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Emma, Volume III, Chapter 15 (Chapter 51)

Jane Austen, inventor of the mystery novel

In case you were thinking that Frank Churchill's letter in the previous chapter was just a throw-away on Austen's part, she would have you think again. First, she starts this new chapter with a recitation of Emma's thoughts and reactions to the letter, and then she basically has us revisit the entire letter again through the mechanism of having Mr Knightley comment on it to Emma while they read, with the two of them revisiting the many plot points throughout the book that the uncareful reader might have missed on their own.

For modern-day readers, who are familiar with mystery novels, Austen's repetition isn't, strictly-speaking, necessary, although it does presage the "big reveal" scenes in Agatha Christie's novels, where M. Poirot or Miss Marple would explain how they sorted the whole mystery out by reviewing the facts and red herrings along the way. What makes this extremely noteworthy, in my opinion, is that the "mystery novel" in English isn't truly considered by many to have come into existence until Edgar Allan Poe's Murders in the Rue Morgue, published in 1841 - 23 years after Austen's death. So she wasn't working from a long-standing tradition of planting clues and then distilling the story - she went there on her own, and managed it as well (or better than) any number of writers between her day and ours. (I am constrained to note that I am not alone in calling Emma the earliest detective story - there are a number of critics who have done so over the years, but Austen still doesn't "officially" get the props she deserves, perhaps because the mystery is about a romance and not a crime.)

Frank's letter, and Mr Knightley's commentary on it, string together not only the full extent of the "shadow story" in this novel - the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill that predates their appearances in Highbury, and which was kept entirely secret from anyone else - but also the moral rectitude (or, in most cases, the immorality) of Frank's and, in some cases, Jane's actions. Some of the bits that went by, such as the mystery of the pianoforte, were notable, but others were slighter, and Austen wants to be sure that the reader recollects that they knew all this information along the way, but didn't really see its import at the time, in what is now the tradition of fine mysteries everywhere, but what was then a device of her own making.

Once again, it's Mr Knightley, Man of Action

After putting the letter aside, Mr Knightley proceeds to a different topic of conversation - namely, how best to have a relationship with Emma. Specifically, he wants to get married, and not just someday, after her father's death, but soon. He is a Man of Action not only for wanting to get hitched in a hurry, but also for working out a way it might be done without Mr Woodhouse being made unhappy. But here - let's see how Knightley and Austen handled it:

"Ever since I left you this morning, Emma, my mind has been hard at work on one subject."

The subject followed; it was in plain, unaffected, gentlemanlike English, such as Mr Knightley used even to the woman he was in love with, how to be able to ask her to marry him, without attacking the happiness of her father. Emma's answer was ready at the first word. "While her dear father lived, any change of condition must be impossible for her. She could never quit him." Part only of this answer, however, was admitted. The impossibility of her quitting her father, Mr Knightley felt as strongly as herself; but the inadmissibility of any other change, he could not agree to. He had been thinking it over most deeply, most intently; he had at first hoped to induce Mr Woodhouse to remove with her to Donwell; he had wanted to believe it feasible, but his knowledge of Mr Woodhouse would not suffer him to deceive himself long; and now he confessed his persuasion, that such a transplantation would be a risk of her father's comfort, perhaps even of his life, which must not be hazarded. Mr Woodhouse taken from Hartfield!--No, he felt that it ought not to be attempted. But the plan which had arisen on the sacrifice of this, he trusted his dearest Emma would not find in any respect objectionable; it was, that he should be received at Hartfield; that so long as her father's happiness in other words his life--required Hartfield to continue her home, it should be his likewise.

This sort of plan tells us two things about Mr Knightley: 1) that he truly loves Emma and puts her first and 2) that he is truly a Man of Action who operates within the bounds of society, but is willing to act untraditionally to achieve his means. Let's review, shall we? This novel was published in 1815, a time when patriarchy was still alive and well in England and elsewhere. A woman who married lost her legal status as a person, and was essentially subject to her husband - any property she held became his, including real estate, jewelry, money, and copyrights. The Married Women's Property Act did not become law in England until 1882, long after Austen's death. A married woman lived with her husband, basically wherever he said - and usually, at his own estate. (Think of Lizzie Bennet appraising Pemberley or Catherine Morland visiting Woodston.)

Mr Knightley's willingness to forgo tradition and to come live at his father-in-law's house for the rest of Mr Woodhouse's life is decidedly unusual, but it shows the depth of his feelings for Emma and for her father, and displays Mr Knightley's tremendous practicality as well. Emma's initial reaction sums it up well: "She felt that, in quitting Donwell, he must be sacrificing a great deal of independence of hours and habits; that in living constantly with her father, and in no house of his own, there would be much, very much, to be borne with." Of course, since he's pretty set on the notion (so as to get to the marrying part sooner), Emma lets herself get sold on the idea pretty quickly.

As the chapter comes to a close

We find Emma thinking again of Harriet, and feeling badly for her. And Austen leaves us with this amusing (and possibly foreshadowing) line: "and it really was too much to hope even of Harriet, that she could be in love with more than three men in one year."

You can almost hear Austen chuckling, can't you?

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( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 2nd, 2013 09:24 pm (UTC)
Fascinatingly, in my family's history there's an instance of a man marrying the daughter of the house and not only moving onto her farm, but taking her name - because it was simpler to change his name than the farm's. I'd have to look up when exactly this happened, but early 1900's at the latest, I believe, but this was in rural Minnesota.
Apr. 4th, 2013 12:15 am (UTC)
So cool!
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 4th, 2013 12:16 am (UTC)
Indeed - "the things we do for love . . . "
Apr. 4th, 2013 02:10 am (UTC)
It's not far, he could certainly visit his home when he needs time alone. (which I bet would be pretty often)
Apr. 4th, 2013 08:05 pm (UTC)
Plus, he still has to keep Donwell Abbey in good order, since eventually they will move there.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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