Emma, the anonymous novel by “The Author of Pride and Prejudice &c. &c.,” published two hundred years ago this month, the great “novel of deceit and detection” as P. D. James calls it. Many people are doing a bicentennial reading. Me, too.
When I first (also last) read the novel, I did not know that it was detective fiction. The mystery novel structure was undetectable. This time, knowing the story, it was so blatant I might have called some of the devices clumsy if I did not know that it was, really, fundamentally, invisible. The magician had taken me backstage to show me some of her tricks. The demonstration of those may well be themselves tricks, the existence of which will be revealed the next time I read Emma.
I sometimes wonder if I should ever write about books I have only read once. The errors I must make.
A young woman moves to a small town to live with her aunt and grandmother. The detective in the title tries to figure out why – was she, for example, romantically involved with her best friend’s husband? The substance of the mystery is not that exciting, but for structural purposes it hardly matters. There are clues, red herrings, mysteries within mysteries, mysteries alongside mysteries, revelations, all of that stuff, all before there was any such thing as a detective novel.
Then there is the comedy, more to the point. Inspector Emma turns out to be a terrible detective, a great comic blunderer, Clouseau with an English accent. And this is part of the ethical meaning of the novel, which is itself a good trick.
For example, in Chapter 34, secondary characters spend two pages arguing about who will pick up the mail, a scene just as dull as it sounds:
“The post-office is a wonderful establishment!" said she. – “The regularity and despatch of it! If one thinks of all that it has to do, and all that it does so well, it is really astonishing!”
“It is certainly very well regulated.”
[blah blah blah]
The varieties of hand-writing were farther talked of, and the usual observations made.
I wonder what I was thinking a decade ago when I read that sentence. Probably something like “man, what a dud sentence; The Author of Pride and Prejudice &c. &c. is kind of overrated.” This time, though, it was amusingly obvious that the entire scene was full of clues to the mystery, and that, even better, Detective Emma realizes that it is full of clues – “She could have made an inquiry or two, as to the expedition and the expense of the Irish mails; – it was at her tongue’s end – but she abstained” – but as a bad detective she misinterprets them, and as a worse detective and obedient reader, I followed right along after her. She is the smartest character in the novel, so of course I trusted her.
The first time, it was entertaining to try to solve the mystery along with the detective; the second, it was even more enjoyable to see how The Author of &c. &c. had so skillfully led me along by the nose.
The title quotation is from Chapter 51, remorselessly torn from its context.