Wednesday, December 9, 2015

She only gave herself a saucy conscious smile about it, and found amusement in detecting - Emma as undetectable detective fiction

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 itMany 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.


  1. I wonder, too, if I should write about books I've only read once. Probably not.

    It even happens in film, that I notice something which should have been blatantly obvious the first time around only when I'm watching it for the second.

    As for Emma being a mystery, who knew? I am only halfway through Volume 2. For the first time.

  2. An interesting essay on Emma as avant-garde before the avant-garde:
    "She is the smartest character in the novel, so of course I trusted her." is the key point.

  3. I know nothing about Jane Austen, but I'm intrigued (re, for instance, her avant-gardeness) how much of a debt she owed to Sheridan - or Restoration Comedy in general.

  4. And so, as I take a break and wait this morning for the next invasive procedure in the hospital (Dr. Phibe's House of Horrors), I am diving into my Kindle copy of _Emma_. Thanks for the posting that will take my mind off of annoyances in my life.

  5. I'm not going to stop writing about books I have only read once. But I do wonder. The Dostoevksy novel I am reading now, for example - do I understand it at all? Well, I will fail to understand it in public.

    The essay Roger links is mostly about what I was trained to call "limited third person" narration. The author's rhetoric is excessive, but his points are sound. I wish he had mentioned Scott, though, who was simultaneously, more clumsily, figuring out some of the same techniques. And if we have two authors working on the problem, maybe there is something else going on.

    I think Austen's characterization and comedy owe a lot to Sheridan and so on, as well as Burney and Richardson. Austen is better with characters than any of them.

    Oddly, Austen's first recognition as an innovator was as a source of plots and character types. Her novels were looted by the hack "silver fork" novelists of the 1820s.

    Emma is all about the annoyances of life. It is funny how reading about someone else's annoyances can soothe my own.

  6. Inspector Emma, I love it! She really is bad at the detecting probably because she really only sees what she wants to see plus she is so jealous of Jane that she is further blinded. It really is all very funny. But you are right, it is so well done, that it is very hard to pick up on any of it by reading it just once.

  7. Part of Austen's skill as a detective writer is that she guides the reader to the solution just a little bit before she clues in the heroine. Flattering. Makes me feel clever.

  8. Emma is not my favorite Austen, though Austen is one of my faves, but I hadn't considered it from the technical (use of 3d person limited) or genre (Emma as Inspector Clouseau) perspectives. Thanks for the essay and comments!

    -lawless (we tangled over at Novel Readings once)

  9. Emma is not quite my favorite either, although I do not think it has a competitor for pure comedy. The elaborate Mr. Perry, gag, for example, the character who is constantly discussed but never appears on stage - so much fun.

    Technique and genre are, I am afraid, mostly what I got over here. Maybe later today I will write that post abut gruel and baked apples in Emma.

  10. If I was feeling particularly clever, I would skillfully point out how my favorite movie adaptation of Emma is overtly a detective story, and thus they called it "Clueless".
    I'm not feeling that clever, but it was when I started thinking about the many clues in Clueless that I realized you, or whoever else is saying the Emma is detective fiction, are really on to something.

  11. The makers of Clueless must have known the P. D. James line "If Jane Austen were writing today, she might very well be our greatest mystery novelist."

    Source: who knows where, who knows when, but I got it from the epigraph to Ellen R. Belton, "Mystery Without Murder: The Detective Plots of Jane Austen," Nineteenth-century Literature, June 1988, p. 42.

  12. AR(T), the more you make the connections between Austen, James, and detective/mystery genre fiction, I am even more persuaded to reread the book I encountered years ago but seem to have forgotten (i.e., I had no idea there was a mystery element). Thanks for making the connections.

  13. The detective thing is just structural, but it is real. Austen's understanding of how fiction worked was pretty advanced. A shame she never wrote any criticism. Well, a shame she did not live 40 or 50 years longer. I wish she had lived to write about Dickens.