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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Jane Austen's "Emma" as a Detective Novel?

I spent last Saturday with Emma, Jane Austen’s captivating heroine of the eponymous novel, and that is such a charming way to spend a Saturday!

This post is just to say I think that Emma could be analyzed and written up as the forerunner of the detective novel.

Emma spends most of the book trying to detect romances. She thinks she’s engineering the romances in question, but Mr. Knightly puts her in her place when she starts crowing about having made the match for her former governess, Miss Taylor, and Mr. Weston. Mr. Knightly tells her flatly that all she really did was to make a good guess.

The trouble with Emma’s guesses is that her detective skills are extremely defective. Emma lacks insight, and Mr. Knightly has it but doesn’t care much about using it. Emma spends most of the novel drawing the wrong conclusions about the evidence under her nose, while Mr. Knightly spends one chapter actually bothering to look at the evidence and draws all the right conclusions about it.

When Emma tries to engineer a romance between her little friend Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton, she does so because she thinks she has detected signs of romance in Mr. Elton toward Harriet. Emma is wrong—Mr. Elton is attracted to Emma, and Mr. Knightly tries to give Emma a hint, but Emma denies the evidence until the comic scene of Mr. Elton’s proposal in the carriage.

Next Emma detects a romance between Frank Churchill and Harriet that does not fit the evidence except in Emma’s mind. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston tells Emma she thinks there is evidence of a romance between Jane Fairfax and Mr. Knightly. Emma knows most of the rest of their society have drawn the erroneous conclusion from the evidence that there is a romance between herself and Frank Churchill. Harriet Smith finds evidence for thinking Mr. Knightly might be interested in her.

Mr. Knightly spends one chapter looking at the evidence and sees immediately that there is something suspiciously like a romance between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill; he also detects that Harriet Smith may still be harboring some feelings for the farmer Robert Martin whose proposal Emma persuaded Harriet to reject. His only blunder is in misunderstanding the evidence of Emma’s relationship with Frank Churchill, but we forgive him because his own feelings leave him unable to judge impartially where Emma is concerned.

The evidence for the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax is fairly and evenly distributed throughout the novel, in plain sight, but hidden in the long inconsequential ramblings of Miss Bates, and in other throw-away lines. Jane Austen was a master of the red herring before any detective novels had been written.

So Frank Churchill could come to Highbury, visit the home of the Bateses and Jane Fairfax often and make it seem like nothing but social obligations. But if you start counting, the visits are frequent, and his demeanor after each one is telling. He can go to London ostensibly to get his hair cut, but really to order a pianoforte anonymously for Jane Fairfax, and then he plants bogus seeds of its origin in his conversation with Emma. He and Jane can correspond, a thing that was not done unless a couple were formally engaged in those days, and nobody becomes wise to the reason that Jane Fairfax is adamant that she be allowed to get to the post office first thing in the morning no matter what the weather. Frank Churchill can nearly come unglued with grief at having to part from Jane Fairfax, and Emma makes us think it is because he may be falling in love with Emma! Frank Churchill can play a word game with Jane Fairfax that shows them colluding in something hidden, and only Mr. Knightly among those present sees and interprets the evidence correctly. But by this time in the novel, Mr. Knightly’s credibility with the reader has been compromised by the very tangled web of bogus romance possibilities! Only the very careful reader would be able to sort the threads and know that only Mr. Knightly can be believed about anything, and it is Emma who cannot be trusted with the truth.

The real charm of Emma is that Emma learns and changes all along the way, starting with a pretty good character over all. Emma always treats her fussy, difficult father with extreme kindness and patience, a virtue that cannot be underrated. She adores her former governess. She makes allowances for those who are not as clever as she. 

Then when she realizes her blunders, she tries to reform. When her first attempt at matchmaking for Harriet goes so wrong, she learns to back off and not interfere as much, with the result that at least there is much less pain for Harriet by Emma’s direct hand when the Frank Churchill – Jane Fairfax engagement becomes public. Emma learns from her mistreatment of Miss Bates that she must change her behavior and wastes no time in making amends. She realizes her neglect of Jane Fairfax and tries to make amends there too, but at that time Jane cannot accept her overtures, though later Jane acknowledges Emma’s good will and the evidence that they would have become friends if they could have is there, but they are going to live too far apart: Jane in Yorkshire and Emma in Surrey.

I will always love Emma for many reasons, but now that I have detected the seeds of a detective novel in it, I have another reason to keep rereading and finding delight in its pages.

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