Constructive Writing: Emma, by Jane Austen

emma by jane austen“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich…” (p.1)

And so the book begins. Emma and her personality are the main focus of this story. Her changing fortunes the main concern.

“Mr Knightly seemed to be trying no to smile, and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs Elton’s beginning to talk to him.” (p. 229)

This book is a comedy but, by modern standard, light on the wit. Laugh are sparing. It does have a wedding at the end and romantic misunderstandings, so it is a comedy in structure.

What the book does provide is a guide to social etiquette:

“He had done his duty and could return (conversation) to his son.”

The book instructs when to complement, when to change topic, when to return visits, how to eat, talk and whom is permitted to marry whom.

Though not all the teachings are relevant or acceptable today:

“’…(I) have been in love with you ever since you were thirteen at least.’” (p.341)

At its heart, despite its age, this book is great and bares the common elements of a good novel.

Changing Status:

While Emma schemes to marry a friend, Harriet, into a higher class of person than would normally occur, there is more at foot.

“The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way…” (p.1)

Emma is the top of the social food chain in her county, and to loose that status would be horrible. Yet for her own good Emma must change. Still, altering her personality could change her status, and with out new humility her position does come under threat from another character. One presuming to own the perch as community taste maker.

Finding herself less valued could be the worst for Emma, but even worse is…

The Worst:

“’From Monday next to Saturday I assure you we have not a disengaged day.’” (p.212)

Those at the hight of society are wanted socially. Importantly it is to have people visit, and not to need to travel to another’s home. Only the underclass’ need seek others out. For Emma this is bad as…

High Stakes:

The horror of the above quote is that is it not said by Emma. Rather she discovers, matched by the grab for social power, that the marrying of her friends reduces her need socially, and she sees that:

“All that were good would be withdrawn…” (p.311), as couples spend their time together. Loneliness comes to Emma, and sadly she realises it is through her own meddling.

Believable Characters:

To some extent the characters are caricatures. They keep to a narrow typecast, be it constantly seeing negatives or constantly seeing joys. For this reason the actions of all characters are believable/understandable, and they often have a deeper purpose.

Some characters are to act as a countenance to Emma. They are examples of how Emma’s personality could be manifested in the worst or best light. And do, in turn, help navigate Emma’s change.

Time Pressure:

There is limited pressure in this book, and as such it is a rather gentle read. The only sparks occur when events must occur before weather or foreseeable character departure prevent delay, and these become the most captivating to read.


As mentioned above, the book does educate on etiquette, and while some of this is used-by, some is very, very useful.

“…an instant’s observations convinced her that it was only (said) to relieve his own feelings, and not meant to provoke; and therefore she let it pass.” (p.150)

How good for all to learn the power of restraint and observation. Many confrontations could be avoided if arguments or criticism of little relevance were left to past.

Final note:

It is interesting how this book is set in three acts. Each stage influenced by either the character of Mr Elton, Mr Churchill or Mr Knightly.

Readers and audiences seem now to expect this. There are three acts to film, and occasionally trilogies, stage plays are usually divided into three acts (even if intermission is halfway), and most modern stories now take this form.

It is worth considering and using this to make any new story publicly acceptable.

Also there is a lot of long dialogue here. The book is perhaps written at a time when stage plays were great, and so dialogue explaining every the thinking of a character was to be expected.

Modern writers avoid detailed dialogue. They try instead to show a natural, internal meaning, by describing actions (as visuals do in film). Unless, of course, the character is a chatter-box.