The other clever structural device I noticed in Emma, aside from the inset detective novel, is that it made real use of the three-volume novel format forced on Jane Austen by her publisher. The first volume is practically a standalone novella.
Smart, restless, bored Emma Woodhouse, having successfully played matchmaker for her best friend, decides to give it another go with a cute, dim-witted protégée, Harriet Smith. Along the way she misinterprets every possible romantic signal from every possible direction, makes a (mild, comic) mess of things, and learns a (mild, comic) lesson about hubris. Several key characters are mentioned but kept offstage; they will be brought on in Volume 2 as part of a more complex version of the story rehearsed in the first volume. The first volume would have been a minor comic classic on its own.
Early on, Emma’s older friends spend the most tedious chapter in the novel (Ch. 5) criticizing her – what? her lack of wisdom and discipline – her youth, I am tempted to say. This chapter more than any other reminds me that Austen is an 18th as well as a 19th century novelist.
Is this Emma or Émile? Is Harriet suitable as a friend of Emma? She “’is not the superior young woman which Emma’s friend ought to be’” – meaning, Emma is bright and Harriet is dim. But “’[t]hey will read together’” – “’it will be an inducement for [Emma] to read more herself.’” Emma’s friends are saying she does not read enough.
“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly – and very good lists they were – very well chosen, and very neatly arranged – sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule. The list she drew up when only fourteen – I remember thinking it did her judgment so much credit, that I preserved it some time…”
Many book bloggers, including this one, will read this passage with some wincing and grimacing. The lists would be of improving books – this is the 18th century idea. In the previous chapter, Harriet and Emma dismiss Harriet’s farmer suitor because he does not read – well, he reads, “the Agricultural Reports and some other books,” and also The Vicar of Wakefield, a novel but one that would count as a wholesome, improving book, as 18th century novels go – but he does not read Gothic novels, in fact “’[h]e had never heard of such books before I mentioned them.’”
Here we have Austen attacking her own characters for their backwards snobbery, their dismissal of a man for not reading popular trash. She does not even give them the excuse that he doesn’t read novels. Austen can be so mean. Several chapters later, Austen adds to the insult:
[Emma’s] views of improving her little friend’s mind, by a great deal of useful reading and conversation, had never yet led to more than a few first chapters, and the intention of going on to-morrow. It was much easier to chat than study… the only literary pursuit which engaged Harriet at present, the only mental provision she was making for the evening of life, was the collecting and transcribing all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with… (Ch. 9)
The phrase in bold is the author openly mocking her characters. The heck with free “indirect” style!
Note that the riddles are an early thematic reference to the idea of the detective novel which will be developed in the next volume. Emma is a well-controlled novel.