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Close writing and close reading in Emma.

IN JANE AUSTEN, OR, THE SECRET OF STYLE, D. A. Miller calls free indirect style, arguably Austen's most famous narrative technique, by a different name: "close writing" (58). This term is useful because it indicates the fundamental ambivalence of free indirect style. The narrator cedes authority to the character's voice, but not absolutely; the distance between narrator and character is simultaneously collapsed (narrator and character become close) and maintained (narrator and character remain distinct). More importantly, "close writing" connects free indirect style to another, more familiar literary term, close reading--the slow, patient, attentive explication of a text--that is most associated with the New Criticism. (1) Miller finds the same tension--between asserting oneself over, and ceding authority to, another--in both close reading and close writing: "the practice of close reading has always been radically cloven: here, on one side, my ambition to master a text, to write over its language and refashion it to the cut of my argument...; there, on the other, my longing to write in this language, to identify and combine with it" (58). In identifying the deep patterns and inner workings of a particular passage (its use of fractured syntax, for instance), the reader seems to give herself over to the text. However, in turning these patterns into an argument (this fractured syntax embodies the narrator's fragile psyche), the reader begins to reconfigure the text for her own purposes. In short, the close reader paradoxically displays her authority over a passage precisely in her ability to enter fully into its spirit.

Miller's claims about the affinities between close reading and close writing help illuminate all of Austen's novels, but they resonate with one work in particular: Emma, a novel in which Ausen uses close writing in order to represent characters performing the act of close reading. Throughout the novel, characters attempt to read one another's thoughts as if they were texts--often to ill effect. When Frank Churchill visits Emma before departing for Enscombe, for instance, he dances around the revelation of his secret engagement, looking at Emma "as if wanting to read her thoughts" (281). Earlier, when Mrs. Weston brings up the puzzling gift of the pianoforte, Emma praises herself for her own ability to see through Jane Fairfax, gently (and inwardly) mocking her former governess's ignorance of "that wish of saying as little about (The gift] as possible, which [Emma] plainly read in the fair heroine's countenance" (237).

Beyond reading people as if they were literary objects, however, characters in Emma close read--that is to say, explicate slowly and attentively--actual texts with remarkable frequency. Characters read letters and extrapolate the writer's sensibility from their style and grammar; they read poems and decode riddles, imputing intentions to texts that are anything but clear in intention; they analyze handwriting as a sign of gentlemanliness or effeminacy. Some of this textual interest has to do with the dull, even claustrophobic nature of Highbury. In a society where, as Tony Tanner writes, "there is no room for manoeuvre, no room for rearrangement, no room for any kind of escape" (190), indulging one's imaginative capabilities in interpretation becomes a source of amusement (one of the novel's favorite words) in an unamusing world. But reading is never just amusement in Austen and, as Joseph Litvak writes, "Whenever characters in Emma seem merely to be playing with words, the stakes are in fact much higher" (764).

In this essay, I argue that Austen's interest in representing characters deciphering texts resides precisely in her interest in what Miller identifies as the dangers of close reading: the tendency of close reading to turn into solipsism, to treat the text not as an autonomous object but as something to be appropriated for one's own purposes. I focus primarily on two instances of extended close reading: first, Emma's reading of Robert Martin's letter to Harriet; and, second, Emma and Mr. Knightley's joint interpretation of Frank Churchill's letter to his stepmother. In these two scenes, we can see Austen, and Emma, moving toward an ethics of reading: a way of approaching linguistic intentions that is hospitable and open, refusing the temptation to master a text and instead engaging in a conversation with it--and with other readers. (2)


Our first glimpse of the importance of Highbury reading practices comes in a discussion of Frank Churchill's letter to his new stepmother, Mrs. Weston. Austen describes the communal interest in Frank's congratulatory missive:
   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." (16)

Reading letters, we see, is both a common activity and a common subject of conversation. Highbury possesses a shared stylistic vocabulary, as the adjective "handsome" drifts from the third-person narratorial voice into the passage's first-person reported conversation. We might assume that the "I" is Miss Bates, but it does not really matter; it is essentially the voice of the community, a community that knows what constitutes a "handsome letter." (3)

More revealing than the town's familiarity with the epistolary form, however, is the stable relationship assumed between letter and sender. Text and author stand in a synecdochic relation: since the citizens of Highbury have not yet met Frank Churchill, the letter and its virtues stand in for Frank and his supposed virtues. In the next paragraph, the narrator writes, "Mrs. Weston had, of course, formed a very favourable idea of the young man; and such a pleasing attention was an irresistible proof of his great good sense" (16). The narrator here comments with gentle irony on Mrs. Weston's predisposition to think well of Frank ("irresistible") but also shows that, according to Mrs. Weston and her neighbors, there is a clear relation between letter and writer: the great good sense of the letter appears to prove the great good sense of the man. Interestingly, the gossipers do not discuss the content of Frank's message but rather the style in which it was written, assuming that the one reflects the other. This is an instance of close reading at a social level: like any good New Critic, the Highbury residents move effortlessly from form to content, from style to ethos. (4)

Austen soon moves to the first pivotal scene of textual interpretation within the novel: Emma's reading of Robert Martin's letter to Harriet. In addition to indicating the state of error from which Emma must rise over the course of the novel, this scene also shows the perils into which readers can fall when interpreting texts. Harriet, in her initial, unsophisticated, but ultimately correct reading of Mr. Martins proposal, finds it '"a very good letter,'" thinking that '"he wrote as if he really loved her very much'" (52). Harriet, however, remains doubtful of her authority as a reader. She couches her reading in qualifiers: it is a good letter, or "'at least she thought so'"; Mr. Martin's emotions appear sincere, "'but she did not know.'" She appeals to Emma as possessing the more acute critical eye, asking, "'Will you read the letter? ... Pray do. I'd rather you would'" (53). Emma obliges, and Austen ironically understates her heroine's eagerness to perform such a close reading: "Emma was not sorry to be pressed."

Austen first describes Emma's surprise at the quality of Mr. Martin's writing. "She read," the narrator says, "and was surprized. The style of the letter was much above her expectation" (53). This transition from the active ("she read") to the passive ("was surprized") signals Emma's momentary loss of critical authority. The text has taken her aback, asserting its independence from her preconceived notions of class-based style and character. Emma, like a good critic, identifies and lists the letter's features. It contains "no grammatical errors," its language is "strong and unaffected," it shows "good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling." After the initial "was surprized," the rest of the paragraph contains almost exclusively verbs of being, with the letter or its formal features (diction, grammar, etc.) rather than Emma as the grammatical subject: "The style of the letter was"; "There were"; "the language ... was strong"; "It was." For the moment, Emma submits to the letter rather than working it to her own purposes.

We can be confident that it is Emma, and not the narrator, who gives way to the letter's formal argument because the passage is written in free indirect style. The presence of multiple negatives ("There were not merely no grammatical errors, but ... it would not have disgraced a gentleman") writes Emma's grudging acceptance of the merit of Mr. Martin's letter into the very grammar of the passage. The seeming deprecations of the letter's style ("It was short") followed by recuperations of these potential criticisms ("but expressed good sense") shows Emma struggling to read the letter fairly despite her deep desire to condemn it. In this instance of close writing, we see an alternative to D. A. Miller's idea of the authoritarian nature of close reading: Emma, however reluctantly, seems to give Mr. Martin and his letter their due.

Then, however, Emma actually performs her close reading for Harriet, and any sense of textual autonomy vanishes. "'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'" (53). Austen puts pressure on the modal "must" here, using it to show how Emma's desired reading (she hopes that it was written by one of his sisters) has become, for her, a statement of fact (it has been written by one of his sisters). (5) Emma approaches the letter with the presumption that Mr. Martin is, as she says earlier, '"remarkably plain,'" with an '"entire want of gentility'" (32). When his letter departs from this notion, she offers an interpretation that admits the fact of his impressive style while absorbing this fact into her initial theory: it was ghostwritten by Mr. Martin's sisters.

Emma, willful but not unthinkingly so, cannot long reside with such a gross misinterpretation. After proposing Mr. Martin's sisters as the real authors of the letter, she says:

"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." (53)

Here, Emma's conscience struggles with her will. She argues herself into a new position in the first, meandering sentence, which contains qualifications ("'if left quite to his own powers'") and the reluctant admission of new evidence ("'and yet it is not the style of a woman'"). The broken syntax ("'a natural talent for--thinks strongly and clearly--and when'") of the second sentence reflects the tortured logical and rhetorical moves necessary to do justice to Mr. Martin while securing Harriet's refusal of his proposal. Still, Emma's worst impulses win out, as she skillfully turns Harriet against Mr. Martin without seeming to do so. If Robert Martin's letter proves his singularity, his refusal to conform to Emma's initial prejudices, then Emma writes him out of his singularity: she refuses to mention him by name until she sets him up in opposition to the more agreeable Mr. Elton. He becomes, once more, generic: "'the young man,"' "'a sensible man,"' "'him.'" Emma has moved, in effect, from close reading to Miller's idea of close writing: she writes Harriet's response while giving her the illusion of agency. For Austen as for Miller, it is only a short step from fitting a text to one's preconceived meaning to writing another person's script.

Emma's close reading/close writing here is damning for two reasons. First and most obviously, Emma's actions are ethically troubling because she knows that Harriet will follow her lead without question. Bharat Tandon argues that "Emma's attempts to turn Harriet into her reassuring personal echo depend upon Harriet's unawareness of being imposed upon--as if her naivety, coupled with her indeterminate status as 'the natural daughter of somebody,' made her a blank for Emma's own vocal signature" (153). Upon Harriet's refusal of Mr. Martin, Mr. Knightley immediately recognizes how Emma has exploited her friend's ignorance, her submissive nature, even her inferior social status: '"You saw her answer! you wrote her answer too. Emma, this is your doing. You persuaded her to refuse him'" (64). Emma's close reading and writing in this instance confirm Tanner's scathing critique: "So why her obsession with this pretty little nobody from who-knows-where? One reason must surely be that Harriet can be persuaded/forced into a surrogate figure, a substitute of Emma's making" (182).

Second, and perhaps even more damaging to her heroine's character, Austen has shown in Emma's initial, respectful response to Mr. Martin's letter that her heroine does in fact know better. Emma still relies upon many of her society's assumptions about letter reading, such as the direct relation between style and character. She moves, for instance, from a description of the letter's formal qualities (no grammatical errors, an unadorned style) to more abstract, personal characteristics ("warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling" [[53]]). But unlike her neighbors, Emma is also capable of a type of reading that allows for surprise, that subverts preconceptions and leaves one, momentarily, in silence. We must remember that, before Emma distorts Mr. Martin's letter to Harriet, she reads it well to herself. As U. C. Knoepflmacher writes, "Emma's correct assessment of the proposal made by a man whose manners are esteemed by Mr. Knightley ... remains a point in her favor, despite her willful misrepresentation to Harriet" (644).

This "despite," however, is crucial, and Mr. Knightley himself argues against Knoepflmacher when he scolds Emma for convincing Harriet to reject Mr. Martin: '"Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do'" (67). Emma actively chooses, like Miller's close reader, "to master a text, to write over its language and refashion it to the cut of [her] argument, to which it is utterly indifferent" (58), and this, Austen suggests, is among the gravest sins a reader --and a moral actor--can commit.


There are many other instances of characters deciphering texts in Emma-. Emma's reading of Mr. Elton's charade, Miss Bates's constant reports on Jane Fairfax's letters, the alphabet game that alerts Mr. Knightley to the fact that Frank Churchill is dangerously trifling with Jane's and Emma's emotions, Mr. Weston's riddle. It is not, however, until Mr. Knightley and Emma read and discuss Frank's long, apologetic letter to his stepmother, after the twin courtship plots have been effectively wrapped up, that we see another sustained, dramatically rendered instance of characters interpreting a single text. (6)

The scene in which Emma and Mr. Knightley read Frank's letter is striking for a number of reasons. First, in a novel littered with letters, it is the first time that Austen actually reproduces one, word for word. Second, at more than nine pages of printed text between the letter and its interpretation, it occupies a sizeable portion of the end of the novel. And finally, it is the first extended conversation we see between Emma and Mr. Knightley after the novel's famous unrepresented exchange: "What did she say?--Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does" (470). It is, in other words, a kind of honeymoon reading; we see interpretation taking place in the first flush of reciprocated love.

Unlike the earlier scene in which she reads Robert Martin's letter, here Emma is not so eager to practice her skill as a literary decoder: she "deprecated the necessity of reading it" but admits that it "must be waded through" (475). After the text of the lengthy letter, we encounter modals once again: "This letter must make its way to Emma's feelings. She was obliged, in spite of her previous determination to the contrary, to do it all the justice that Mrs. Weston foretold" (484). The "must" here no longer signals Emma's conflation of her will with the world. Rather, it signals an acceptance of the ethical responsibilities of reading. Emma realizes that she has an obligation to the text, that it deserves her openness and her willingness to change her opinion based upon its content.

There is, however, a momentary lapse from this more mature sense of reading, as Emma again falls into solipsism: "As soon as she came to her own name, it was irresistible; every line relating to herself was interesting, and almost every line agreeable." But Emma recuperates herself in offering the letter to Mr. Knightley. If she feels obligated to read the letter herself, she "desired him to read it" (484). Emma's desire for the opinion of another reader is striking. Where before she was happy to impose her own interpretation on others, here she longs to hear another, potentially contrarian reading. (She can rightfully assume that Mr. Knightley will not be as pleased by Frank's letter as she has been.) Part of this willingness can be explained by the new situation in which she finds herself: any caustic words by Mr. Knightley surely would be neutralized by the blissful state in which the couple now lives. But we can also see Emma's appeal to Mr. Knightley as a sign of her true willingness to engage in a dialogic reading, in a reading that is conversational and judicious.

After Emma hands over the letter of his supposed former rival, Mr. Knightley "read[s] to himself," giving his occasional thoughts voice: '"Humph! --a fine complimentary opening:--But it is his way. One man's style must not be the rule of another's. We will not be severe"' (485). After beginning his reading sarcastically, Mr. Knightley chides himself to be more open and forgiving; ever ready to correct Emma, Mr. Knightley here corrects himself. He tells Emma that it "'will be natural for'" him to "'speak my opinion aloud as I read,"' since in "'doing it, I shall feel that I am near you.'" Reading aloud thus ensures two things: first, that Emma (and the reader) will get Mr. Knightley's actual, moment-by-moment reading experience; and second, that the act of reading will maintain, even nourish, the nearness or intimacy that Mr. Knightley and Emma feel toward one another. Here, reading is not an act done in the privacy of one's solitary mind but an act that cultivates the privacy of romantic intimacy. (Moreover, Mr. Knightley adds that reading out loud "'will not be so great a loss of time: but if you dislike it-"thus allowing space for Emma's demurral.)

Despite his avowed interest in not being severe, most of Mr. Knightley's commentary is in fact reproving: "'He trifles here'"; "'He ought not to have formed the engagement'"; "'Very bad--though it might have been worse'"; This is very bad'" (485-87). But it is crucial that he makes these pronouncements openly and clearly, without hedging or apology. Where Emma's admiration of Mr. Martin's letter was kept quiet in the hopes that she could argue herself and Harriet into a negative reading, Mr. Knightley's reading is made public from the beginning, giving Emma the opportunity for rebuttal. From his first appearance, Mr. Knightley has praised openness as a primary virtue in all social conduct. Here, he shows it to be a virtue of reading as well. (7)

This openness is challenged but ultimately reaffirmed in one of the short exchanges between Mr. Knightley and Emma that punctuates the passage. While reading of Jane Fairfax's engagement to become governess at Mrs. Smallridge's, Mr. Knightley, who had been in London for this development, asks, "'Smallridge!'--What does this mean? What is all this?"' (487). Emma explains the allusion and then wonders how Mrs. Elton will bear the disappointment of Jane's backing out, to which Mr. Knightley responds, "'Say nothing, my dear Emma, while you oblige me to read--not even of Mrs. Elton. Only one page more. I shall soon have done. What a letter the man writes!"' (488). Despite the affectionate "dear Emma," this response may seem harsh, even domineering. It is one of the first instances in which the voluble, clever, and indulged Emma, who has always had "the power of having rather too much her own way" (3), is told to keep quiet, and one shudders to think of this as perhaps a first indication of the discipline under which Emma will find herself in marriage to the older, wiser Mr. Knightley. (8)

Any such fears, however, are soon assuaged. Despite Mr. Knightley's plea, Emma immediately answers back, "'I wish you would read it with a kinder spirit towards him,'" and Mr. Knightley responds by saying, '"Well, there is feeling here.--He does seem to have suffered in finding her ill.--Certainly, I can have no doubt of his being fond of her'" (488). Austen again uses dashes to represent a mind at work, arguing itself into a new position. Where before, however, it was Emma talking to herself, struggling to acknowledge Mr. Martin's forceful, even gentlemanly, writing, now we see Mr. Knightley listening and reacting to Emma's contrary reading.

This is truly a dialogic reading experience. Emma echoes back to Mr. Knightley his own self-reproach ("'We will not be severe'"), provoking an acknowledgement of Frank's true sentiments that does not silence Mr. Knightley's serious qualms about his conduct. Mr. Knightley continues to criticize Frank's longwinded prose: he quips, "'He is a very liberal thanker, with his thousands and tens of thousands'" (488)--but in a gentler tone, with a hopeful prediction for Frank's future happiness and moral improvement closing the reading. Even the absent Frank Churchill becomes a participant in this joint reading, as Mr. Knightley addresses him as "'you'" ("'I perfectly agree with you, sir.... You did behave very shamefully. You never wrote a truer line'" [486]]). Frank's letter receives what any text can only hope for: an exacting but fair critic, closely engaging with the language at hand, acknowledging his own mistakes, listening to the text and to other readers.

In his discussion of the ethics of reading, Wayne Booth describes all responsible reading as "coduction," which he describes as "a process that is not mere argument for views already established, but a conversation, a kind of re-reading that is an essential part of what will be a continually shifting evaluation" (75). This well describes Emma and Mr. Knightley's scene of joint close reading. In a novel interested in texts and what we do with them, there is a general movement from egotistic to dialogic reading, and this change in reading practices maps well onto Emma's general moral growth. Describing the marriage between Emma and Mr. Knightley, Tandon writes, "Only a certain kind of couple could truly be said to thrive in a marriage that was a 'perpetual crisis': Austen ends Emma, a work which unsparingly faces up to solipsism and loss, with a marriage that is a perpetual conversation" (161). For Emma and Mr. Knightley, this perpetual conversation begins in the act of reading.


(1.) In A Glossary of Literary Terms, M. H. Abrams and Geoffrey Harpham offer this definition of "close reading": "the detailed analysis of the complex interrelationships and ambiguities (multiple meanings) of the verbal and figurative components within a text" (243). More generally, close reading is associated with formalist approaches to literary criticism--approaches that focus on formal elements such as tone, imagery, diction, and structure as the primary objects of critical analysis (as opposed to looking first to historical or biographical context).

(2.) Other critics have noted the importance of reading and decoding in Emma. Litvak in particular focuses on these same scenes of reading, but to a much different effect, claiming that they embody the novel's "contest between two equally compelling interpretations of the self--especially the female self--and society" (764). Describing the scene at Box Hill, where a bad pun made on Emma's name provokes delight in her and disapproval in Mr. Knightley, Litvak writes, "What Knightley would chastise as narcissistic self-absorption is in fact an acknowledgment that one is embedded in a 'text' more intricate than one's own name. If Knightley conceives the social text as conferring on the self a predetermined--hence illusory--subjectivity, Emma's social text figures collective existence as an endless collaborative process of reading and writing, in which the self emerges as a site of overlapping interpretations" (770). In other words, Litvak argues that these scenes of reading exist less because Austen is interested in what they reveal about our reading practices than in what they reveal about the socially mediated nature of the self, the idea that "the self is no more fixed an identity than the name, a concept susceptible to fragmentation and rearrangement" (770).

(3.) For the importance of gossip and the communal voice, see Casey Finch and Peter Bowen.

(4.) This idea--that to know a person's letters is to know a person's character--was a convention of epistolary fiction, and Austen immediately and ironically undercuts any such confidence. The next paragraph opens, "It was, indeed, a highly-prized letter," the adjective no longer an intrinsic quality (handsome) but a socially determined one. In discussing Austen's correspondence and its relation to Emma, Bharat Tandon argues that Austen knew that epistolary "communication will never be wholly transparent," that her "letters are suffused with an awareness that she could only ever provide 'something' of speech," and this is borne out throughout the novel (112, 113).

(5.) In an essay on Austen's use of modal verbs, Zelda Boyd argues that verbs such as "must" can be both "epistemic" and "volitive." That is to say, they can serve both as "statements of fact" (as in, "He must pay his parking ticket") and as "the instantiation of our desire" (as in, "You must go to the Grand Canyon") (129, 130). When Austen uses modals, Boyd argues, we are not meant to pick between fact and desire. Rather, we are meant to see how the two are inextricably entwined, to see how, in our egotism and willfulness, we often read desire as fact.

(6.) Emma and Mr. Knightley have an important disagreement over the nature of Frank Churchill's letters earlier, when Mr. Knightley proclaims that Frank's letters '"disgust"' him and Emma retorts, '"Your feelings are singular. They seem to satisfy every body else'" (160). This scene, however, is not a blow-by-blow description of a close reading of a single text but a debate about the general tenor of Frank's writing style--the kind of debate that also occurs when Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley differ over the nature of Frank's handwriting.

(7.) See, for instance, his praise of Robert Martin: '"He always speaks to the purpose; open, straight forward, and very well judging'" (63).

(8.) As Booth admits before arguing against the position, "Thus the most obvious objection that we might raise to this work ... is that Emma's ultimate happiness is identified with learning to see the world as Knightley sees it-, with acceding to his judgment on all important matters; and finally with bowing to that man in loving but inevitably submissive vows of matrimony" (427).


Abrams, M. H., and Geoffrey Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 11th ed. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2015.

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan. Cambridge: CUP, 2005.

Booth, Wayne. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Reading. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.

Boyd, Zelda. "Jane Austen's 'Must': The Will and the World." Nineteenth-Century Fiction 39.2 (1984): 127-43.

Finch, Casey, and Peter Bowen. " The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury': Gossip and Free Indirect Style in Emma" Representations 31 (1990): 1-18.

Knoepflmacher, U. C. "The Importance of Being Frank: Character and Letter-Writing in Emma" Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 7.4 (1967): 639-58.

Litvak, Joseph. "Reading Characters: Self, Society, and Text in Emma" PMLA 100.5 (1985): 763-73.

Miller, D. A. Jane Austen, or, The Secret of Style. Princeton: PUP, 2003.

Tandon, Bharat. Jane Austen and the Morality of Conversation. London: Anthem, 2003.

Tanner, Tony. Jane Austen. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986.

Anthony Domestico is an assistant professor of literature at Purchase College, SUNY and the book columnist for Commonweal.
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Title Annotation:Miscellany
Author:Domestico, Anthony
Publication:Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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