ILAWFT: Emma by Jane Austen

I Learned About Writing From That: Jane Austen’s Emma.


‘Emma’ by Jane Austen. Not my edition, which is even more poorly designed.

Having been warned off it, even by the author, on the grounds that the lead was wholly unlikeable I ended up actually being charmed by Miss Woodhouse, less perceptive version of Blair Waldorf though she may be.

But what really struck me was how well her unreliability as point of view character was put to use, turning the book into a masterful detective novel with Woodhouse more Wilson than House. Although not strictly close third, we do tend to see the action through her eyes and mostly receive her commentary on it. Which is great because charming, scheming and tasteful as she may be in societal matters, her ability to read people is hilariously lacking.

Over the first 100 pages or so we see her efforts to matchmake go horribly awry, the slow dawning of her error occurs to the reader in dribs and drabs but Emma remains ignorant right up until the big reveal. With this warning to up our Sherlock-game sorted, the plot then introduces Miss Jane Fairfax and Mr Churchill, and brings Mr Knightley into play. The two men are either after Emma or Jane and every character has their own opinion. Every action of the men is given over to scrutiny and though Emma remains mostly sure in her own assessments the reader has to keep wondering.

It functions very much in the way of good detective fiction, without it feeling gimmicky, and it gives an extra layer of interest to the witty give and take of the social set which we know from basically any other Austen novel ever. It put me a little in mind of a few other genre pieces that use similar tools: GRRM’s constantly shifting perspectives and the amount of additional story he manages to squeeze into details that mean little to the POV character he chose. Or the way one is left to make the connections between Regan’s clay birds and and the defaced icons in the church in The Exorcist.

At least in this mystery no-one dies…

…or do they?


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Filed under Reading, Writing

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