Persuasions #13, 1991                                                                                                                                 Pages 138-145

The Mystery of Emma … or the

Consummate Case of the Least Likely Heroine



Park Ridge, IL


Why have twentieth-century readers often regarded Emma as a detective story?  In part, it must be the tendency of modern readers to see everything through the lens of detection, a tendency no doubt based in the genre’s growing popularity since its inception in the mid-nineteenth century.  The most extreme form of this proclivity was lampooned by James Thurber in “The Macbeth Murder Mystery,” a story about mystery-addicts reinterpreting Shakespeare’s tragedy in the terms of Thirties detective fiction.

The mystery story has, in fact, so dominated not only the popular imagination but also the vocabulary of critics in our time, that one finds analyses of a novel like Emma permeated with the language of detection.  The words “clue” and “evidence” come up again and again in critical discussions of Emma’s experience and her misreading of it.1  This is not surprising, for the novel itself repeatedly uses the terms “mystery,” “secret,” “detect” and “conceal” in different forms.2

In his 1966 introduction to the ubiquitous Penguin edition of the novel, Ronald Blythe went so far as to call it “the most fiendishly difficult of detective stories,” (37) and quoted Robert Liddell’s earlier statement of this idea:


Emma is, among other things, a detective story, and I believe that the pattern of the mystery may be thus expressed: Highbury thinks Mr. Knightley is her brother, but he is her future husband; Highbury thinks Frank Churchill is her future husband, but he is her brother.


Blythe goes on to say that, as “the personification of Highbury,” Emma shares this misunderstanding, thus creating “the magnificent central action of the novel, usually referred to as ‘the intrigue.’ ” (Penguin, 22)  As we shall see, it is this misunderstanding within Emma herself that constitutes the novel’s most profound mystery.

An even earlier writer, H.F. Ellis, sensed the tone of mystery in this novel and developed a hilarious sequel called “Hartfield and Homicide,” a parody which displays an acute appreciation of Jane Austen’s style in passages like the following, where we meet the Scotland Yard Inspector sent out to investigate a mysterious event in Highbury:


The younger son of a Northumberland draper …. [Inspector Elliott] had inherited little upon the death of his father but a bolt of blue serge and a strong reluctance to share it with his brother ….  He had never been handsome, he lacked warmth, attainments, an agreeable walk; and now, exposed to all the restraints of good society in the drawing-room at Hartfield, with all the consciousness of inferiority of rank, nothing equal, nothing easy, every thing vexatious, without clues, no proper foundation laid … [he] acknowledged himself to be overpowered …. [and yet] He must, would, speak!


‘As some of you may be aware,’ said he, with a conscious look at Emma, ‘the body of Mr. Woodhouse was found early this morning transfixed to the ceiling of his dining-parlour – a decent room enough, though the windows, it ought to be observed, are full west – by a dagger of curious oriental workmanship.’3


Although this catches something of the Austenian cadence, my own investigations lead me to conclude that the “dagger of curious oriental workmanship” is a mistake in literary detection: it is much more likely that the old man was affixed to the ceiling with a paste of very thin gruel, splattered there when, in a fit of uncharacteristic excitement, he flung his basin at Mrs. Elton for suggesting that he remarry and “leave Emma to it.”  Mrs. Elton is, of course, rightfully discerned to be the murderer, for in the classic English mystery, there is no crime greater than vulgarity.  Given her fatal taste in people, places, and things, it isn’t surprising that the divine Mrs. “E” might indulge in a spot of murder here and there.  At any rate, there is something about both Mr. Woodhouse and Mrs. Elton which puts many of us in a mind to murder.

Beyond delighting in the sublime silliness made possible by re-reading every text as if it were a mystery story, there are parallels between Emma and the classical tale of mystery and detection, especially as it has been practiced in England, which encourage us to compare the two.4  And, I would suggest, such comparison may in fact help us better appreciate the richness of this great novel.



“I was mad enough, however, to resent.” (E) 


Like a detective story, Emma presents a concrete, material world for our close inspection.  Although the novel does not fully endorse the idea that “manners were all that could be safely judged of” (E 169), it provides ample evidence that manners are indeed highly revelatory.  Jane Austen did not need Sherlock Holmes to show her the “great issues that may hang from a bootlace.”  Focusing on human relationships and quirks, her novels share with the classic English mystery the capacity to imply the wider world from which they come and are often considered documents of their times.  This emphasis on the actual, mundane world is, of course, a distinguishing characteristic of English fiction generally; Dorothy L. Sayers has commented that the mystery story is integral to that tradition because it, too, is “steeped in that unreasonable poetry of things that informs English narrative literature from Chaucer and Shakespeare to the present day.”5

The well-defined village of Highbury is a prototype of the closed society in which most classic murder mysteries take place, and the climactic scene at Box Hill suggests, even in its place name, the explosive tension created in such an environment.  At Box Hill, a scene which detects the fractures within Emma’s world, Frank Churchill is at his most treacherous and cruel, while Emma herself breaks society’s “law” of protecting the weak when she is goaded into using her superior wit and superior position to humiliate Miss Bates.  (Jane Fairfax is similarly vulnerable to Frank Churchill’s schemes and manipulation, as her “deranged” health following the Box Hill incident shows.)  The rigor with which Jane Austen calls Emma to account for her behavior toward Miss Bates – to “upright justice” (E 416) – reminds us of a basic assumption in both English detective fiction and English law, which holds that victims deserve fair treatment, no matter who they are.  (see E 374-376)

The fact that Emma insults rather than murders Miss Bates is a fine point resulting from Austen’s essential realism: it is much more common to lacerate someone with a tongue than with a dagger, although the fabric of community is rent in either case.  As the general, intense ill-temper at Box Hill reveals, Highbury is a society threatened by anarchy, just as the apparently tidy world of the English detective story is.  This partially explains why order is so highly valued by their creators.  Highbury’s inhabitants speak a common language and share common assumptions, and at their most insular, may even imagine that their pork “is not like any other pork” (E 172).  Yet “their being fixed, so absolutely fixed, in the same place, was bad for each ….  Not one of them had the power of removal, or of effecting any material change of society.” (E 143)  For this reason, there is an edginess to Highbury conversation, and a futile, self-destructive quality about much of its activity, including the Box Hill fiasco, the nervous chatter of Miss Bates, the abortive, violent love-making of Mr. Elton, and Emma’s compulsive scheming.  Although the novel’s only death occurs far offstage, the inhabitants of Highbury are routinely “mortified” by a look, a suspicion, or a feeling.6

The world outside – typified by London – presents no refuge, however.  It is a place of disease as well as dis-ease, for “in London it is always a sickly season.” (E 102)  This is analogous to the picture of the city commonly presented in English detective fiction, an image perhaps most harshly drawn in Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet, where London is described as “that great cesspool …”7  The fact that it is Mr. Woodhouse, Highbury’s valetudinarian extraordinaire, who describes London as a place of contagion suggests that his society is threatened by both rot from within and attacks from outside.

As is the case in most classic detective stories, the mysteries which animate this novel are set in motion when a closed and somewhat brittle society is invaded by outsiders: Frank Churchill, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith, and Augusta Hawkins are all outsiders.  They each disrupt what has been called, a bit simplistically, “this divine pastoral of English country life” (Penguin 16) by going beyond the boundaries of acceptable behavior: the duplicity and scandal of the secret engagement, the pathetic marital ambitions of Harriet Smith, the screeching vulgarity of the newly minted Mrs. Elton.  And they all present a mystery as to their real identity.  Frank appears to be the lover of any but his betrothed, a woman who is, in turn, completely “concealed” as a human being.  In a society which values highly blood and lineage, Harriet Smith’s parentage is unknown, while Mrs. Elton fabricates a pretentious “background.”  Each of these characters plays variations on the novel’s theme of elusive reality and our ability to know it.

The obvious villain of the piece, Frank Churchill, is also the one who most calculatingly leads everyone else astray as he perpetrates mystery after mystery.  Upon her discovery of Frank’s elaborate deception, Emma’s language is notable for its insistent references to this “invasion” of her world:


“What has it been but a system of hypocrisy and deceit, – espionage, and treachery?  – To come among us with professions of openness and simplicity; and such a league in secret to judge us all!  – Here have we been … completely duped, fancying ourselves all on an equal footing of truth and honour, with two people [she is speaking of both Frank and Jane] in the midst of us …. (E 399)


The serpent has been discovered in the very heart of the garden, “in the midst of us,” and the entire speech is cast in terms of Highbury versus the rest of the world.8

By showing an unseemly interest in his hair, by threatening to leave England, and most importantly, by entering into an illicit engagement with a young lady,9 Frank Churchill has shown himself to be “not quite the thing.” (E 249)  Even Mr. Woodhouse can perceive Frank’s falsity, a quality which is, in the terms set by this novel, equivalent to villainy.  Conversely, Mr. Knightley, who is the hero, is precisely “the thing”: “You might not see one in a hundred, with gentleman so plainly written” on his countenance.  (E 33)  Even Donwell Abbey, his home, “was just what it ought to be, and … looked what it was.”

If one considers the Churchill-Fairfax sub-plot, it may be said that the piano sent by Frank Churchill to his fiancée is equivalent to the body in a murder mystery: out-sized and outrageous, it is undeniable, mysterious, embarrassing, and compelling. (Penguin, 26)  We immediately know that it is important, but like Emma, are confused as to its provenance and meaning: Who sent it?  And why?

The piano is an example of how Jane Austen scrupulously “plays fair” with the reader, to use the term coined by Golden Age English detective novelists.  Throughout Emma, we are given the clues needed to solve each mystery presented, and as readers, we have all the information any “detective” in the story has.  As chief detective, Emma reports everything to us, but the information is always “bent” according to her own preconceptions and limited by her range of vision.  (Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, is an intelligent Watson who interprets the evidence more accurately.)  Focusing on a somewhat confused detective creates a novel of great subtlety and leads to some of Austen’s most brilliant passages, such as the tour de force in Chapter 26, where Emma hears what she wants to hear, and Frank appropriates her fantasies about the piano for his own purposes.  (E 214-219)

The claustrophobic and highly charged atmosphere in this scene reminds us of John Cawelti’s observation that the classical mystery story, “with its focus on the investigation of mystery, showed a particular fascination with the hidden secrets and guilts that lay within the family circle.”10  This emphasis is not surprising, since the mystery story is essentially a sub-genre of the English novel, a form which is preoccupied with domestic life.  (One thinks of Wilkie Collins’s massive family sagas which were also detective stories.)  As Emma says, “nobody, who has not been in the interior of a family,” can really understand that family, for “there are secrets in all families.” (E 146, 120)  How many novels would be lost if this were not so, and how many novel-readers.

Yet concealment is regarded as evil in this book; not being open is the greatest crime.11  While Frank Churchill cultivates mystery, Mr. Knightley “does nothing mysteriously” (E 226) and finds Jane Fairfax somewhat unappealing because she does not have an “open temper.” (E 289)  It is Mr. Knightley who, in the novel’s key statement of this theme, admonishes Emma to see that “Mystery; Finesse – how they pervert the understanding!  My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?” (E 446)  Thus, as Marilyn Butler has commented, it is Emma’s own openness, her final willingness to accept the evidence before her, that marks her as an Austen heroine, for the novelist considers it “a moral virtue to be ready to receive external evidence.”12  This is to say that, while Emma is a failed detective throughout most of the story, she becomes a better one by the end, and in the process, becomes a better person.

And this brings us to the chief or central mystery of the novel, which is the mystery of Emma herself.  Mr. Knightley, who tends to be more clear-sighted than most in this story, states this problem early on: “There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma … I wonder what will become of her.” (E 40)  And so do we all.  In the same chapter, Mr. Knightley also identifies the chief obstacle in Emma’s way of becoming whatever it is she can become: “She will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” (E 37)  This is the chief flaw in her ability as a detective, or as a person with superior “penetration,” which is how she sees herself.  During most of the action, Emma abuses rather than uses her reason as she misinterprets the steady stream of clues and evidence surrounding her.  In the brilliant, almost symphonic elaboration of this novel, characters are assessed according to the degree of “penetration” they have: whereas Harriet has none, Emma thinks of herself as having more, and Miss Bates less, than is true.  The Knightley brothers are described as “having penetration,” but even George Knightley’s perception is clouded when it comes to that which is most important to him, letting his jealousy color his reactions to Frank Churchill and declaring about Emma that he has “no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she cared for.” (E 41)  Since the novel is seen from Emma’s own angle of vision, it is very late in the day indeed when the reader realizes that Emma Woodhouse has, in fact, seen such a man and his name is Knightley.  (I would say that the reader should know this by the time Emma admires Knightley’s “tall, firm, upright figure” before he joins in the dance, and her unabashed pleasure when he does; E 326, 328.)  Knightley’s intense feelings are clear much earlier, when he admits he “loves to look at her” in his conversation with Mrs. Weston about Emma’s uncertain future (E 39).  He must be coming to Hartfield for something other than Mr. Woodhouse’s company.

From the beginning of the narrative, Emma has been detecting, or attempting to detect, the real nature of those around her, focusing especially upon them as lovers and potential mates.  The fact that she leaves herself out of this exercise, stating that she will not marry and never stopping to look into her own heart, generates the richness and complexity of the narrative, for she is its greatest enigma.  Austen’s famous declaration that in Emma, she was creating a heroine whom no one else would much like,13 points to Emma’s role as the least likely person.  And when Emma finally realizes that it is she who must marry the hero, that it is, in fact, she who is the heroine, her recognition scene is similar to the climax of a detective story, where the detective finally sees all the clues drop into place and solves the mystery: “A mind like her’s, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress.  She admitted – she acknowledged the whole truth ….  It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”14  (E 407-408)  Or as Holmes might say, dearest Emma, “when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”  (“The Sign of Four”).  The most obvious clue in the mystery of what will become of Emma is Mr. Knightley’s omnipresence and overriding importance in her life: like Poe’s purloined letter, he is so obvious that he eludes Emma’s notice.

Emma is, of course, no better at match-making for others than she is at reading her own heart.  Her growing recognition of this is similar to the history of many detectives who find that, after meddling in others’ lives, their failures do not amount to nothing, but something worse: “With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny.  She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing – for she had done mischief.” (E 413)  This is an important lesson in her moral education.15

Emma is so confused partially because she is without capable companionship.  At the beginning of the action, she is left alone with her father in “intellectual solitude.” (E 7)  Like Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and other great detectives, Emma attempts to alleviate boredom and anxiety by prying into others’ lives and problems.  This prying, scheming nature is surely part of what made her creator assume that Emma would be unlikable to many readers.  From the scrupulously fair narrator, we hear in the novel’s opening passage that Emma “seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence.”  To readers skilled in detection, the word “seemed” is the point of the sentence, and we are immediately given notice that Emma’s portrait will be ambiguous and elusive.  The genius of Jane Austen is revealed in her managing to make a compelling story about such an unlikely heroine, who is a (somewhat failed) detective, in the context of a narrative which demands constant clue-solving and cipher-reading on the part of the reader.16  And it is this complexity which provides the reader with endless rewards in re-reading this novel: It is only on second and third reading that we begin to grasp the novel’s meaning as well as its greatness.  Literally, the detective-reader will never completely solve the mystery of Emma.

Like the classic detective story, Emma is a tale of ratiocination – but mainly of ratiocination gone wrong.  The novel offers not one answer or solution to the problems set, as is the case in most mysteries, but reenacts the richness of life itself in all its ambiguity.  For this is the real point of Emma’s story: it is not simply that she cannot understand reality, but that reality itself is very difficult to know: “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken.” (E 431)  Because of its profound ambiguity and its probing of the interior life, Highbury is not really St. Mary Mead, although it is close to Fenchurch St. Paul.17  And yet these places of mystery all emerge from the assumption that human beings can and indeed must attempt truth-seeking, and all celebrate the possibilities of the thinking mind.

Perhaps the reason Emma has been called “the most fiendishly difficult of detective stories” is that it does not present one clear, definable detective problem to solve – as readers, we must ferret out what is the mystery, what is the crime, who is the villain, and who the heroine.18  Who are all these people and what will become of them?  Who from this field of hearts will commit marriage in Highbury?  Spinning mystery within mystery, it is only at the novel’s end that the detective-heroine finally identifies the problem she must investigate first, before any other knowledge is possible: “To understand, thoroughly understand her own heart, was the first endeavour.” (E 412)

In Emma, then, we have a mystery not about murder but about misapprehension; where words and looks can kill, where nubile young women need rescuing from embarrassment far more than from bandits; where evil really is banal,19 and it is the detective, our most unlikely heroine herself, whodunnit.  Emma is a great mystery of the familiar – so familiar, in fact, it’s frightening.


The color image has replaced the original black and white image for the on-line edition of this essay. – C. Moss, JASNA Web Site Manager





1 For example, Park Honan, Jane Austen: Her Life (New York: St. Martin’s, 1987), p. 362; and Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 258, 271, 274.


2 Jane Austen, Emma (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), pp. 217, 226, 446, 453, 475, 120, 220, 346, 399, 452, 193, 449, 203, 348, 471.  This is not an exhaustive list.  Further references to the text of Emma are to this edition.


3 H.F. Ellis, “Hartfield and Homicide,” Punch (Dec. 14, 1955), pp. 689-90.


4 For the purposes of this discussion, I am using the terms  “mystery” and “detective story” as rough synonyms, although mystery is a wider category.  My comments are particularly relevant to the English mystery, not the American or “hardboiled” school, and to those authors who have managed to write detective stories which are also genuine novels, including Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ruth Rendell, and P.D. James.


5 Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Present Status of the Mystery Story,” London Mercury (Nov., 1930), p. 49.


6 Emma, pp. 15, 132, 301, 391, for example.


7 This is indeed the attitude toward the city expressed in English fiction generally.


8 Marilyn Butler’s comments on Frank Churchill are interesting in this regard: “Frank Churchill is the latest in the long anti-jacobin descent of charming, hypocritical seducers who enter a secluded community from a corrupt wider world,” p. 273.


9 R.W. Chapman discusses the moral significance of the letter-writing between the two lovers in his notes to the novel’s Oxford edition, pp. 512-513.


10 John Cawelti, Mystery, Adventure, Romance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1976), p. 77.


11 The one exception to this rule of openness seems to be Harriet Smith’s illegitimacy, pp. 481-482.


12 See also Butler pp. 260, 271, 274; cf. Northanger Abbey, “the finesse of love,” Oxford ed., p. 36.


13 Henry Austen, “Biographical Notice of the Author,” in Northanger Abbey (Penguin, 1972), p. 375.


14 Cf. Dorothy L. Sayers, Whose Body?  (New York: Avon, 1961), p. 127: “It happened suddenly ….  He remembered – not one thing, nor a succession of things – but everything – the whole thing, perfect, complete ….  He knew it.”


15 Cf. Dorothy L. Sayers, “The Quick Work,” in The Nine Tailors, where Lord Peter Wimsey is deeply troubled about this issue.


16 Even Mr. Woodhouse’s seemingly nonsensical riddle, “Kitty, a fair but frozen maid,” can be seen on reflection to be charged with meaning; he does not realize it, but this is a good description not only of Jane Fairfax, but of Emma herself, until the end.


17 Locales created by Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, respectively.


18 It is interesting that, while at work on Emma, Jane Austen enjoyed responding to a novel manuscript by her niece, Anna, with the arresting title of “Which Is the Heroine?”  (Honan, p. 351).


19 The word “evil”  appears at least two dozen times in this novel, but Austen’s definition is elusive.  It ranges from meaning something like inconvenience, to embarrassment, to hubris.  A full study of this subject would be enlightening.

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