Emma a Detective Novel?

December’s birthday meeting of JASNA-NY spread festive cheer to all who attended. Held on December 15, 2018, guests gathered at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church and started the day with a delightful ice breaker activity, in which members composed letters to Father Christmas in character as Lucy Steele, Miss Bates, and Mary Musgrove, among others.

The speaker, Dr. Deborah Knuth Klenck, professor of English at Colgate University, entertained the audience with her presentation, “‘Elementary, My Dear Emma?’ Misreadings and Missed Readings in Emma.” Dr. Knuth Klenck posited that Jane Austen has constructed Emma to be re-read in order to find the “clues” she left throughout the plot, pre-dating the detective story. Detective stories, like that of Arthur Conan Doyle’s immortal Sherlock Holmes mysteries, have a built-in second reading, which is familiar and reassuring now that the danger is resolved. Only upon re-reading Emma, you realize you’re not Holmes, but Watson, having missed the clues Austen provided.

birthday tea tree
Dr. Knuth Klenck shared numerous episodes in the novel that, upon first reading appear one way, but once you know the true story take on a very different meaning. For example, Emma believes that she is the object of Frank Churchill’s attention at the Coles’ party:

“…after paying his compliments en passant to Miss Bates and her niece, made his way directly to the opposite side of the circle, where sat Miss Woodhouse; and till he could find a seat by her, would not sit at all. Emma divined what everybody present must be thinking. She was his object, and everybody must perceive it.”

But what the reader perceives on her second or third re-read is that, of course, Frank pays his compliments first to Jane Fairfax, his secret fiancée. But Austen’s use of the word “must” misdirects the reader to be as deluded as Emma herself is.

Following Dr. Knuth Klenck’s insightful talk, members toasted Jane Austen’s birthday and enjoyed a delightful afternoon tea.

Marybeth Ihle