Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reflections on Emma: Letters - "Is it too short?"

Note to readers: So my brain has been, for good reason, a bit bewildered lately. I apologize to those who read my bizarre assertions earlier and thank Barbara C for bringing the situation to my attention. Let's call it a blunder, in the spirit of the heroine.

Letters are shared and passed around Highbury with glee and interest (we are even treated to a discourse on the great merits of the postal system), but while the contents of these many missives are happily imparted, it seems so odd that Jane Austen, who began her writing career experimenting with the epistolary form, should so deliberately exclude all but one. This is because Emma, as much as it is focused on the emotional maturation of its heroine, is a detective story whose mystery is premised in misinformation. The truth is cleverly concealed behind assumptions, prattling gossip, and the misguided games of a mischievous, if well-meaning, man-child.

The first letter we hear of is Mr. Frank Churchill's to his new step-mother, Mrs. Weston.
Now, upon his father's marriage, it was very generally proposed, as a most proper attention, that the visit should take place. There was not a dissentient voice on the subject, either when Mrs. Perry drank tea with Mrs. and Miss Bates, or when Mrs. and Miss Bates returned the visit. Now was the time for Mr. Frank Churchill to come among them; and the hope strengthened when it was understood that he had written to his new mother on the occasion. For a few days, every morning visit in Highbury included some mention of the handsome letter Mrs. Weston had received. "I suppose you have heard of the handsome letter Mr. Frank Churchill has written to Mrs. Weston? I understand it was a very handsome letter, indeed. Mr. Woodhouse told me of it. Mr. Woodhouse saw the letter, and he says he never saw such a handsome letter in his life."
Highbury, here represented by the voice of Miss Bates, judges a person based upon the quality of their letters. Frank Churchill's letter to Mrs. Weston causes everyone to think well of him despite the fact, as Mr. Knightley so wisely points out, that a good letter does not necessarily equate good character:
"He can sit down and write a fine flourishing letter, full of professions and falsehoods, and persuade himself that he has hit upon the very best method in the world of preserving peace at home and preventing his father's having any right to complain. His letters disgust me."
However, at other times, preexisting prejudice determines readers against a letter writer despite evidence, in the form of a well-written composition, that their assumptions are wrong. When Harriet receives a written proposal from Robert Martin, she is more concerned that the brevity of the letter should render it not worthy than its substance, but Emma sees past the length to the sentiment expressed:

Emma was not sorry to be pressed. She read, and was surprized. The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling. She paused over it, while Harriet stood anxiously watching for her opinion, with a "Well, well," and was at last forced to add, "Is it a good letter? or is it too short?"

"Yes, indeed, a very good letter," replied Emma rather slowly—"so good a letter, Harriet, that every thing considered, I think one of his sisters must have helped him. I can hardly imagine the young man whom I saw talking with you the other day could express himself so well, if left quite to his own powers, and yet it is not the style of a woman; no, certainly, it is too strong and concise; not diffuse enough for a woman. No doubt he is a sensible man, and I suppose may have a natural talent for—thinks strongly and clearly—and when he takes a pen in hand, his thoughts naturally find proper words. It is so with some men. Yes, I understand the sort of mind. Vigorous, decided, with sentiments to a certain point, not coarse. A better written letter, Harriet (returning it,) than I had expected."

Despite her own admission that his letter reveals Robert Martin to be more worthy than she suspected, Emma struggles to undermine his effort, suggesting he is not the originator of the composition, and responding in kind by largely composing Harriet's response herself. One assumes that Mr. Martin, upon reception of the refusal, recognized that it was not his Harriet's words on the paper, though her hand wrote it. I imagine a scene much in sentiment like that enacted by Marianne Dashwood when Willoughby returned her letters and hair, though far less dramatic.

It is Miss Bates who has the honor of spreading the contents of letters throughout the drawing rooms of Highbury. So determined is she to share news, particularly about her beloved niece, that Emma intentionally tries to avoid paying a call on the worthy lady unless she is "just now quite safe from any letter from Jane Fairfax." But alas, Jane writes out of turn and Miss Bates receives the happy epistle that announces her visit just in time to share it with dear Miss Woodhouse. This is one of my favorite chapters in the book, the first of the second volume (as depicted in the C.E. Brock illustration above, borrowed from that excellent resource,, ending in this fabulous line:

She regained the street--happy in this, that though much had been forced on her against her will, though she had in fact heard the whole substance of Jane Fairfax's letter, she had been able to escape the letter itself.

When Miss Bates receives a note from Mrs. Cole, whose husband received a letter from Mr. Elton, sharing the great news of Mr. Elton's engagement, she just manages to share the word with Hartfield before Mr. Knightley can spill the beans. Amusingly, he echoes Harriet Smith's observations regarding length:

"It was short--merely to announce--but cheerful, exulting, of course."--Here was a sly glance at Emma. "He had been so fortunate as to--I forget the precise words--one has no business to remember them. The information was, as you state, that he was going to be married to a Miss Hawkins. By his style, I should imagine it just settled."
Always the voice of reason in the story, Mr. Knightley shines light on the fact that length and flourish are not important, but that the substance of and manner in which a letter is composed do reveal much about the writer.

Were the majority of these communique included for readers to analyze, we, like Mr. Knightley, might see through all the blunders and misconceptions to the truth, thereby destroying the mystery. The only letter which Austen does include (thank you Barbara C) brings us full circle as Frank Churchill acknowledges his wrongdoing and requests the forgiveness of Mrs. Weston. Though he complains that "it seems long", Mr. Knightley is persuaded to carefully pursue it and do justice to the good feelings of the author. The majority of Chapter 51 is taken up by Mr. Knightley's comments as he reads, finding fault where Emma see flattery:

"You do not appear so well satisfied with his letter as I am; but still you must, at least I hope you must, think the better of him for it. I hope it does him some service with you."

"Yes, certainly it does. He has had great faults, faults of inconsideration and thoughtlessness; and I am very much of his opinion in thinking him likely to be happier than he deserves: but still as he is, beyond a doubt, really attached to Miss Fairfax, and will soon, it may be hoped, have the advantage of being constantly with her, I am very ready to believe his character will improve, and acquire from hers the steadiness and delicacy of principle that it wants."
His opinion of Frank Churchill not changed but confirmed by events, Mr. Knightley, while reading the letter, utters the concise line that perfectly summarizes the themes of Emma:
"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?"
Happy Emma conclusion everybody!


  1. Of course, we do get to read the text of Frank's letter to Mrs. Weston in Chapter 50, but I never noticed till you pointed it out, how many letters we hear of but never read!

  2. Oh my! I knew there was something else I was trying to get out when I first started writing this, but me and my disordered brain couldn't remember what it was and threw this intro on the piece. Thank you so much for bringing my completely inane brain to attention before this remained up for much longer. I'm off to edit - I can't believe I did this!

  3. I'm enjoying your scholarly musings on Jane Austen, Alexaand I do agree with you that there are many letters in this book not shown. But Frank Churchill's long letter definitely makes up for it a little!

  4. O.K. It's fixed and far more coherent, I believe. I feel such a fool right now - I just read this book the other day, for the who-knows-what-nth time! Those who know me, know I am usually less idiotic. I'm truly horrified by myself.

  5. Meredith - Indeed it does. Not so very scholarly, were they? Maybe I had best stay off the blog until my head comes back, in order to avoid similar, absolutely horrifying, faux pas.

  6. Oh, please don't feel silly about the mistake...anyone could see that you know the novel very well and have very insightful and intelligent thoughts about it! It's the sort of oversight anyone could make (especially me), and I have nothing like your excuse! I do hope you won't stay off the blog!

  7. Thanks Barbara. I'm just very frustrated with myself right now. I'm sure I'll get excited about something and blog on. Hopefully it wont be long before life gets back to normal and I feel myself again.