Holiday Austen

“Do You See What I See?”: Christmas Scenes in Douglas McGrath’s and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma

The integration of the holiday season and all things Jane Austen might appear the doing of popular retellings. But many of Jane Austen’s contemporaries were probably reading Emma on Christmas and the days following the holiday given the novel’s publication on December 23rd, 1815. Although the overlap of the holiday and the novel’s publication is accidental, Christmas is mentioned eleven times throughout the narrative and key plot turns occur during and immediately after the Christmas party at Randalls. In fact, while we often turn to the novel’s opening to recite the famous first line which lists everything that Emma is—“handsome, clever, and rich” —and has—”a comfortable home,” a “happy disposition,” and “very little to distress or vex her” —the paragraphs that follow focus on what she is losing, namely, her friend and governess, Ms. Taylor, and what she has already lost, her sister’s companionship. And it is only the thought of Christmas that curtails Emma’s sorrow as the narrator introduces her protagonist.

The holiday promises to close the distance between Emma and Isabella and, albeit momentarily, disrupt what the narrator implies is an otherwise monotonous life at Hartfield: Christmas will bring Isabella, her husband, and their children “to fill the house, and give her pleasant society again” (Vol. I, Ch. 1). However, Christmas turns out to be a vexing holiday. At the Weston’s party, Emma finds out that Frank Churchill’s arrival remains uncertain. Then, when Mr. Elton uses an adventitious moment alone with her in the carriage (always a threatening setting for a young woman if she’s accompanied by the wrong man) to make his drunken advances and propose, Emma’s sense of command over herself and her community comes undone. In the aftermath, she is forced to acknowledge her poor judgement and apologizes to Harriet Smith, whose own prospects of marriage she might have permanently ruined.

Although festive, Christmas is a season of atonement for Emma. At the same time, the season furthers the main marriage plot as Emma and Knightley begin to move their relationship away from the fraternal and closer to the romantic. The growing flame between them promises to be stoked by Churchill’s arrival.  Emma’s short-lived infatuation with the duplicitous heir allows her to mature into Knightley’s wife. In other words, Christmas represents a crucial turn in the novel’s main marriage plot, subplots, and the heroine’s development. Its relevance prompted us to ask how Douglas McGrath’s Emma (1996) and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma. (2020) address the key turns in their contrasting adaptations. 

We found that in both movies, Christmas scenes and motifs foreground the underlying tensions of the story. For instance, as Abigail Kunkel noted, Douglas McGrath frames his adaptation with a spinning Christmas ornament that depicts the residents of Highbury. Emma gifts the ornament to the new Mrs. Weston on her wedding day thereby linking Christmas and romance from the film’s outset. But it is also suggestive of Emma’s often ornamental role in her father’s life and in the community at large. In addition, the globe underscores the small scale of her social sphere. The short essays we hereby present focus on how each adaptation represents precisely these matters of community, family, and marriage. We hope they provide you with some holiday diversion. Thank you for reading and Happy Holidays!

The globe ornament gifted by Emma to Mrs. Weston in Douglas McGrath's 1996 adaptation.

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