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Thursday, 29 December 2016

THE SKILFUL STRUCTURING OF JANE AUSTEN'S 'EMMA'

Jane Austen skilfully structured each story within the story of Emma. For example, the first quarter concerns the misunderstandings over Harriet and Elton. Each minor incident contributes - the portrait, the courtship riddle, the call at the vicarage, and Harriet's illness. Jane Austen does not distract us at this time with Jane Fairfax, the prattle of Miss Bates or the behaviour of the future Mrs. Elton, even though these are features which, by the end of the novel, will linger in the mind.

Each chapter is strategic. See how perfectly the first two chapters prepare the ground. In Chapter 1, we find Miss Taylor already labelled as 'poor Miss Taylor' by Mr. Woodhouse, and we have Knightley alone recognizing faults in Emma. We also discover Emma, crediting herself for getting Miss Taylor married, now planning to find a wife for Elton. Chapter 2 establishes Mr. Weston, gives the background to his first marriage and the adoption of Frank, and tells us Frank is expected to honour his new step-mother with a visit.

Within individual chapters, the structure is equally deliberate. Most focus on one incident or one conversation, developing the themes of the novel. The beginnings and ends (as everywhere in Jane Austen) are especially neat and often ironic. Chapter 2 ends: 

There was a strange rumour in Highbury of all the little Perrys being seen with a slice of Mrs. Weston's wedding-cake in their hands; but Mr. Woodhouse would never believe it.

(Another good example of the way Jane Austen loved to end chapters with pithy, ironic paragraphs occurs in Chapter 21 of Mansfield Park, where – after all the fuss following the theatricals – we learn that Mrs. Norris quietly steals the stage curtains for her own private use.)

Chapter 5 consists of nothing but a brief conversation between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. We do not need to know when or where the conversation takes place. It is a most economical device for making us take stock of the friendship between Emma and Harriet. Chapter 11 (the visit of Isabella, her husband John Knightley and their five children) is similar: there is no action to speak of but it is important.