Like Mansfield Park, the novel that precedes it, Emma is a closely defended study of English life. Begun, according to Cassandra Austen’s chronology of her sister’s compositions, 21 January 1814, before the Fall of Paris and Napoleon’s exile to Elba, it was completed on 29 March 1815, just months before the battle of Waterloo (June 1815) and Napoleon’s second and final abdication. It was published in late December 1815. Where Mansfield Park is a novel about searching for and finding home, Emma examines in minute detail the close-knit neighbourhood that is home. It is about the importance of being known – to others and to oneself – and about the small imbalances that jeopardize that knowledge: whether in the shape of a handsome stranger, a vulgar new bride, or a gypsy encampment that encroaches too close to town. At the novel’s heart lies Donwell Abbey, Mr Knightley’s estate, whose ‘sweet view – sweet to the eye and the mind’ and ‘English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun, bright without being oppressive’ (vol. 3, ch. 6) provide a moral and, in 1815, a patriotic perspective upon this local knowledge.
Those who went to war in 1914-18 did so under the long shadow cast by Waterloo, and in defense of what Edward Thomas, in an essay entitled ‘England’ (The English Review, April 1915), described as ‘the minute neighbouring points of home.’ It was now in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement, 6 January 1916, that the plantsman and traveller Reginald Farrer proposed a centenary edition of Jane Austen’s novels (she had died in July 1817) as a fitting means to pay off a portion of England’s ‘national debt’ to her, and suggested that it be associated with a fund in her name for the support of retired governesses, the Miss Taylors and Jane Fairfaxes of Emma and the new century. He signed his letter as from ‘Ingleborough, Yorkshire’ and ‘the Valley of Rocks and Wolves, Tibet’. In 1917-18, Robert W. Chapman, a commissioned officer, like Thomas, in the Royal Garrison Artillery, was serving in Macedonia and in off-duty moments preparing Mansfield Park and Emma as Oxford schools’ editions. It was a project conceived, before the outbreak of war, with his wife, the former Katharine Metcalfe, whose Pride and Prejudice of 1912 provided a model.
Some of the notes for their joint enterprise survive among Chapman’s papers in the Bodleian Library, Oxford. The to and fro of their correspondence, between Oxford and the Balkans, is a tribute to the speed, efficiency, and surprising contents of the military mail bags criss-crossing war-torn Europe, when the Army Post Office provided a service as vital to their editorial conversations as the post office proves to the plot of Emma.
‘The post-office is a wonderful establishment!’ said [Jane Fairfax].—‘The regularity and dispatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!’ (vol. 2, ch. 16).
Chapman had by him, in his Macedonian posting, Emma in E. V. Lucas’s World’s Classics edition of 1907. He read its text for likely misprints, made annotations, and sent the material back to Katharine in Oxford. She checked his queries against the first-edition text of the novel, completed any references he could not find, sent the results of her researches, together with more queries, back to Macedonia for further development and, with the final draft back in Oxford, submitted copy to the printer. Few of their working papers are dated, and those that have occasionally been ordered conjecturally and much later from memory in 1938-9, when they were rather randomly archived. But in sending the final copy of the Emma notes, Chapman was more careful: ‘If any of the Emma notes go West’, he wrote, ‘you must tell me the notes you do receive by the page-number of Worlds Classics; that will tell me what is missing’ (Bodley MS. Eng. Misc. c. 925 f. 145).
The edition was never published. At a late stage in June 1918, it fell victim to the war and the shortage of materials and workers in the OUP print shop. But the Macedonian notes remain, filed away as ‘Notes for a School Edition (abortive) of Emma (written in a troop train?)’ (Bodley MS. Eng. Misc. c. 924 f. 7). Chapman’s 1923 edition of the Novels of Jane Austen resituated effort in a grander project closer to Farrer’s imagining. By coincidence, a year later, in Kipling’s short story ‘The Janeites’ (1924), a wounded tommy, the sole survivor of his bombed out trench, is denied a bed on an overloaded hospital-train until his chance remark on the resemblance between a talkative nurse and Emma’s Highbury neighbour Miss Bates works like a spell, securing him the last stretcher place back to safety and home.
Featured image credit: ‘Mount Korab, Republic of Macedonia’ by Don macdone. CC BY via Wikimedia Commons