplace is on the market. Rundell doesn't, after all, quite know Emma by heart. But hey--good enough, especially from someone who seems to truly appreciate the novel’s greatness! A party trick not in great demand? Clearly, Rundell has been going to the wrong kind of party.


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