Jane Austen – mystery writer?


Time to get back to the advertised theme of this blog, Winchester Histories and Mysteries, and one of the oddest theories about Jane Austen – and there are many – is one that suggests her novel, ‘Emma’, is a mystery story.

First published in 1815, ‘Emma’ has been called “a mystery story without a murder.” Let’s be honest about this though, I’ve no idea who actually said that, I just found the quotation when I was trawling round the internet. However, no less an authority than P D James is of this opinion too, as this passage from an interview with her (thank you, Goodreads) shows:
“But perhaps the most interesting example of a mainstream novel which is also a detective story is the brilliantly structured Emma by Jane Austen. Here the secret which is the mainspring of the action is the unrecognised relationships between the limited number of characters. The story is confined to a closed society in a rural setting, which was to become common in detective fiction, and Jane Austen deceives us with cleverly constructed clues (eight immediately come to mind) — some based on action, some on apparently innocuous conversations, some in her authorial voice. At the end, when all becomes plain and the characters are at last united with their right partners, we wonder how we could have been so deceived.”

And what exactly are the mysteries in Emma? According to the internet it’s this: what is going on with Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax? Mr Elton’s ambitions towards Emma herself. Where does Mr Knightley fit into all of this? The thinking is that clues are dotted around the narrative in Miss Bates’s inconsequential chatter, in Mrs Weston’s confidences, and in other subtle ways, all picked up by the reader but not by Emma herself.
I can see what she’s saying about the closed society and that it could be the forerunner of the country house-type murder so beloved of the Golden Age writers (and me too, to be honest). Where I’m slightly sceptical is whether the ‘mysteries’ in Emma are mysterious enough to be found in cosy mystery, or whether they are actually what I’ve always understood them to be, the intricate workings of relationships in a classic romantic novel, the staples of which are meetings and partings, conflict, misunderstandings, and resolution.

So, I’m not totally convinced, much as I’d like to think of Jane Austen putting down her pen with a sigh of satisfaction as she writes The End at the bottom of her twelfth mystery featuring Miss Bates – a chatty little village gossip who picks up clues wherever she goes. I bet Miss Bates could knit too.

The real mystery regarding Jane Austen is not to be found in what she wrote, but in what she didn’t have time to write. I love a ‘what if’ sort of mystery and this is an intriguing one. If you think of Persuasion and its depth and power, it’s impossible not to wonder with a sigh what she might have achieved, given another twenty or thirty years. Her sister, Cassandra, was 72 when she died in 1845, her mother was in her eighties and her father over seventy, so Jane could reasonably have expected to live into old age.

Just think what she could have done with characters in the time of George IV’s extravagances, or how her sailor heroes could have flourished under the Sailor King, William V. And what would she have done with Albert and Victoria? What scope in those successive decades for her clever, discerning heroines with their disconcerting habit of observation.

I’m not a big fan of the various Austen sequels, though I did enjoy the diaries of Mr Darcy et al, as cleverly recorded by Amanda Grange, and I’m fond of Sanditon which was billed as by ‘Jane Austen and another lady.’ The join is invisible. I just wish she’d been able to write her own sequels.

The most bittersweet mystery of all, for me, is this: Who was the man who said to her, ‘You pierce my soul’, as Captain Wentworth wrote to Anne Elliot. Was he real? Was he Cassandra’s dead lover? Or did Jane make him up. Whatever the truth, he sounds lovely.


4 thoughts on “Jane Austen – mystery writer?

  1. Now I want to re-read Emma! LOL!! I’ve never thought of Emma as a mystery without a murder but now that you mention it…!!! Then again I guess you could argue that Wilde’s The Important of Being Ernest is the same too – but with witty comedy bordering on slapstick! 🙂

    And yes, no more zombie sequels to Austen novels please! LOL! I hope you had a great Christmas and wish you a happy New Year! Take care

    • And the same to you, Old Kitty, thank you! I love Emma, she’s always been my favourite Austen heroine though Anne Elliot is a close second. I too think I’d better reread it in the light of this mystery lark!

  2. I’m with you on this one, Nicola. ‘Emma’ is a wonderfully constructed classic novel. For me, the mystery is how Emma could be so blind to all the hints. Probably she was based on a real person rather too certain of her own superiority. There’s a nice little mystery – and miss bates could probably knit it out…
    ‘Persuasion’ is the story that leaves us all wishing we had many more Austen novels to enrich our lives. I don’t think you simply make up comments like ‘You pierce my soul’.

    • There’s a Charlotte Yonge novel, ‘The Clever Woman of the Family’, where the leading female character has so many echoes of Emma, and finds herself disastrously out of her depth. It would make a wonderful tv drama but CMY is dismissed these days as hopelessly out-of-date. (And a fabulous hero who, tongue in cheek but Rachel never realises it, offers to take her to visit a cretin asylum in Switzerland for their honeymoon as she’s expressed an interest in the work there!)

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