I have been lying on the beach thinking about the lovely girlfriends I have called Emma. They are, it has to be said, thoroughly good eggs - exceptional lasses in countless ways who I’m lucky to have in my life.
I can say the same about fabulous women with many names... but after noticing this comparison I realised I also feel quite a deal of affection for literary heroines and actresses called Emma. So, writer that I am, I got to thinking about whether a name might inspire a person to be a certain way?
A name certainly affects, I think, the way an author feels about her character... or how could Jane Austen have crafted such a perfect curve of personality and plot development for her Emma? And similarly couldn’t parents and teachers respond to children differently depending upon their fondness for a name?
So perhaps you’ll allow me to disagree with Shakespeare’s Juliet who famously said:What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
She was, after all, hopelessly in love with a stupidly cute Latin boy. And I rather fancy the idea that if you are called Emma you are more likely to be intelligent, generous, interested, loving, open, kind, motivated, practical and... special.
It may be a generational thing, perhaps Elizabeth or Mary were the fabulous girls half a century ago? Or maybe I’m simply too inclined to make connections between odd and disparate things? It has been said. But to that I reply: isn’t that how one weaves a story? And isn’t that, in fact, how we live and view our lives? Read my blogs if you don’t believe me... or my soon to be published book (watch this space).
However, before I go on with this theme, I must give immediate credit to Samantha Ellis for her book How To Be A Heroine. In this book Samantha goes back over her reading life to draw all sorts of comparisons between her literary heroines, highlighting how they have impacted on her life, and that’s what inspired me to think about my Emma friends. Anyone with any serious interest in English Literature, storytelling, the development of characters, narrative and feminism should read Samantha’s charming work. Its premise is hugely imaginative and its research far reaching. The author does not waste a single word or illusion, and there are so many familiar connections and satisfying new allusions that I found it thoroughly entertaining and stimulating. I even read in this exploratory work a reference to a man I have kissed (passionately) and a place in Tuscany I had a particular romance. Who would have thought? Yet even without these personal parallels, I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone interested in female characters and the building of meaningful literary and dramatic themes. Thank you Samantha! Maybe you’re leading a trend for Samantha to be the next ‘special name’.
Anyway, with that as background, I’ll flatter Samantha further by imitating her fascination with a fiction-life crossover... and allow Jane Austen’s Emma to supply my benchmark. I always do write arts-life crossover stories in this blog (as opposed to reviews) so I hope Samantha won’t mind.
Austen’s Emma is described as having a bright and happy disposition. That is just as I’d describe the Emmas in my life. Emma Woodhouse is known for being exceptionally pretty; as are my friends Emma G, Emma H and Emma W. Austen’s Emma takes special care of her friends and family, going out of her way to make herself available to them, and in this my friends definitely resemble her. The comparison remains true in so far as my girlfriends and our literary heroine take active steps to help the people they love achieve their ambitions, and empathise sincerely when plans or aspirations do not blossom as hoped.
My general sense is that an Emma is a no-nonsense type of girl, who is always there for you, gets a job done, and is down-to-earth and classy at the same time. Emma laughs and loves, thinks and reflects, without being fussy or heavy. She has brains and practicality, is a sensible, gentle and caring person without being overly-sentimental. In particular, the light and warmth which infuses Emma’s courage and humanity is no less sure for being under-the-radar.
Even my muse for this story, Samantha Ellis, has a best friend called Emma who sounds like my clever girlfriends. And you can’t ignore the fabulous Emma Thompson for a role model can you? I saw her in Sweeney Todd recently at the ENO singing and commanding the stage with Bryn Terfel as if she was born to play Mrs Lovett (yes, of course I was jealous). When I played Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing some years ago, I couldn’t watch her tremendous film with Kenneth Branagh again until the season was over, because I knew damn well I didn’t have a hope in hell of playing it any better (hey, I’d have settled for half so well, and I’m usually ambitious with standards).
Back to Jane Austen: Do my Emmas live on an enormous country estate? Do they set me up with the wrong man and then realise they have to apologise? Do they mock the maiden aunt for talking too much, or marry their next-door neighbour after years of not noticing they were in love? No; not so far. So I won’t draw the comparison literally. Yet the qualities established above serve sufficiently well to highlight that the name and character of Emma appear to come with many delightful attributes. Let me show you.
Emma G is a remarkably centred, informed twenty-something who is lots of fun and wonderful company at a dinner party or on a holiday. We worked together on the Olympics and have grown increasingly close ever since. She is as happy debating the politics of the day as she is sitting in a wine bar chatting with unexpected eccentric characters, cooking a cheesecake, navigating her Boris bike across London (I find this very impressive), absorbing the architectural feats of La Sacrada Familia, or unpacking the mysteries of a play or contentious media article. Smart, that’s what she is, and exquisitely modern – neither of which take away from her sincere social values or physical beauty. I love that with Emma G we can switch from laughter and flippancy to serious feminist dialogue without missing a beat. She can also remind me, when I need to hear it, that true feminism is not just about being strong or brave or fighting hard to resist paternalistic limitations, it’s about not letting men shape the argument or dilute our ability to view our life (our choices and feelings) in a way which is uniquely feminine or, more importantly, true to ourselves. (That’s what Samantha Ellis refers to, cleverly, as ‘defining yourself’ rather than allowing anyone else to do it for you.)
Recently I was telling Emma G about a niggling sensation I had over an encounter with a certain man, a negative feeling, and she pulled me up short because my story had started with a positive perspective: “hey, don’t let his reaction shape the way you view what happened... who cares what he thinks... you work out what you think and stick with that”. How could you not love her?! Equally, Emma sometimes tells me I’m brave and adventurous and that when she’s older she wants to be like me... and though I’m sure she’ll be far more accomplished and amazing in her own way by then (she already is) her validation never fails to hearten me. Female friendship and respect is so precious.
Emma H is also smart and wise. She can google, gather and forward relevant information faster than anyone I know and I only wish I was currently running a company so I could employ her. She seems to have a ‘bullshit detector’ which allows her to navigate around rubbish and stay focused on the important things, and in this she is immeasurably practical and positive. She is non-judgemental and gentle too, her strength quiet and unassuming. We met on a yacht in Greece when unexpectedly forced to share a bed... and it could have gone so horribly wrong if she’d been a snorer or a wriggler... I confess I wriggle after a few wines... but she stayed on her side of the small, odd-shaped bunk without a moment’s discomfort or inconvenience. Seriously, how can any stranger be that easy to get on with in such intimate circumstances? But that’s Emma H - she’s a no fuss girl, while still being hugely sensitive and mature (again beyond her years).
I was in a funk not long ago after a particularly lovely man caused me a considerable amount of pain (not because he’s not a nice guy, but because sometimes people’s needs just don’t align), and I was desperate to jump on a plane and get the hell out of London. However it was school holidays and flights were exorbitant. What did Emma H do, she simply offered me her (and her partner’s) car to go exploring in the UK instead. She knows me, she knew I needed movement to begin the ‘letting go’ and refocusing process, and she offered as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I feel compelled to make an Emma Thompson comparison here – in her role as Elinor Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility - for Emma H is just like that much-loved character as portrayed by Emma T: loyal, sensible, sensitive, aware and ready to put others before herself. Again, how could you not love her?!
And that brings me to the effortlessly appealing Emma W: we did our Masters of Commerce together in Australia and became friends quickly. Emma W can talk clothes, handbags, shoes and girly magazines (she’s often catches me up on media gossip, especially about Liam Neeson of whom I’m stupidly fond), but that light-hearted side belies her keen intelligence and capacity for engagement in many a diverse analytical topic. It also doesn’t tell you how flexible or resourceful Emma W can be. For example, I never fail to smile when I remember Emma’s response when I invited (probably cajoled) her to be on a group project with me worth thirty percent of a subject’s final grades: “oh but Julie, you are an A student and you’ll expect to get an A on this assignment, and if I don’t do the work you expect you’ll get tense and I don’t think either of us needs that”. (I would highlight Emma was running a household and caring for children as well as studying so her need to be practical and set realistic boundaries was sensible and important.) I was a bit shocked at first, disappointed, thinking she’d want to study with her friend, but when she said “isn’t our friendship more important?” I couldn’t argue. And actually the group I did ultimately work with did piss me off and, as I saw it, drag me down, so Emma’s decision was not only honest and wise but prophetic. When I haven’t set clear enough boundaries in my life – yep, that’s happened a few times – I remember this experience and sincerely wish I had Emma W’s objective assessment skills.
Some years later, this university friend (and her husband) were so incredibly understanding and supportive of me in the midst of a major personal crisis – generous beyond description – that I still cannot think of their kindness without a tear in my eye. I won’t bore you with the details, but in this case Emma’s giving was utterly without boundaries or rationality, and it showed to me a capacity for love and care which is not only remarkable but typical of this warm-hearted and special woman. You might hear that the attributes of tall leggy blondes or beach-babes are all on the surface, but I tell you this Emma has it all going for her - on the outside and the inside – and again so much of what she does and who she helps is low key and pragmatic.
All in all, it’s no wonder I have a terrific impression of the name Emma – these women are rich in so many qualities, not to mention brilliant company! And they just happen to share a name with one of my favourite literary characters. So thank you Samantha Ellis for inspiring me to reacquaint and reappraise the heroines in my life – in my ‘real life’, in books, plays, television and movies - as the gift that these women are... the many women I value... is a gift which just keeps on giving.
How To Be A Heroine: http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/editions/9780701187514
Samantha Ellis: http://www.samanthaellis.me.uk/p/how-to.html