Critical Essays Style of Emma


Perhaps the best description of style in Emma is that it is quietly subtle. The tone of the book is one of absolute ease and surety on the part of the author, who handles her material with such deft touches that an unperceptive reader may conclude that the story and the writing are very ordinary. But Austen's method is nearer that of the magician than that of the boxer.

She can be disarmingly simple and direct as, for instance, she sets up Emma's situation at the very beginning of the book; but she is also carefully and unobtrusively setting up objects of satire when she refers to Emma's always doing just as she liked or to Mr. Woodhouse's having been a valetudinarian all his life. When she describes Mr. Elton as "a young man living alone without liking it," she pins down a character specimen as neatly intact as can be done. The wit and sharp edge of her phrasing are illustrated when she describes Isabella's Christmas visit with her father and sister: "It was a delightful visit; — perfect, in being much too short." She also makes use of the subtle antithetic balance of word and phrasing derived from the eighteenth-century literary stylists: When Frank Churchill's visit is again postponed, Mrs. Weston, "after all her concern for what her husband was to suffer, suffered a great deal more herself." Although she avoids figurative images, Austen is adept at coining pregnant abstractions in the manner of Dr. Samuel Johnson: note the "apparatus of happiness" placed in the dialogue of Mrs. Elton.

In general, her style achieves exactly the proper distancing she wants between the reader and the fictional subject (see above under Point of View), and the reader is affected whether he is aware of it or not. To do this she may withdraw herself (and the reader with her) somewhat from the immediate subject by using a euphemistic circumlocution that contains an ironic barb. For instance, in reference to Mr. Elton's marriage and Harriet's feelings for him, Emma's thoughts are stated with third-person indirectness as "It was not to be doubted that poor Harriet's attachment had been an offering to conjugal unreserve"; to grasp the irony one may note the connotations of the world offering, while to comprehend the distancing of phraseology he may compare a direct statement like "At some intimate moment he told his wife of Harriet." A major difference is that Austen's phrasing disengages us just enough to let us laugh at what is, after all, a natural process of married communication.

Another way of stylistic distancing is the use of anticlimax. When Emma and George have become engaged and return to the house, Mr. Woodhouse is anxious that George not take a cold from his earlier ride; the author's wry comment is that "Could he have seen the heart, he would have cared very little for the lungs." Anticlimax can also be brutally though subtly frank in observations on mankind. The authorial statement about the death of Mrs. Churchill is this: "It was felt as such things must be felt. Everybody had a degree of gravity and sorrow; tenderness towards the departed, solicitude for the surviving friends; and, in a reasonable time, curiosity to know where she would be buried." This is an acute and realistic observation, but the concluding anticlimax ironically points to the difference between human intention and performance. Immediately following this observation is a stylistic illustration of the influence from the eighteenth-century concern for balancing phrasing and the eighteenth-century penchant for epigram: "Goldsmith tells us, that when lovely woman stoops to folly, she has nothing to do but to die; and when she stoops to be disagreeable, it is equally to be recommended as a clearer of ill-fame." Only through stylistic treatment such as this could Austen have provided for the reader the necessary esthetic distance to appreciate the latent satire connected with a serious subject like death.

Finally, in discussing Austen's style, one has to point to what has been called her mastery of dialogue. Her ear for the way women in particular talk is very good indeed. And though Augusta Elton's attempts at cleverness make a fine example, the best is Miss Bates' fragmentary speech, her habitual tone. But in terms of authorial style, it should be further noted that the use of direct and indirect conversation varies according to how much the reader needs to be involved in the immediate material, for the indirect reportage puts more distance between the reader and the material and allows at times a better satirical view.

Thus, from the smallest choice of words to the largest presentation of conversations and scenes, Austen's style is subtle and may be witty, sharp, epigrammatic, abstract, or distancing according to the satiric need.