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Emma: 200 years of perfection: Pt 2, The art of literary research

July 15, 2015

For my second post on JASA’s Emma: 200 years of perfection conference, I want to share (or, at least, summarise for my own edification) some of the ways the speakers had gone about researching Emma, at least as they became apparent to me via their papers. None of these are particularly mind-blowing – they are the bread-and-butter of literature academics – but I enjoyed seeing how they’d variously gone about it to present the papers and ideas that they did.

Contemporary reading

Sayre Greenfield, David Norton, Barbara Seeber and Susannah Fullerton all drew on works contemporary to Jane Austen’s time to explore their theories about the novel or to elucidate deeper meanings from them.

Sayre Greenfield shared some his research into works that are in the library at Chawton House*, showing how they contribute to our understanding of Austen’s world view and how that might have played out in the writing of Emma. For example, as is obvious to the reader and as many critics like to discuss, riddles and word games feature heavily in Emma. Greenfield pointed us to books and magazines which show that these were a major form of entertainment for girls and young women of Austen’s time. Not only did he remind us of extant riddles written by Austen when she was young, noting that hers tended to be more satirical than those by her brothers, but he also referred to The Ladies Magazine which, like magazines today, contained games and puzzles for its readers. He discussed the role of these word games in the novel’s plot, but also pointed to Mr Knightley’s criticism of Emma to Mrs Weston that:

But I have done with expecting any course of steady reading from Emma. She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.

For Mr Knightley, games are all well and good, but Emma could do with something more serious!

Another topic that Greenfield explored was that of old maids. He described a book by William Hayley, published in 1785, titled A philosophical, historical, and moral essay on old maids. By a friend to the sisterhood. In three volumes. This description of old maids in one of his chapters sounds very much like Miss Bates:

The curious Old Maid is a restless being, whose insatiate thirst for information is an incessant plague both to herself and her acquaintance; her soul seems to be continually flying, in a giddy circuit, to her eyes, ears, and tongue; she appears inflamed with a sort of frantic desire to see all that can be seen, to hear all that can be heard, and to ask more questions than any lips can utter …

Now, said Greenfield cheekily, Hayley defines old maids as women unmarried by their fortieth year, and it just so happens that the unmarried Jane Austen turned 40 the month Emma was published. What was she really wanting to say about “old maids” he asked.

Seeber drew on contemporary texts regarding animal rights to argue a relationship, that was made during Austen’s time, between the mistreatment of animals and the domination of social “other”, like women and slaves. I’m looking forward to reading her paper, so I can grasp her argument more fully. She had some interesting things to say about fussy Mr Woodhouse and vegetarianism too!

Fullerton explored the many royal connections to places in the novel, which she suggested is partly about “who will be queen of Highbury”, while Norton turned to Samuel Johnson’s dictionary definitions to help us understand the contemporary meanings of words used by Austen. When Emma calls Mr Knightley “humane”, for example, she was likely meaning Johnson’s definition of “civil, benevolent, good-natured”. Remember my point about “civility” in my previous post?

Close textual analysis

Close analysis of the text is, of course, standard practice for academic critics, if not for more general reviewers. I’m mentioning it here, therefore, not because it was surprising but because for me close analysis – of word choice, imagery, structure, and so on – can inform meaning, and provide support for arguments, in interesting and sometimes unexpected ways. And so it proved to be at this conference.

Fullerton and Norton, for example, talked about the wordplay in names – Highbury, where Emma is buried; Donwell, where Mr Knightley has done well, a farm that is doing well; and Hartfield, or the field of the “heart”, of  feelings. These are fun to think about, but what I found most fascinating was Norton’s discussion of punctuation and grammar.

Grammar and punctuation, he said, are straightjackets on how we think, they exert controls on the expression of our thoughts. Austen knew that, Norton argued, and exploited it. Pride and prejudice, he suggested is one of Austen’s most rational, logical novels. We know exactly what Elizabeth Bennet thinks, and her thoughts and feelings progress logically in the book. Emma, on the other hand, is her most secretive novel. Nothing is really as it seems, and what is happening on the surface – Emma’s matchmaking of Harriet, and the possible romance between Emma and Frank – is not the real story.

One way Austen conveys this irrationality and this secrecy is through dashes! Yes, you heard correctly, dashes. And here is where the analysis was particularly interesting because in Pride and prejudice, he said, there is only one dash per 192 words, but in Emma it is one per 52 words. Who’d have thought? The dashes play two roles. Sometimes they convey the dashing around of thoughts – irrational thinking as it were – as characters jump from topic to topic. Miss Bates does this a lot in breathless prose, but Emma is also guilty of it. Etymologically, Norton told us, the “dash” punctuation mark is related to the verb “to dash”, so a dash can give a sense of movement of the mind.

But, formally, according to Samuel Johnson, the “dash” represents “a pause or omission”. And it also plays this role in Emma when characters pause before they say something they might regret, or have not fully realised themselves. Here is Miss Bates trying not to give voice to rumours about Emma and Mr Elton:

A Miss Hawkins. Well, I had always rather fancied it would be some young lady hereabouts; not that I ever — Mrs. Cole once whispered to me — but I immediately said, ‘No, Mr. Elton is a most worthy young man — but’ [and so on]

What, Norton asked us, can happen in a pause?

And so, he argued, Pride and prejudice is written in coherent, grammatical prose, while Emma is significantly less grammatical – and that tells us something about the novels themselves and the minds of their respective characters. If you don’t believe me, go check them both out, and see what you think.


I’ve rambled on enough, and this third one is a little tangential, but Greenfield and Troost’s speciality is the study of Austen adaptations. They explore how analysing adaptations can throw light on both the adaptations themselves – duh – and on Austen’s originals. At this conference, they discussed three recent adaptations of EmmaEmma (BBC miniseries, 2009), Aisha (Anil Kapoor Films, 2010), and Emma – Appoved (Pemberley Digital VLOG, 2014). They demonstrated how these productions focus on themes or ideas that we don’t find in Emma itself, chief among these being materialism, the pursuit of fun, and the idea that life is about being true to yourself. Most recent adaptations of Emma, they argued, have roots in Clueless.

For Greenfield and Troost, adaptations are a worthy topic for Austen study. In my last post on the conference, I’ll tell you what Barbara Seeber thinks.

* Chawton is where Jane Austen spent the last years of her life, and from where all of her novels were published. Her house is now a museum.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. July 16, 2015 2:17 am

    Really interesting especially about the punctuation! I suspect Norton and Fullerton were able to do such a good analysis because they had the help of digital texts and computers. One of the things technology has been good for when it comes to literature! Otherwise could you imagine how tedious it would be to actually count the dashes yourself and then recount them to make sure you didn’t miss any?

    • July 16, 2015 10:54 am

      Yes, absolutely, Stefanie. I thought the same. It opens up so many possibilities for them doesn’t it. And some of the books Greenfield looked at are available as digital texts (so I could proved that old maid excerpt).

  2. July 17, 2015 8:22 am

    Not rambling! Please feel free to go on

    • July 17, 2015 8:56 pm

      Don’t encourage me Bill … but, since you asked, there will be one more next week!

  3. July 17, 2015 7:54 pm

    Thank you for these fascinating posts on Emma. I’m planning on rereading Emma next month for Austen in August and you’ve got me in a state of anticipation already!

    I look forward to counting the dashes 🙂

    • July 17, 2015 8:58 pm

      Haha, Brona, I look forward to seeing whether you agree with Norton’s count! Seriously though, do come and tell me what you discovered in this read.

  4. July 19, 2015 12:50 am

    Fascinating post. Thanks for sharing.

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