Is Emma a detective story? Recapping clues

One of my favourite writers, P.D. James, sees Emma as a ‘mainstream novel which is also a detective story,’ distinguishing it from classic detective fiction. The latter involves a crime, usually a murder, a limited number of suspects, an amateur or professional sleuth, carefully planted clues, and a few red herrings. Readers are invited to join the police or private investigator and work out who the killer is. Emma clearly does not belong to this genre, though a cunningly contrived mystery unfolds as the book moves forward. Yet I would not characterise it as a ‘detective story.’

In Jane Austen’s narrative, words and gestures are often purposefully open to different interpretations, and we are forever trying to figure out who is attracted to whom. Emma is no exception in this respect, but there is something special about Jane Fairfax’s behaviour that arouses the heroine’s particular suspicions of an improper attachment at the beginning of vol. II. So far there is no actual ‘crime,’ only a possibility. A few chapters later, a pianoforte from an unknown sender arrives at her grandmother’s house, which, among other facts, Emma thinks confirms her original guess. This could have been the ‘body’ in the classic sense: a gift from an anonymous benefactor whose identity we might have been encouraged to find out – but the matter is soon dropped. The subplot focuses on Miss Fairfax and Frank Churchill, although for ostensibly different reasons. Their secret engagement, which is revealed near the end of the book, would be the ‘crime’.

There are only a few suspects, but not all of them are in Highbury. Mr Dixon, who is in Ireland,  was perhaps, according to Emma ‘very near changing one friend for the other or been fixed only to Miss Campbell for the sake of the future twelve thousand pounds.’ The instrument might equally have been ordered by his wife or Col. Campbell, who are now with him. The story is not altogether ‘confined to a closed society in a rural setting,’ as P.D. James states.

Emma is an ‘imaginist’ rather than a detective: she puts her own construction on events, jumps to conclusions, and considers only the facts that fit her own theory, refusing to follow other leads. By contrast,

Mr. Knightley began to suspect him [i.e. Frank Churchill] of some inclination to trifle with Jane Fairfax. He could not understand it; but there were symptoms of intelligence between them–he thought so at least–symptoms of admiration on his side, which, having once observed, he could not persuade himself to think entirely void of meaning, however he might wish to escape any of Emma’s errors of imagination. She was not present when the suspicion first arose. He was dining with the Randalls family, and Jane, at the Eltons’; and he had seen a look, more than a single look, at Miss Fairfax, which, from the admirer of Miss Woodhouse, seemed somewhat out of place. When he was again in their company, he could not help remembering what he had seen; nor could he avoid observations which, unless it were like Cowper and his fire at twilight,

‘Myself creating what I saw,’

brought him yet stronger suspicion of there being a something of private liking, of private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane.

Yet he fails to uncover their secret betrothal: it is Frank himself who breaks the news, and subsequently explains it all in a letter to Mrs Weston. This final account of the whys and wherefores of his actions is indeed similar to those sometimes found in detective fiction. Another shared feature would be the complex relationship between ‘murderer’ and ‘sleuth,’ which almost leads him to confess before leaving Highbury for the first time, as he wrongly fancies Emma is ‘not without suspicion.’

On the whole, as there is neither a crime to investigate nor a detective to discover the perpetrator, I am inclined to view Emma as a romantic novel with a well-crafted mystery subplot. The clues are masterfully handled, unobtrusively strewn throughout the book, and we are left wondering how come we did not realise what was going on under our very noses. This might be explained by a number of reasons: the story is mostly told from the heroine’s point of view; the Westons want Frank to marry her; he makes her his apparent object in order to conceal his real feelings, and, as Jane has been trained to become a governess, it seems we can do nothing but pity her. Other than that, Austen plays fair: we have all the information we need to solve the puzzle. And there are no continuity errors or loose ends – something that I, as a conscientious reader, have found in murder mysteries more often than I would have wished.


Emma is right in mistrusting Miss Fairfax’s motives, and only wrong in her inferences. ‘Jane caught a bad cold,’ says Miss Bates, ‘so long ago as the 7th of November, (as I am going to read to you,) and has never been well since. A long time, is not it, for a cold to hang upon her? She never mentioned it before.’ This is her excuse for coming to Highbury instead of enjoying herself in Ireland with her friends. Emma is not fooled: ‘As to the pretence of trying her native air … In the summer it might have passed; but what can any body’s native air do for them in the months of January, February, and March? Good fires and carriages would be much more to the purpose in most cases of delicate health.’

Yet, ‘one might guess twenty things without guessing exactly the right,’ or, as Frank Churchill tellingly puts it ‘sometimes one conjectures right, and sometimes one conjectures wrong … Miss Fairfax said something about conjecturing.’

What are the clues Emma misses?

Image from

In chapter 24 Mrs Weston and Frank take a walk: ‘”He did not doubt there being very pleasant walks in every direction, but if left to him, he should always chuse the same. Highbury, that airy, cheerful, happy-looking Highbury, would be his constant attraction.”–Highbury, with Mrs. Weston, stood for Hartfield; and she trusted to its bearing the same construction with him.’ So perhaps it is not Emma that he would wish to see …

In fact, he says that the day before he was

betrayed into paying a most unreasonable visit. Ten minutes would have been all that was necessary, perhaps all that was proper; and I had told my father I should certainly be at home before him–but … to my utter astonishment, I found, when he (finding me nowhere else) joined me there at last, that I had been actually sitting with them very nearly three-quarters of an hour.

Mr Churchill presses Emma to bring the Crown’s ballroom back to its ‘former good old days.’ What he really wants is an opportunity to dance with Jane, which would afford them at least half-an-hour’s privacy. He is also quite willing to talk about her – Austen readers know what that means:

I beg your pardon, Miss Woodhouse, you were speaking to me, you were saying something at the very moment of this burst of my amor patriae. Do not let me lose it. I assure you the utmost stretch of public fame would not make me amends for the loss of any happiness in private life.

‘I merely asked, whether you had known much of Miss Fairfax and her party at Weymouth.’

Over at the Bates’s they discuss him: ‘Do not we often talk about Mr Frank Churchill?’ asks Jane’s aunt, seeking confirmation, in chapter 38.

In chapter 25 he goes to town purportedly to have his hair cut, ‘intending to return to dinner.’ In the next chapter, the author cleverly hints that he might not have made good on his promise: ‘if he kept his father’s dinner waiting, it was not known at Hartfield; for Mrs. Weston was too anxious for his being a favourite with Mr. Woodhouse, to betray any imperfection which could be concealed.’

The day before the Coles’ party, Miss Fairfax receives a surprise gift:

This pianoforte had arrived from Broadwood’s … to the great astonishment of both aunt and niece–entirely unexpected; that at first, by Miss Bates’s account, Jane herself was quite at a loss, quite bewildered to think who could possibly have ordered it–but now, they were both perfectly satisfied that it could be from only one quarter;–of course it must be from Colonel Campbell.

In his explanatory letter to Mrs Weston, Frank Churchill reveals that Jane ‘would never have allowed’ him ‘to send it, had any choice been given her.’ At first, therefore, she did not know the present had come from him. In chapter 44, Miss Bates wonders about ‘the pianoforte. What is to become of that?–Very true. Poor dear Jane was talking of it just now.–‘You must go,’ said she. ‘You and I must part. You will have no business here.’ It seems she is speaking to Frank …

After the Coles’ dinner, Miss Fairfax, Miss Bates, and some other ladies arrive. ‘They were soon joined by some of the gentlemen; and the very first of the early was Frank Churchill. In he walked, … and after paying his compliments en passant to Miss Bates and her niece, made his way directly to the opposite side of the circle.’ He sits next to Emma, who thinks she is ‘his object and everybody must perceive it,’ but later catches him ‘looking intently’ at Jane. He finds a pretext to walk over to her: ‘Emma soon saw him standing before Miss Fairfax, and talking to her; but as to its effect on the young lady, as he had improvidently placed himself exactly between them, exactly in front of Miss Fairfax, she could absolutely distinguish nothing.’ Mrs Weston comes over to talk to Emma, and, as she takes his chair, he sits beside Jane.

While seated close to Emma,

He did not boast, but it naturally betrayed itself, that he had persuaded his aunt where his uncle could do nothing, and on her laughing and noticing it, he owned that he believed (excepting one or two points) he could with time persuade her to any thing. One of those points on which his influence failed, he then mentioned. He had wanted very much to go abroad–had been very eager indeed to be allowed to travel–but she would not hear of it. This had happened the year before. Now, he said, he was beginning to have no longer the same wish.

So this is what happened: as Frank was not allowed to travel to Ireland, it was decided that Miss Fairfax should come to Highbury and they should meet there.

The next day, looking down the Randalls Road from Ford’s door, Emma sees them walk into Highbury and stop at Mrs Bates’s. ‘For my companion tells me,’ she explains, ‘that I absolutely promised Miss Bates last night, that I would come this morning. I was not aware of it myself. I did not know that I had fixed a day.’ He somewhat passive aggressively pretends he would rather escort Miss Woodhouse and Miss Smith back to Hartfield, knowing full well that Mrs Weston would not like to be left alone and that Emma would side with her.

English country estate
An ideal setting for a murder mystery. Image from

He then manages to send Mrs Weston and Jane’s aunt over to beg Miss Woodhouse to come up and give her opinion of the instrument, while he tries to fix Mrs Bates’s glasses. As Emma enters the little sitting-room, she finds the old lady slumbering. ‘This is a pleasure,’ he says to her, ‘coming at least ten minutes earlier than I had calculated.’ It appears all has been a ruse to be ‘alone’ with his fiancée, who looks deeply affected. Now he seems intent on diverting Emma’s attention from her:

He contrived that she should be seated by him; and was sufficiently employed in looking out the best baked apple for her, and trying to make her help or advise him in his work, till Jane Fairfax was quite ready to sit down to the pianoforte again. That she was not immediately ready, Emma did suspect to arise from the state of her nerves; she had not yet possessed the instrument long enough to touch it without emotion; she must reason herself into the power of performance.

Everybody praises the pianoforte. ‘I heard a good deal of Colonel Campbell’s taste at Weymouth,’ Frank tells Emma ‘and the softness of the upper notes I am sure is exactly what he and all that party would particularly prize.’ Which would sound like a private joke between him and Jane, as we already know that ‘Colonel Campbell is a little deaf.’ She does not turn round, however, and Emma is still convinced that it is Mr Dixon that should be credited.

After finishing his job, Frank

was very warmly thanked both by mother and daughter; to escape a little from the latter, he went to the pianoforte, and begged Miss Fairfax, who was still sitting at it, to play something more.

‘If you are very kind,’ said he, ‘it will be one of the waltzes we danced last night;–let me live them over again. You did not enjoy them as I did; you appeared tired the whole time. I believe you were glad we danced no longer; but I would have given worlds–all the worlds one ever has to give–for another half-hour.’

As he had already stood up with Emma for two dances, they would have had to change partners, and so the next half hour would have been devoted to Jane: ‘I must have asked Miss Fairfax,’ he tells our heroine in the previous chapter.

As Jane plays, Frank exclaims: ‘What felicity it is to hear a tune again which has made one happy!–If I mistake not that was danced at Weymouth.’ This is why he remembers the waltz so fondly. ‘She looked up at him for a moment, coloured deeply, and played something else.’

In the following chapter, Frank is quite intent on having a ball. At the Crown, he suggests asking Miss Bates to come over and give the Westons and Emma her opinion and encouragement. He insists, and rather passively aggressively adds: ‘I need not bring the whole family, you know.’ Jane, usually cold and reserved, ‘enjoyed the thought of it to an extraordinary degree. It made her animated–open hearted.’

But, alas, Mrs Churchill is taken ill and Frank must go back to Enscombe. He comes to Hartfield to take leave of Emma. ‘His dejection was most evident.’ He must be off almost immediately. ‘Not five minutes to spare even for your friends Miss Fairfax and Miss Bates?’ enquires Emma.

‘Yes–I have called there; passing the door, I thought it better. It was a right thing to do. I went in for three minutes, and was detained by Miss Bates’s being absent. She was out; and I felt it impossible not to wait till she came in’ … ‘In short,’ said he, ‘perhaps, Miss Woodhouse–I think you can hardly be quite without suspicion.’

He wishes to confess, but cannot quite make up his mind, and then the moment is gone. ‘It was something,’ he says, to feel that all the rest of my time might be given to Hartfield,’ meaning: ‘Sad as I was after parting with Jane, I thought at least I would have the comfort of seeing a friend.’

In chapter 34, we learn that Miss Fairfax goes to the post-office every day:

Jane’s solicitude about fetching her own letters had not escaped Emma. She had heard and seen it all; and felt some curiosity to know whether the wet walk of this morning had produced any. She suspected that it had; that it would not have been so resolutely encountered but in full expectation of hearing from some one very dear, and that it had not been in vain. She thought there was an air of greater happiness than usual–a glow both of complexion and spirits.

On that very evening Mr Weston announces his son’s return.

The ball eventually takes place. Miss Bates and her niece walk into the room, escorted by Frank, who has been impatient for their arrival, and his father. The former is extremely polite to both ladies, and shows his displeasure at Mrs Elton’s calling Miss Fairfax by her first name. On their moving over to another room for supper, he helps Jane on with her tippet, as Mrs Weston is afraid there might be ‘draughts in the passage … Sir, you are most kind. Upon my word, Jane on one arm, and me on the other! … -Well, where shall we sit? … Anywhere, so that Jane is not in a draught. Where I sit is of no consequence. Oh! do you recommend this side?–Well, I am sure, Mr. Churchill–only it seems too good.’

On the following day he is at the right time in the right place to rescue Harriet from the gypsies, as

his leaving Highbury had been delayed … The pleasantness of the morning had induced him to walk forward, and leave his horses to meet him by another road, a mile or two beyond Highbury–and happening to have borrowed a pair of scissors the night before of Miss Bates, and to have forgotten to restore them, he had been obliged to stop at her door, and go in for a few minutes.

P.D. James

In chapter 41, Mr Knightley, Emma, and Harriet, run into ‘Mr. and Mrs. Weston and their son, Miss Bates and her niece, who had accidentally met.’ Not quite so accidentally, it would seem, as a few paragraphs later the aunt reveals they are in the habit of walking to Randalls …

Mr Perry passes by, and Frank enquires about his plans to set up a carriage, thinking Mrs Weston has mentioned them in her letters. As we can gather from Miss Bates, Jane may have told him. After tea, Mr Churchill suggests playing with the alphabets, so that he can place the word ‘blunder’ in front of his fiancée, who is, once again, sitting opposite, and looking at him. She smiles faintly and blushes. He then hands over another word to her. Displeased and cross, she pushes it away, and soon gets up to leave,

wanting to quit the table; but so many were also moving, that she could not get away; and Mr. Knightley thought he saw another collection of letters anxiously pushed towards her, and resolutely swept away by her unexamined. She was afterwards looking for her shawl–Frank Churchill was looking also–it was growing dusk, and the room was in confusion; and how they parted, Mr. Knightley could not tell.

After they are gone, however, he communicates his suspicions to Emma.

A few chapters on, Frank comes rather late to Donwell Abbey – Jane has already left. He is ‘out of humour,’ and believes ‘he should not have come at all … As soon as I am cooler I shall go back again. I could very ill be spared–but such a point had been made of my coming! You will all be going soon I suppose; the whole party breaking up. I met one as I came–Madness in such weather!–absolute madness!’

Emma persuades him to join them at Box Hill the next day: ‘I can never bear to think of you all there without me.’

Despite their expectations,

There was a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over. They separated too much into parties. The Eltons walked together; Mr. Knightley took charge of Miss Bates and Jane; and Emma and Harriet belonged to Frank Churchill. And Mr. Weston tried, in vain, to make them harmonise better. It seemed at first an accidental division, but it never materially varied. Mr. and Mrs. Elton, indeed, shewed no unwillingness to mix, and be as agreeable as they could; but during the two whole hours that were spent on the hill, there seemed a principle of separation, between the other parties, too strong for any fine prospects, or any cold collation, or any cheerful Mr. Weston, to remove.

Frank and Emma flirt with each other, and Miss Woodhouse hurts Miss Bates’s feelings. Neither Mr Knightley nor the Eltons are amused, and the couple walk away.

‘Happy couple!’ said Frank Churchill, as soon as they were out of hearing:– ‘How well they suit one another!–Very lucky–marrying as they did, upon an acquaintance formed only in a public place!–They only knew each other, I think, a few weeks in Bath! Peculiarly lucky!–for as to any real knowledge of a person’s disposition that Bath, or any public place, can give–it is all nothing; there can be no knowledge. It is only by seeing women in their own homes, among their own set, just as they always are, that you can form any just judgment. Short of that, it is all guess and luck–and will generally be ill-luck. How many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance, and rued it all the rest of his life!’

Jane scathingly replies:

‘though such unfortunate circumstances do sometimes occur both to men and women, I cannot imagine them to be very frequent. A hasty and imprudent attachment may arise–but there is generally time to recover from it afterwards. I would be understood to mean, that it can be only weak, irresolute characters, (whose happiness must be always at the mercy of chance,) who will suffer an unfortunate acquaintance to be an inconvenience, an oppression for ever.’

That very evening, on hearing that Frank has left Highbury, she decides to take up Mrs Smallridge’s offer. The following morning, she tells her pianoforte: ‘You and I must part.’ The instrument has not been mentioned since chapter 28.


When the news of the engagement breaks, we are surprised, but not quite so interested. We already know that Emma and Mr Churchill are not romantically involved. We have been cleverly fooled, yet the mystery we have failed to solve is not the main plot, but a brilliantly constructed side story.


Austen, Jane. Emma. Text quoted from

James, P.D. 2011. Talking about Detective Fiction. New York: Vintage Books.

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