Persuasions #13, 1991                                                                                                                                            Pages 119-131



The Secret Languages of Emma



English Department, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta  T6G 2E5


When I teach Jane Austen, I give my students mean little reading tests, by way of training them to read for detail.  The questions I ask would be insultingly easy for this audience; but there’s one that helps me make sure that my students are alert to the many layers of meaning in the characters’ speech.  I quote Emma speaking to Harriet: “The service he rendered you was enough to warm your heart” (342),1 she says.  I ask my students to explain the misunderstanding that results from this speech.  As all of you know, in this case Emma says one thing and Harriet hears another.  Emma says (and here as elsewhere I offer what you might call a free translation), “The service Frank Churchill rendered you in chasing away the gipsies was enough to warm your heart.”  But Harriet hears “The service Mr. Knightley rendered you in asking you to dance was enough to warm your heart.”  And as we all know, this little confusion over who rendered what service is the source of great travail and sorrow.  This is one simple instance of what is going on all the time throughout the novel: characteristically a speech has not one meaning, but often two, and sometimes more.  And that is what makes Emma endlessly re-readable.

Nearly all the characters make speeches that contain a covert as well as an overt meaning.  If Emma sometimes deals in the coded message, she is a mere babbling infant in comparison with Frank Churchill, who makes it his métier to load his speech with secrets that only the alerted listener or reader can understand.  Mrs. Elton, who is a parody of Emma in her discourse as in other ways, makes a bustle and parade of being in on a secret: “Mum! A word to the wise,” she says with heavy-handed discretion, when she has heard of Jane Fairfax’s engagement.  “I mentioned no names, you will observe ….  We do not say a word of … a certain young physician from Windsor.  – Oh! no” (454).  Even Miss Bates, gabby old Miss Bates, who can never keep a secret for the life of her, has secret communications embedded in her endless chattering.  We readers, like the characters, must comb out the significant elements in all these speeches, and decode them, if we are to understand what is going on.

Jane Austen’s novels, as we know, are populated largely by leisured people, people whose main business is not to go to work, or to create things, or to make money, but to get along with each other in their society.  Social converse among them is not incidental, not merely the activity for a coffee break, but their main activity.  Emma presents social intercourse – conversation – raised to an art form, a profession.  The people judge each other according to how good at it they are.  Their speech is not simply a transparent medium of communication, or a commodity for practical use: it is a vocation, and capable of a high degree of development and refinement.  Conversation with the right interlocutor, for Emma, is like conquering a new computer program for the expert, or pumping iron for the athlete.  And Emma particularly needs such workouts, because at home with her father she gets very little vigorous verbal exercise.

Speech has its different genres, as literature has. “Conversation" is not a word Jane Austen uses lightly, and not all speech qualifies.  Back in Northanger Abbey she made the distinction about John Thorpe’s discourse: “All the rest of his conversation, or rather talk, began and ended with himself and his own concerns” (NA, 66).  “Conversation,” unlike mere “talk,” must go somewhere, must, through a process of verbal exchange and enlargement, refine on a topic and advance it.  So Emma, to improve Harriet’s mind, plans “a great deal of useful reading and conversation,” but finds it easier to settle for “chat” instead (69).  We hear also of other genres of discourse in Highbury: the “quiet prosings” of Mr. Woodhouse’s chosen companions, Mrs. Goddard and company (22); the “comfortable talk” of Mr. Woodhouse and his daughter Isabella (100); the “sighs and fine words” of the courting Mr. Elton; the “every day remarks, dull repetitions, old news, and heavy jokes” at the Coles’ dinner party (219); and the more satisfactory “uninterrupted communication of all those little matters on which the daily happiness of private life depends” (117) that goes on between Emma and Mrs. Weston.

Talk is action; and those who believe that Jane Austen’s novels are lacking in the high adventure of romance should pay attention, say, to the tense scene of the family reunion of the John Knightleys with the Woodhouses.  Here, as at some other family reunions I have experienced, tempers are apt to flare and war to be declared at any moment.  Emma has as tough a job in keeping the peace as a Canadian peace force in the Middle East: she must diplomatically mediate between her father and Isabella on the one side, with their querulous notes on each other’s health, and the vigorous Knightley brothers on the other, who hate to have their actions or their health questioned.  Talk among family members is fraught with dangerous pitfalls, hidden mine-fields, and hairbreadth escapes (101-4).

In a society that places such emphasis on the quality of discourse, speech habits are regarded as an essential constituent of identity.  Highbury has two step-children – young people who belong to it and yet belong elsewhere too – Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax.  And in the talk and speculation on what these relative strangers are like the issue swiftly becomes one of how they speak.  What sort of young man will Frank Churchill be?  Either “conversible,” or “a chattering coxcomb,” assumes Mr. Knightley.  “My idea of him,” says Emma, “is, that he can adapt his conversation to the taste of every body” (150).  If so, then he will be “a puppy,” argues Mr. Knightley jealously (150).  They disagree on this, but not on the proposition that speech maketh man.  Similarly, the issue with Jane Fairfax is not whether she is good, or beautiful, or talented, but whether she talks enough.  Jane Fairfax is “reserved” – “disgustingly, suspiciously reserved,” as Emma thinks (169).  Speech is the articulation of the self, and nearly all of the self that surrounding characters can perceive.  It follows that a highly reserved person is incompletely present, and so cannot inspire strong feeling.  “One cannot love a reserved person,” declares Frank Churchill of Jane – disingenuously of course (203).  But Emma shrewdly introduces a qualification: “Not till the reserve ceases towards oneself; and then the attraction may be the greater” (203).  It is one of the comments that must have made Frank Churchill suspect that Emma was on to him and his secret love.  Estimation of  character, in any case, must be largely determined by the quality and quantity of what the character says.  The highest praise that Mr. Knightley can give Harriet, at least for her tutor Emma, is that he found her “more conversable” than he expected (331).

The discerning people of Highbury have high standards in speech, and become expert critics of each other’s discourse.  Emma perceives Miss Bates’s talk as a genre so characteristic that she can even parody it.  She imagines Mr. Knightley married to Jane Fairfax, and being thanked all day long for it:


“ ‘So very kind and obliging! – but he always had been such a very kind neighbour!’  And then fly off, through half a sentence, to her mother’s old petticoat.  ‘Not that it was such a very old petticoat either – for still it would last a great while – and, indeed, she must thankfully say that their petticoats were all very strong.’ ” (225)


With her keen ear for speech, Emma can parody Mr. Elton too:  “He will … suit Harriet exactly; it will be an ‘Exactly so,’ as he says himself” (49).  Nor does Mrs. Elton escape, “with her Mr. E., and her caro sposo” (279).  Parody implies an intimate knowledge of the work parodied, and Emma has become an expert mimic and critic.  Mr. Knightley, too, has a good ear; and one of the absorbing scenes of the end of the novel consists of his reading Frank Churchill’s long letter of explanation; and delivering on it a three-page lecture in what we English profs call practical criticism (444-8).  The discriminating members of Highbury society have a virtually professional expertise in each others’ language.

Their expertise in language manifests itself in the word games they play.  They take language apart, and put it together again.  Mr. Elton’s charade separates the syllables of courtship, and then rejoins them in order to deliver his secret message.  Mr. Weston’s conundrum, his “one thing very clever” in the game at Box Hill, is his reduction of Emma’s name to the two letters M and A, to convey the compliment that she is “perfection” (371).  In the game of alphabet, properly played by children, but taken over by sophisticated adults for their own devious purposes, the words blunder and Dixon are disassembled to their component letters and then reconstructed in order to convey a “covert meaning” (349).  Today I want to play a similar game.  I shall be taking apart some of the characters’ speeches, their secret languages, and putting them together again in order to illuminate their covert meaning.

I’ll start with Emma’s speech – and that should please her, because she loves to be first.  Emma, we know, is an “imaginist” (335).  She constructs narratives about the people she knows, and she takes steps to make them live her stories.  She constantly interprets reality, so as to make it conform to her constructed version of it.  In the realm of language, this activity takes the form of over-interpreting other people’s speech.  She often assumes an innuendo, a secret message, that isn’t there; and while she is assuming a non-existent secret message, she is likely to miss the one that is there.

I want to make the excuse for Emma that if she is addicted to covert meanings in what she says, and especially in what she hears, it is partly because she has been starved at home for complex discourse.  With all her talent for conversation and ingenious speculation, she is stuck at home with Mr. Woodhouse.  “Conversation,” in the exacting sense of the word that implies advancing a subject by a verbal exchange between speakers, is beyond him.  On their first evening alone together after the departure of Miss Taylor, and in spite of Emma’s bracing words of consolation, “when tea came it was impossible for him not to say exactly as he had said at dinner, ‘Poor Miss Taylor!’ ” (8).  If he is sedentary in his life, he is even more so in his speech, which characteristically goes nowhere.  When it snows at the Randalls dinner party, “ ‘What is to be done, my dear Emma? – what is to be done?’ was Mr. Woodhouse’s first exclamation; and all that he could say for some time” (126).  He is like a record stuck in a groove.

Emma’s other talking companion, Harriet, is not much better.  “If Harriet’s praise could have satisfied her, she might soon have been comforted,” we hear (231).  But Harriet exemplifies the principle that words of praise or agreement from the undiscriminating are completely devalued.  In Highbury there are a number of yea-sayers who are willing to suppress their own identities in order to get along with people; and it avails them very little.  “To be sure.  Yes” is Harriet’s formula for agreement, used three times on two pages (30-31); Mr. Elton says “Exactly so” (42, 44, 48); Isabella Knightley says “Very true, my love” (113).  And small thanks they get for their agreeableness, any of them.  For genuine conversation, for a verbal tennis match of Wimbledon quality, the kind of opposition that raises the quality of the game, Emma needs more seeded players.  Emma is starved for lack of competent verbal opposition.  That is one reason Mr. Knightley is so valuable to her.

Being so overqualified in her exchanges with Harriet, Emma varies the game by trying some virtuoso tactics.  She drops direct and explicit speech, and moves into a layered discourse that does two things at once.  When she proceeds to detach Harriet from Robert Martin, she doesn’t talk directly and say “Robert Martin isn’t good enough for you.”  Instead she pretends to assume Harriet knows this already.  She says, “When Mr. Martin marries, I wish you may not be drawn in … to be acquainted with the wife, who will probably be some mere farmer’s daughter, without education” (31).  Emma has a secret agenda, and she disguises it; and Harriet can’t argue on these mysterious grounds.  When Robert Martin’s proposal arrives, Emma tries to dictate the answer without appearing to do so.  You need not be prompted to write with the appearance of sorrow for his disappointment,” she says disingenuously.  Harriet, who isn’t very good at following this verbal double-dealing, tactlessly translates: “You think I ought to refuse him, then” (52).  Dumb Harriet!  To put in direct terms just the instruction that Emma claims she is scrupulously not giving!  Here we see Emma at her worst, using a language of implication to lie with.  “Not for the world … would I advise you either way,” she says loftily (53).  Liar!

Emma gets more practice in developing levels of meaning in her speech with Mr. Elton, when he comes courting.  He absurdly overdoes his language of implication: “There was a sort of parade in his speeches which was very apt to incline her to laugh,” we hear (82).  His over-emphasis is one reason she cannot see herself as “a principal” in the courtship (48).  But she takes up this discourse of indirection with a certain zest, proud of being, as she thinks, an adept at it.  The language of courtship in this society must be guarded, oblique, particularly in its early stages.  The man must send out signals without absolutely committing himself.  If the woman returns the signals, he has received “encouragement,” and can proceed accordingly.  If she doesn’t, he can withdraw without loss of face, because there has been no direct declaration.  Mr. Elton takes pains to send all the right signals.  A lover, according to the code, must admire his ladylove in all she does.  Mr. Elton is quite ready to do this, or at least to say he does.  Emma’s current enterprise is to improve Harriet.  Mr. Elton is ready with the praise.


“You have given Miss Smith all that she required,” said he; “You have made her graceful and easy.  She was a beautiful creature when she came to you, but … the attractions you have added are infinitely superior to what she received from nature ….  Skilful has been the hand.” (42-3)


Poor chap, he could hardly lay it on any thicker.  But even though Emma recognizes the code very well, she misreads its terms.  Elton emphasizes the “you” in his praise; but the emphasis that she hears is on “she.”  Both are so intent on the code they are speaking that they don’t pay proper attention to the code they are hearing.  Emma entirely mistranslates Mr. Elton’s secret language.  But so does he hers.

One last attempt he makes to interpret Emma’s signals the way he wants to understand them.  In the carriage coming back from Randalls on that snowy night, he seizes his opportunity and gabbles his proposal.  Emma is silent with chagrin.  “Allow me to interpret this interesting silence [he continues.]  It confesses that you have long understood me” (131).  By the time people take on interpreting each other’s silences, we are fully aware that the secret languages are being over-translated.

Interpreting silence is an occupation that Emma takes up in her relation with Jane Fairfax.  Jane is so “reserved,” so cagey and non-committal in all her pronouncements, that Emma comes to assume she has something to conceal: and of course she is quite right.  Jane is most reserved, Emma finds, “on the subject of Weymouth and the Dixons” (169).  This is a shrewd discovery.  But Emma picks up on the wrong element of the package, the Dixons rather than Weymouth: “She seemed bent on giving no real insight into Mr. Dixon’s character, or her own value for his company ….  It did her no service however.  Her caution was thrown away.  Emma saw its artifice, and returned to her first surmises” (169).  She too proceeds to interpret the interesting silences, hearing a secret language.  But again it is the wrong secret language.

Where Jane Fairfax, having a secret to conceal, becomes a tar-baby, taking refuge in silence and reserve, Frank Churchill specializes in a display of openness that is really an elaborate disguise.  And all this is enacted in his speech.  His name, “Frank,” is his first disguise.  Though Jane Austen uses the adjective “frank,” in the familiar sense of open and candid, in her earlier work,2 in Emma the only “Frank” that appears is the name.3  Frank’s name is an epitome of himself and his language.  At first he seems frank and open to both the reader and the surrounding characters.  As we learn more we discover he has not been “frank” at all, but has practised an elaborate and deliberate deceit.  But finally, when we have followed his language through to the end, we discover that his ultimate pronouncement is truthful, and “Frank” is not a misnomer after all.  To follow through this process we need to peel off his secret languages, layer by layer, from his different speeches.

Frank is important to Emma in providing her with the witty and freighted conversation that she has so notably lacked in her communications with her father and Harriet.  In dealing with Mr. Elton she was getting into training for following through the intricacies of a language of implication.  In her relation with Frank Churchill she sees a virtuoso at work, someone who skillfully manages a multi-layered discourse, which includes different secret languages for different hearers, and who rejoices in his facility as well.  His first move is to disarm suspicion by discreet praise.  He doesn’t plaster people with flattery, as Lucy Steele does in Sense and Sensibility; he’s more subtle than that.  For instance, he wins over Mrs. Weston by praising Emma.  And likewise he wins over Emma by praising Mrs. Weston, with a flattering insinuation that Emma can take credit for the virtues of her governess.  “He got as near as he could to thanking her for Miss Taylor’s merits” (192).  Emma needs no “additional proof of his knowing how to please” (191).  He is a master of the art of informed compliment.

Just as he uses this art to disarm and blind Emma, he uses gentle abuse as another front.  He quickly picks up the fact that Jane Fairfax’s reserve has made Emma suspicious.  When Emma asks how well he knew Jane at Weymouth, he hedges, and Emma exclaims “Upon my word! you answer as discreetly as she could do herself” (200).  Thereafter he proceeds to live up to his name, “Frank.”  Or at least to appear to.  As he has discreetly praised, now he discreetly blames.  He abuses Jane’s pale complexion, her outré hairdo, her languid dancing.  He says Jane looks “Ill, very ill – that is, if a young lady can ever be allowed to look ill ….  – A most deplorable want of complexion” (199).  While Emma staunchly defends Jane’s complexion, she is, of course, quite pleased to hear some deviation from Mr. Knightley’s uniform praise of her; and, feeling privileged and preferred, she is completely fooled.  (Much later, when Frank is rhapsodising over his fiancée’s complexion, Emma reminds him of those comments, and he laughs gleefully: “What an impudent dog I was!” [478].  He enjoyed his successful deception.)

Frank doesn’t tell outright lies.  His preferred mode is to speak a speech that in context deceives, but is in fact technically true.  Remember the dinner at the Coles, for instance.  The intriguing news is spreading that Jane Fairfax has just received a piano from a mystery donor.  Emma proceeds to speculate about it with Frank.  Being the mystery donor himself, he is naturally nervous, but outwardly cool.  “Why do you smile?” she asks him.  “Nay, why do you?” he responds cagily.  He is determined to follow, not to lead.


“You may say what you chuse [she persists] – but your countenance testifies that your thoughts on this subject are very much like mine.”


Frank must be in a sweat.  No wonder he thinks she is on to him.  But he covers himself cautiously:


“I rather believe you are giving me more credit for acuteness than I deserve.  I smile because you smile, and shall probably suspect whatever you suspect.” (216)


Such delightful deference to her deductive powers is irresistible to Emma, and presently she spills the beans about her suspicions on Mr. Dixon.  Frank – as one imagines, with a sigh of relief – can enjoy his immunity from suspicion.  And he delightedly acquiesces, pretending to be utterly convinced:


“Now I can see [the piano] in no other light than as an offering of love.”  There was no occasion [for Emma] to push the matter further.  The conviction seemed real; he looked as if he felt it.  (219)


As we know and he knows, the piano is an offering of love.  Frank Churchill is “Frank” after all, although Emma is still completely deceived.  He has managed to come full circle through deception to literal truth: and he clearly rejoices in the fancy verbal footwork involved.

Now I would like to consider the piano scene at the Bateses for a moment, because it furnishes Frank with his best opportunity for the spectacular display of his virtuoso’s talent in secret languages.  You all know the scene, which follows on one of the most passionate unwritten scenes in Jane Austen.  It is the morning after the Coles’ party.  Miss Bates and Mrs. Weston – “one voice and two ladies”! (235) – have walked into the street to persuade Emma and Harriet to come and hear the piano.  Meanwhile, back at the Bateses, as we deduce, Frank is having his first moments alone, or almost alone, with Jane since he gave her the piano.  The piano was a Valentine’s gift, remember: it arrived on February 14.4  He has told her the gift was from him.  Her feelings must be tumultuous, if conflicting. Frank – dare we guess it? – has kissed her.  In any case, we have enough evidence that they have sprung guiltily apart.  Old Mrs. Bates, most accommodating of chaperones, is “peacefully slumbering”; Frank is “most deedily occupied” in mending her spectacles (a fine cover-up).  And Jane, who is not nearly so good as Frank at concealing her feelings or her guilt, is “standing with her back to them, intent on her pianoforté” (240) – or so Emma mistakenly supposes.  Even Emma can see that Jane is deeply disturbed.  She can’t yet play the piano: “she had not yet possessed the instrument long enough to touch it without emotion,” Emma explains to herself (240).  Whatever went on between Frank and Jane in their precious private moments together, Jane is still vibrating.

In this interesting situation, Frank Churchill has enough to do.  Deeply in love, he must carry on his love scene with Jane, though covertly.  Deeply intriguing, he must carry on his speculation with Emma, also covertly.  And as for the company at large, he must divert suspicion.  This is what he says of the Irish melodies that have been sent along with the instrument:


“Very thoughtful of Col. Campbell, was not it?  – He knew Miss Fairfax could have no music here.  I honour that part of the attention particularly; it shews it to have been so thoroughly from the heart.  Nothing hastily done; nothing incomplete.  True affection only could have prompted it.” (242)


One needs to be an interpreter of truly United Nations quality to translate these secret languages.  But let me try.  To Jane Frank says, “Jane, I gave you the piano and the music that goes with it because I love you, and I think about you all the time.”  To Emma he says, “Watch me embarrass Jane Fairfax by talking pointedly about Colonel Campbell as the donor, when she knows, as you and I know, that it was Dixon’s guilty love that prompted the gift.”  And for the company at large, he simply confirms the proper assumption that the gift was from avuncular Colonel Campbell.

We know that the two girls, at least, receive the secret messages:


Emma wished he would be less pointed, yet could not help being amused; and … on glancing her eye towards Jane Fairfax she caught … with all the deep blush of consciousness … a smile of secret delight. (243)


Clearly Frank has managed his secret transmissions very successfully.

Though Jane understands Frank’s secret language very well, she doesn’t use such codes herself; or at least not usually.  Her covert communications are the involuntary ones, the reliable body language of blushes and secret smiles, rather than deliberate and verbal.  But at Box Hill she finds her covert tongue, and delivers the coded message as skilfully as Frank.  He has been carrying on – in code – their lovers’ quarrel of the day before.  Apparently à propos of the Eltons, but for her ears meaning himself, he says “How many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance, and rued it all the rest of his life!” (373).  In other words, he wants out of the engagement.  “Such things do occur, undoubtedly,” she begins.  But “she was stopped by a cough” (373).  Don’t miss that cough!  Her body is declaring her again.  Jane Fairfax, cold fish though Emma has always thought her, is fighting back her tears.  When she has “recovered her voice,” she resolutely delivers her secret message to Frank5: “it can be only weak, irresolute characters … who will suffer an unfortunate acquaintance to be an inconvenience, an oppression for ever” (373).  In other words, “Get lost, Frank; I’m outa here!”

Emma has been listening avidly to this exchange.  And what does she hear?  Another language altogether.  Frank’s apparently light-hearted undertaking, “I shall go abroad for a couple of years – and when I return, I shall come to you for my wife,” is really intended for Jane.  Bitterly disappointed in love, he signals, he will take to European travel, like a cynical Childe Harold.  But Emma has her own translation: “Would not Harriet be the very creature described? …  He might even have Harriet in his thoughts at the moment” (373).

Clearly, for all her powers as a speaker, Emma is not a very effective listener.  Yet she tries so hard!  There is a moment at the Coles’ dinner party, when Mrs. Cole has been spreading the news about that mysterious piano, when the narrator, almost in an aside, drops a hint: “finding that nothing more was to be entrapped from any communication of Mrs. Cole’s, [Emma] turned to Frank Churchill” (216).  Entrapped!  Emma entraps the words she hears, makes them her own, and puts them to work for her.  Typically, “she listened, and found it well worth listening to.  That very dear part of Emma, her fancy, received an amusing supply” (214).  Listening, for Emma, means trapping words and making them serve her own imagination.

In her converse with Elton and Frank Emma has learned about secret languages, different levels of meaning, and she thinks she has become adept at separating the layers.  She applies her skill to Mr. Knightley’s discourse.  But Mr. Knightley is not a good subject for the exercise.

So far as is possible with such a volatile medium as language, and among beings as complicated as Austen’s characters, Mr. Knightley says what he means and means what he says, with no overplus of innuendo and no shortfall of concealment.  He is like his own estate, Donwell Abbey, which “was just what it ought to be, and looked what it was” (358).  Emma knows this of him, and his reliability in language is from the first a reason for her lasting trust and respect for him.  She describes to Harriet his “downright, decided, commanding sort of manner” (34).  She notes and appreciates the contrast between her father’s elaborate and ceremonial courtesies and Mr. Knightley’s “short, decided answers” (57).  When Mrs. Weston suggests that he might have given the piano to Jane Fairfax, Emma is confident and accurate in rejecting the suggestion.  “Mr. Knightley does nothing mysteriously,” she declares (226).  And she is right.

Occasionally we see the two of them acting together as a team, and using language effectively in a crisis.  For instance: Mr. Woodhouse, on his single excursion from his home, faces a snowfall, and becomes almost catatonic:


while the others were variously urging and recommending, Mr. Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences: thus –  “Your father will not be easy; why do not you go?”

“I am ready, if the others are.”

“Shall I ring the bell?”

“Yes, do.”

And the bell was rung, and the carriages spoken for.  (128)


Language may be put to other and more glorious uses; but unless it works at this simple level of usefulness, it is unlikely to be effective for more complex and decorative purposes.  This little scene, which puts the two principal characters in a relation through their “few brief sentences,” as they cope with a situation involving a third, shows them as essentially compatible partners.  It is like the scene on the cobb in Persuasion, where Anne’s prompt thinking and speaking in a crisis reawakens Wentworth to her being the only woman he can love.

Mr. Knightley has no hidden agendas.  While Emma is befuddling Harriet with unspoken assumptions about whether Robert Martin is good enough for Miss Woodhouse’s friend, Mr. Knightley can be quite open and outspoken on the delicate matter of female friendship: “I do not know what your opinion may be, Mrs. Weston, … of this great intimacy between Emma and Harriet Smith, but I think it a bad thing” (36).  No need to translate or interpret that speech.  It says what it means and means what it says.

All this is not to say that Mr. Knightley is incapable of using language playfully or figuratively.  A simple unvarying one-to-one relationship between word and referent, signifier and signified, is neither attainable nor desirable.  Mr. Knightley can use humour and irony very effectively when he chooses.  One of the funniest speeches in the novel, to my ear, is the one he delivers from horseback, when he is outside Miss Bates’s window.  It is late in the piano scene that I’ve discussed, after the reader has been following through Frank Churchill’s devious verbal gambits and misleading compliments.  Half the gentlefolk of Highbury are assembled, you will remember, in order to hear the new piano and discuss the dinner and dance at the Coles’.  And kind gushing Miss Bates hollers to Mr. Knightley out of her window, so that their exchange is necessarily somewhat public.


“Oh! Mr. Knightley, what a delightful party last night; …  Did you ever see such dancing?  – Was not it delightful?  – Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill; I never saw anything equal to it.”

“Oh! very delightful indeed [he calls back]; I can say nothing less, for I suppose Miss  Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill are hearing every thing that passes.  And (raising his voice still more) I do not see why Miss Fairfax should not be mentioned too.  I think Miss Fairfax dances very well; and Mrs. Weston is the very best country-dance player, without exception, in England.  Now, if your friends have any gratitude, they will say something pretty loud about you and me in return; but I cannot stay to hear it.” (245)


In this awkward situation, in which most people would be thoroughly embarrassed, Mr. Knightley manages to pick up the social and complimentary mode of Miss Bates and Frank Churchill, parody it effectively, hand out further praise where it is due, relieve his feelings on the Emma-Frank pairing, and bow out while the last word is his; and all without giving offense.

As the novel amply demonstrates, “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure” (431).  Even Mr. Knightley can’t be clear and direct in all his discourse.  No subject is so apt to cloud and distort communication as love.  People expect and assume secrecy and indirection in the expression of love.  But even on that subject Mr. Knightley tries to be clear and exact.

Mrs. Weston suspects him of being in love with Jane Fairfax.  Instead of asking him outright if this is the case, she discusses the matter with Emma, and so the suspicion grows.  They listen to him for clues to this attachment, exchange glances, nudge and nod.  Mrs. Weston presses Emma’s foot, Emma “returned her friend’s pressure with interest” (287).  And all the while Mr. Knightley is trying his best to tell the exact truth.  “I know how highly you think of Jane Fairfax,” Emma says, guilefully leading him on, because “Little Henry was in her thoughts.”  “Yes,” he says, “any body may know how highly I think of her” – disarming all speculation, one would suppose.  But Emma, not satisfied, wants “to know the worst at once,” and suggests he may admire Jane more than he knows himself.  This is as far as she can go in plain speaking.  But he can go further, and does so, promptly.  He is concerned to put an end to such hinting and speculation.  “Miss Fairfax, I dare say, would not have me if I were to ask her – and I am very sure I shall never ask her” (287).  This, surely, should be clear enough.  But Mrs. Weston is still not satisfied.  She still argues to Emma that “he is so very much occupied by the idea of not being in love with her, that I should not wonder if it were to end in his being so at last” (289).  Some people won’t be convinced, even by the most direct and declarative language.

Mr. Knightley is of course more reticent about whom he does love.  Emma, at least, is surprised when she finds out.  And yet he has been disarmingly frank about this too.  In a very early scene he agrees with Mrs. Weston about Emma’s beauty, and avows without disguise, “I love to look at her” (39).  As for her personality, he also declares, “I love an open temper” (289).  But in the subject of love, frankness puts all the interpreters off the scent.

For in spite of his openness, his steady pursuit of the principle of saying what he means and eschewing disguise, Emma misreads Mr. Knightley, and most crucially in the matter of his love for herself.  (It is her saving touch of humility that she does not see it.)  She misreads him because she over-interprets.  All her training with the Eltons and the Frank Churchills of her world have made her too avid an interpreter, so alert to secret languages that she can’t hear the direct and overt language.  And this fault in her, her tendency to over-interpret, comes very close to ruining her happiness.

I spent some time on the piano scene in considering Frank Churchill’s language, and Emma’s powers of interpretation.  Now I’d like to focus on the proposal scene as the example for Mr. Knightley’s and Emma’s language, and their mutual powers of interpretation.

You will remember that when Emma and Mr. Knightley get together in the shrubbery on that turbulent day, with the summertime reasserting itself after the “cold stormy rain” (421),6 he thinks she is in love with Frank Churchill, and she thinks he is in love with Harriet.  Hardly a propitious context for a proposal from one to the other.  Mr. Knightley, insecure and depressed, does some over-interpreting of his own.  As they discuss Frank’s engagement to Jane, Emma, painfully aware how she has exposed herself and misled Harriet, confesses “I seem to have been doomed to blindness” (425).  But the secret language that Mr. Knightley hears may be translated, “I fell in love with him, not knowing he was engaged.”  “Abominable scoundrel!”  Mr. Knightley explodes (426).  He is fierce against Frank, tender towards Emma, inarticulate in his syntax, but clear in his body language: he takes her arm and presses it.

For all his explosive and disconnected syntax, however, we hear “Emma understood him” (426).  And presently, speaking as clearly and directly as she can, she has set his mind at rest about her feelings for Frank.  She cannot be completely clear, however.  This is what she says:


“No one, I am sure, could be more effectually blinded [by Frank Churchill’s behaviour] than myself – except that I was not blinded – that it was my good fortune – that, in short, I was somehow or other safe from him.” (427)


Her stumbling sentence structure signals a secret, which the reader can translate though Mr. Knightley can’t.  “In short, I was safe from him because I was already in love with you,” she reveals involuntarily, though he can’t yet understand as we can.  “Prepossession” is almost a woman’s only defence from a confident man’s persistent courtship – as with Fanny Price and Henry Crawford.

Once Mr. Knightley is enlightened as to Emma’s being heartwhole – at least so far as Frank is concerned – there is no obstacle to his own declaration, and he at once moves in this direction.  But this is where Emma’s overinterpretation almost ruins everything.  Mr. Knightley says he envies Frank Churchill.  That puts the ball in her court.  Emma ought to say, “Oh?  In what way do you envy him?” – and then he could proceed with his declaration.  But Emma has already projected that he is about to blurt out, “Emma, I’m in love with Harriet!  I’ve told John and Isabella about it, and they’re furious.  What shall I do?”  (Not that Mr. Knightley would ever be guilty of such hackneyed language!  But Emma and I are doing our translation in advance!)  When Mr. Knightley persists, and says, “I must tell you what you will not ask,” Emma is sure he is “within half a sentence of Harriet,” and eagerly cries “Oh! then, don’t speak it, don’t speak it!” (429).

“Oh, Emma!” we feel like shouting at her, “for God’s sake shut up, and just listen.  Listen to what the man is saying, not what you think he’s saying!  He isn’t talking a secret language now!”

For in fact, as you all remember, she has silenced him.  She has stopped him from saying the very words she most wants and needs to hear.  This to me is the most crucial moral climax in the novel.  We know Mr. Knightley loves Emma.  We know she loves him.  But does she deserve him?  Everything depends on her thoughts and words of the next moments.  Hanging in the balance is her happiness, and Mr. Knightley’s.  Shall it be shipwreck, or sunny sailing on blue seas?

What does she think?  Just what she ought, of course:


Emma could not bear to give him pain.  He was wishing to confide in her – perhaps to consult her;  – cost her what it would, she would listen.  She might assist his resolution, or reconcile him to it; she might give just praise to Harriet.  (429)


Hurray, Emma you’ve done it!  You’ve just earned Mr. Knightley!  In that brief piece of reflection Emma atones for all her sins of over-interpretation, and of selfishness and self-aggrandisement, all her unwarrantable manipulation of Harriet, her unkind cut at Miss Bates.  We know enough of Emma’s powers to be sure that she could put a spoke in the wheel of a Harriet-Knightley match, as she had prevented a Harriet-Robert Martin match.  But she is not going to do that.  For Mr. Knightley’s sake, for Harriet’s sake, she is ready to face the pain of hearing he loves Harriet, and the difficulty of encouraging him to be happy with the orphan girl of his choice.  At last she is ready to listen, really to listen, and to hear what he actually has to say.  She is willing to make a sacrifice, and for that very reason she is saved from having to make it.

Well, we all know what happens.  She bravely reopens the conversation.  She hears the declaration of love she had suspended – and it is a declaration of love for her, not for Harriet.  So she can live happily ever after.  And she earned that happiness.

Even if all the secret languages, the multi-layered discourse of the many busily intriguing characters, had been only there as a build-up to this scene, with its zigzags of misunderstandings and misinterpretations, they would have been worth it.  As it is, though, they are delightful – intriguing in the other sense – in themselves.  Speech has been developed as an art form capable of immense refinement, a profession, indeed, worth devoting a lifetime to.  As we watch the characters at their business of talking, sending their signals covert and overt, we as readers receive an elaborate training in complex articulation and ingenious interpretation.  We also become aware, as we follow the intricacies of Frank’s deceptive frankness or Emma’s over-interpretation, of the dangers of over-reading.  Let’s hope this training avails us in our lives.  But then, all of us here assembled know there’s no such thing as over-reading Jane Austen.






1  I use R.W. Chapman’s edition of The Novels of Jane Austen, 3rd edition, 1966 reprint (London: Oxford University Press), in which Emma is volume IV.


2  In Sense and Sensibility, for instance, we hear of “an easy and frank communication of her sentiments” (127); and in Pride and Prejudice Lady Catherine memorably boasts, “My character has ever been celebrated for its sincerity and frankness” (PP, 353).


3  See A Concordance to the Works of Jane Austen, by Peter L. DeRose and S.W. McGuire, 3 vols. (New York: Garland, 1982), under “frank.”


4  Jo Modert establishes this submerged but significant date for Frank’s gift of the piano in “Chronology Within the Novels,” in The Jane Austen Companion, ed. J. David Grey, A. Walton Litz and Brian Southam (New York: Macmillan, 1986), p. 57.


5  I have discussed this scene and its subsurface implications in more detail in “Surface and Subsurface,” the second chapter in my Jane Austen on Love (Victoria: English Literary Studies, 1978), pp. 40-42.


6  Jane Austen is not above making use of the pathetic fallacy: the external weather signals Emma’s internal condition.

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