Guest Post: Speculation and Conjecture in Jane Austen’s Emma (#AustenInAugustLGR)

Happy Thursday, Janeites! I’m here to welcome another fabulous guest blogger to the Lost Generation Reader stage. Ellen Mandeville blogs at Ellen Exploring: Seeking Truth One Post at a – SQUIRREL! She holds a degree in English Literature and is currently writing Hartfield, a sequel to Emma. Welcome, Ellen!

emmacoverOne aspect of Jane Austen’s work that I absolutely love is that each novel differs from the others. In Northanger Abbey, Austen rebuts the Gothic Romance novel. Sense and Sensibility contains Austen’s response to the Romanticism of her age. Pride and Prejudice depicts love triumphant overcoming pride, prejudice, the social cast system, and embarrassing family members. In Mansfield Park — Austen’s most theological work — she contrasts many things, one being the mere learning of Maria and Julia versus Fanny’s learning to develop true character. In Persuasion, we enjoy an ode to the Navy, the portrayal of meritocracy, and a second chance at a love thought dead. Emma, the subject of this post, has been called Austen’s agrarian novel. Certainly an agrarian theme is present, however, a stronger theme is found within Emma: speculation and conjecture of neighbors’ motives. In spite of all the speculation and conjecture throughout, Austen shows that guessing correctly at another’s motives is a near-impossible task.

The reality of wagging tongues discussing others’ motives and expected behavior is introduced by Emma herself in chapter one. On the evening of Mr. Weston re-marrying, she speaks of peoples’ opinions that Mr. Weston would never marry again:

“‘Every body said that Mr. Weston would never marry again. Oh dear, no! Mr. Weston, who had been a widower so long, and who seemed so perfectly comfortable without a wife, so constantly occupied either in his business in town or among his friends here, always acceptable wherever he went, always cheerful — Mr. Weston need not spend a single evening in the year alone if he did not like it. Oh, no! Mr. Weston certainly would never marry again. Some people even talked of a promise to his [first] wife on her death-bed, and others of the son and the uncle not letting him. All manner of solemn nonsense was talked on the subject, but I believed none of it.’”

The theme of neighborhood speculation continues in chapter two. While introducing a few more characters, Austen depicts them making the social rounds, discussing news, and making pronouncements of What Ought to Happen.

“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 had 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.’”

We are social and meaning-making creatures. It is reasonable that we seek to understand our friends and acquaintance. However, throughout Emma Austen displays that behavior can have more than one explanation, and that assumptions on other persons’ motives can be dreadfully wrong.

Emma_CE_Brock_1898_Vol_II_Chapter_VIIIIn chapter twenty-six, a major source of conjecture is Who Gave Jane Fairfax the Pianoforté? The news of its anonymous arrival is made known by Mrs. Cole over dinner at her party. Jane Fairfax and her aunt, Miss Bates, while having been astonished at the unexpected arrival, put forth that the Campbells — the family that raised Jane — must have bestowed the gift. Emma, with no evidence whatsoever to support her notion, already believes Miss Fairfax to be in love with Mr. Dixon, the new husband of Miss Fairfax’s childhood friend. It’s obvious to Emma that Mr. Dixon somehow had the instrument delivered.

Later during the music portion of the same party, Mrs. Weston, Emma’s childhood governess and intimate friend, makes her own conjectures, “‘My dear Emma, I am longing to talk to you. I have been making discoveries and forming plans, just like yourself, and I must tell them while the idea is fresh.’” After discussing Mr. Knightley’s attentions to Miss Fairfax and Miss Bates, Mrs. Weston announces, “‘… a suspicion darted into my head, and I have never been able to get it out again. The more I think of it, the more probable it appears. In short, I have made a match between Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax. See the consequence of keeping you company! What do you say to it?’” Mrs. Weston goes on to claim “‘the idea has been given me by circumstances…’” and later she says “ ‘…this pianoforté that has been sent her by somebody — though we have all been so well satisfied to consider it a present from the Campbells, may it not be from Mr. Knightley?’” Thus, “rational unaffected” Mrs. Weston, as Mr. Knightley himself described her in chapter one, also enters into the speculation.

There are many more instances of reading wrong motives into another person’s behavior in Emma. However, in the interest of not giving away major spoilers, I must exclude mention of them. I hope to merely whet your appetite to pay attention to this theme if you pick up Emma to read for the first time, or if you choose to read it again. But I will touch on the fact that there is a mystery woven throughout Emma.

In the midst of all the conjecturing, two characters in the book are keeping a secret from all the others, and Jane Austen keeps it secret from the reader for most of the novel. I confess that I was completely snowed during my first reading of Emma and did not catch on until all was completely revealed. In my defense I cite the facts that (1) Emma was the first of Austen’s books I read, and (2) early 1800’s English culture is far removed from late 1900’s United States’ culture. So, I missed it! Entirely! Having since become more familiar with Austen’s cultural norms and having re-read Emma a few times, I see that there are hints an astute reader can pick up. Assuming that she pulled the wool over most of her contemporary readers’ eyes, Austen proved her point that people are hard pressed to accurately work out the motives of others. Not only do the other characters not figure out the secret in their midst, most of the readers likely do not either. Most of the comments I’ve encountered from re-readers is, “Oh! It’s right there all along, but so easily missed!”

The theme that our hearts are opaque to one another occupies a primary place in Emma. Proof of its primacy is demonstrated by its early introduction, its continuance throughout the novel to the end — which shall be shown, and especially by Austen’s summary statement made during the climactic moment when mutual love between two principal characters is being revealed:

“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; but where, as in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not, it may not be very material.” (ch. 49)

Even in the midst of this pinnacle moment, some of “the conduct is mistaken,” though it is only the smallest bit.

Just as news is spread at the beginning of the novel, in the same manner is the news of this betrothal spread throughout Highbury:

“‘It is to be a secret, I conclude,’ said [Mr. Weston]. ‘These matters are always a secret, till it is found out that every body knows them. Only let me be told when I may speak out. I wonder whether Jane has any suspicion.’

“He went to Highbury the next morning, and satisfied himself on that point. He told her the news. Was not she like a daughter, his eldest daughter? he must tell her; and Miss Bates being present, it passed, of course, to Mrs. Cole, Mrs. Perry, and Mrs. Elton immediately afterwards. It was no more than the principals were prepared for; they had calculated from the time of its being known at Randalls [Mr. And Mrs. Weston’s home], how soon it would be over Highbury; and were thinking of themselves, as the evening wonder in many a family circle, with great sagacity.” (Ch. 53)

The mistaken motives and opaque hearts continue to the end of the novel. I often mistake Jane Austen’s “Seldom, very seldom…” statement of chapter forty-nine as being written in chapter fifty-four, the next to last chapter. In this chapter, Emma hides her face in her sewing basket when she hears some unexpected news.

“‘Good God!’ she cried. ‘Well!’ Then having recourse to her workbasket, in excuse for leaning down her face, and concealing all the exquisite feelings of delight and entertainment which she knew she must be expressing, she added, ‘Well, now tell me every thing; make this intelligible to me. How, where, when? Let me know it all. I never was more surprised — but it does not make me unhappy, I assure you. How — how has it been possible?’”

emmawestonNear the beginning of the book, the news would have vexed her. But due to intervening action she is now receives this news with joy. She feels compelled to not make known this material change in order to protect another person’s privacy. The other party explains the particulars and is waiting to see Emma’s reaction, but she still fears revealing too much. “He stopped. Emma dared not attempt any immediate reply. To speak, she was sure would be to betray a most unreasonable degree of happiness. She must wait a moment, or he would think her mad.” Finally, she is able to display an appropriate degree of emotion. “He wanted her to look up and smile; and having now brought herself not to smile too broadly, she did, cheerfully answering …”

I believe I mistake Austen’s proclamation from chapter forty-nine as being in this scene from chapter fifty-four because the action in this scene so well depicts its truth. It is a dialog which wraps up a few loose ends and gives the true reasons for some misinterpreted behavior. While explaining misunderstood behavior, Austen continues to display, in Emma’s actions, the truth that “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…”

Novel quotes obtained from


20 thoughts on “Guest Post: Speculation and Conjecture in Jane Austen’s Emma (#AustenInAugustLGR)

  1. I am currently smack in the middle of this book!

    Thus I will refrain from reading this post until I am finished and have written a blog post. I am less worried about spoilers then I am of inadvertently stealing ideas.


  2. Pingback: Speculation and Conjecture in Jane Austen’s Emma #AusteninAugustLGR Guest Post | Ellen Exploring: seeking truth one post at a—Squirrel!

  3. Nicely done, Ellen, nicely done indeed! (Pardon my paraphrase of Mr. Knightley’s comment to Emma upon leaving Box Hill).

    I also completely missed the mystery clues as I first read this book, and I don’t have the excuse of not having read any of her other novels first. In fact, every clue I had misdirected me so really I am no better than Austen’s characters when it comes to jumping to conclusions from half-understood information.


    • “I am no better than Austen’s characters when it comes to jumping to conclusions from half-understood information.”

      And I speculate (!) that that was Jane Austen’s point! I’m glad to know I’m in good company with you Tim, on not guessing the concealed mystery.

      Thank you for the kudos, Tim and Jenna. It was a real pleasure to write on this topic and it’s a such a pleasure to be allowed to be a guest blogger here today.


  4. Emma as a reflection on “how our hearts are opaque to one another” — well put. I would add that particularly with the title character, Austen explores how we can be blind to our own hearts and our own truths as well.


  5. Great to read your post here, Ellen — and I was just the same the first time I read Emma; I didn’t pick up on the clues and was as surprised as anybody! I’m currently re(re, re?)reading Mansfield Park and am again amazed at how almost every character thinks they have everyone else so perfectly figured out and how totally wrong they are. Jane Austen was certainly a great portrayer of human foibles!


    • Yes, Austen’s ability to display human foibles and her social commentary are some of my favorite aspects of her work. She wrote soooo much more than romance stories.

      Mansfield Park was the second Austen book that I read. Talk about a non-romantic “romance”!!! [SPOILER ALERT] At the end of the book, when the narrator states that Fanny would have married Mr. Crawford soon after Edmund married Miss Crawford, my jaw dropped. When I was all done with it, I wanted to shake the book to see if some more romance would fall out and become more obvious! Years later, I re-read it to see if there was a bit of romance between Edmund and Fanny throughout the book, and it just isn’t there! Or else I’m more obtuse than I realize. The latter is a distinct possibility.


  6. This is a wonderful analysis. I need to reread this book. I read Emma in college and hated it. It isn’t that the book is bad, it is that Emma annoys me so much. However, I have a beautiful Penguin thread edition so I will certainly pick it up again for a reread.


    • Glad you liked my analysis! I love re-reading Emma to see what else I can catch that I had previously missed. Other writers have put forth that Jane Austen had yet another mystery in Emma that she never reveals within its pages. It has to do with dates.


  7. You’ve summed up beautifully why re-reading Austen is a must. She is so clever with her clues that it’s only through subsequent readings that you pick them all up.

    Knowledge of the ending also allows you to enjoy her humour to the full.

    I missed so much in all my first readings of all her books – like Emma I misjudged JA’s writing. I thought all her books were the same – simple Regency romances.

    Oh how wrong my teenage self was!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great post on a fantastic novel. The more I read Emma, the more I admire it. I’ve heard it described as the first mystery novel, and Austen was truly the master of the red herring. I, and I think virtually every reader, is completely fooled. I think this is partly because we only ever get Emma’s pov–there is no omniscient narrator, just the inner workings of Emma’s confused brain.

    I really enjoyed your post, the quotes, and your obvious delight in been hoodwinked by Austen.

    I agree, nicely done!


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