PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.28, NO.1 (Winter 2007)

“I am Rather a Talker”: Speech and Silence in Emma


June Sturrock

June Sturrock (email:, the editor of the Broadview Press edition of Mansfield Park, is an Emeritus Professor of English at Simon Fraser University, Canada.


Emma: A Novel:  from its title-page and its first two words—“Emma Woodhouse”—onwards, Jane Austen’s most perfect narrative focuses on one woman, confining itself almost entirely to Emma’s own consciousness.1  Yet Austen’s concern here is not with the individual consciousness in isolation but with the individual in the community, with Emma in Highbury.  As Jan Fergus writes, “Highbury as a community takes centre stage” (152).  And the little town is imagined as closely and lovingly as any of its inhabitants and perhaps plays as important a role in the novel.


In any small, close-knit community such as Highbury, with its obligations, benefits, and irritations, speech—communication—is central.  Accordingly, Emma, more than any other of Austen’s novels, emphasizes the significance of speech, not only through its brilliant dialogue, but also through an intense consciousness of speech habits and their implications.  Miss Bates—who is, of course, the “talker” of my title—Mr. Elton, Mrs. Elton, Mr. Woodhouse—all are recognizable every time they open their mouths, not just because of the content of their speeches but also because of the characteristic ways in which they express themselves.  Not only are the inhabitants of Highbury defined and illuminated by their own speech habits, they also comment on each other’s diction and locutions and furthermore discuss the implications of language use, which is also the subject of narrative comment.  As Juliet McMaster says, “the discriminating members of Highbury society have a virtually professional expertise in each others’ language” (“Secret Language” 121).  In discussing all these aspects of the treatment of language in Emma, my focus is on how, in this novel especially, Austen gently but invariably moralizes speech acts—how in Emma, “death and life are in the power of the tongue,” to quote the biblical Book of Proverbs (18:21).


Allusions to Death, Life, and the Bible may sound rather overstrained in reference to Austen’s comedy, in which, after all, nothing of any great significance happens.  As its first critic, Walter Scott, pointed out, “Emma has even less story than either [Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice]” (Southam 419).  Any catastrophe that threatens is averted.  Mrs. Weston’s poultry houses are raided, so Emma and Mr. Knightley can be happy.  Mrs. Churchill conveniently dies, so Frank and Jane can be happy. Yet the seriousness of this comedy is beyond dispute:  there is a strong sense throughout of the communal obligation of minimizing other people’s pain and furthering other people’s well-being.  It is not by chance that this is the only one of the six novels in which the heroine is seen in that most characteristic activity of the nineteenth-century lady, charitable visits to the poor.2  Of course, some of this obligation towards others takes the concrete form of a “‘whole hind-quarter’” of pork, a pitcher of broth, or a sack of apples (172, 88, 238).  Most often, though, this social obligation works through the spoken word.


Every character inevitably fails in this obligation of charity from time to time, most notably Emma herself.  And Emma’s worst misdeeds, her worst offences against the community, are verbal.  Indeed, it is arguable that, at this period, the moral life of gentry women—“ladies”—most often involved speech rather than action because it was through speech that they were able to exercise their freedom.  The most memorable of Emma’s offences is her unkindness to Miss Bates at Box Hill, when she cannot resist a jibe at the older woman’s speech habits as sure to lead her to exceed the limit of “‘three things very dull indeed’” (370).  If we wince at this small incident, it is because Austen puts us in Emma’s place, so well do we understand both Emma’s original temptation and her later contrition:  Miss Bates is clearly infuriating and clearly good-nature itself.  Moreover, Austen perhaps flatters her readers into believing that they share the temptations of a wit, such as Emma, to make amusing if hurtful remarks.  The dangers of wit were a commonplace of the period:  the well-known conduct writer, Dr. Gregory, comments that “wit is so flattering to vanity, that those who possess it become intoxicated, and lose all self-command” (30).  Well, yes—especially when it is a very hot day and everyone in the company is feeling rather irritable.  Though Miss Bates is hurt, however, she soon forgives Emma.  The ill-effects of Emma’s other verbal misdeeds last longer.  Emma’s failure in “the duty of woman by woman” (231) in imparting to Frank Churchill her “abominable suspicions” about Jane Fairfax and Mr. Dixon is indeed, as she comes to realize, “unpardonabl[e]” in itself (421):  it also causes embarrassment to herself as well as to Jane.  Again, Emma’s heedless fostering of Harriet’s infatuation with Mr. Elton, “talking her” into love, gives Harriet five months of unnecessary misery.  The far fewer words of encouragement she gives Harriet in relation to her second love (or perhaps, Harriet being Harriet, her third love) backfire, of course, causing both women brief but acute pain.


Other characters also commit significant verbal aggressions, to adopt Juliet McMaster’s phrase (“Mrs. Elton” 73).  Frank Churchill’s teasing of Jane about a tune that was “‘danced at Weymouth’” (242) may indeed be “not kind,” as Elizabeth Newark says (215), but his words at Box Hill, which Jane knows only too well how to interpret, are far more cruel:  “‘How many a man has committed himself on a short acquaintance, and rued it all the rest of his life!’” he says, angrily (372).  John Knightley is ill-tempered; George Knightley scolds—or at least, he scolds Emma.  But like Emma, these characters acknowledge, and sometimes even feel shame for, their verbal affronts.  They are sensitive and intelligent enough to acknowledge what they have done.


But those who offend most through their words are quite incapable of perceiving their offences and are therefore incapable of change.  Consider Mrs. Elton:  Augusta Hawkins Elton’s use of language resembles that of advertising rather than of literature or conversation.  She uses language not so much for communication and interaction as for the greater glory of Augusta Hawkins Elton and manages to inflict many wounds in the process.  At the dinner party at Hartfield, for instance, she bullies Jane Fairfax incessantly, first about her visits to the post office, and then about getting a position as governess.  She refuses to listen to Jane’s firm but quiet protests, speaking in terms of “‘exert[ing] . . . authority’” over Jane (295).  Such self-aggrandizing patronage allows her to advertise her belief in her general superiority, as well as the fact that she has more than one manservant (to collect Jane’s letters) and sundry rich connections (to employ Jane as governess).  The implications of this episode are underlined by its ending—by the brilliant comedy of the dialogue, or dual monologue, between her and Mr. Weston, in which Mr. Weston wishes only to talk about his son and Mrs. Elton wishes only to talk about Mrs. Elton.  As Marilyn Butler says, “none of the comic characters communicate.  They surround themselves with a web of words but with words that convey their own selfhood, their individuality and make little or no impact on the consciousness of others” (271).  More accurately, perhaps, the consciousness of others makes little or no impact on these speakers.  That is as true of Mr. Weston as of Mrs. Elton, but, as with Miss Bates, his verbal offences are easily forgiven because of his patent good nature.


Mrs. Elton’s speech is the subject of frequent comment by the other characters, both for its content and its manner.  Emma notes especially Mrs. Elton’s pretentious ways of speaking of other people, which show her ignorance of polite usage as well as of grammatical Italian.  After her first tête-à-tête with Mrs. Elton, Emma exclaims “‘Knightley!—I could not have believed it.  Knightley!—never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley! . . . her Mr. E, and her cara sposo’” (Samuelian 255).  Chapman’s edition corrects Mrs. Elton’s mistake and prints “caro sposo,” but it seems significant that she gets it wrong twice—and that Emma seems to observe this.3  Still, Emma’s distaste at this point is based largely on class prejudice.  Mrs. E. is non-U.4


Her husband’s speech habits—apart from his perpetual “exactly so”—have perhaps a more unpleasant significance.  Both the Knightley brothers observe the great difference between his speech with women and with men.  Mr. Knightley warns Emma, “‘Elton may talk sentimentally, but he will act rationally. . . . [F]rom his general way of talking in unreserved moments, when there are only men present, I am convinced that he does not mean to throw himself away’” (66); his less tolerant brother comments, “‘I never in my life saw a man more intent on being agreeable than Mr. Elton.  It is downright labour to him where ladies are concerned.  With men he can be rational and unaffected, but when he has ladies to please every feature works’” (111).  My concern here is not so much with Mr. Elton’s sexism but with a related matter, his hypocrisy.  While Emma thinks that he is Harriet’s suitor, she notes his excessive gallantry merely with some amusement, observing his care “that nothing ungallant, nothing that did not breathe a compliment to the sex should pass his lips” (70).  She notes, “there was a sort of parade in his speeches which was very apt to incline her to laugh.  She ran away to indulge the inclination” (82).  The truth does begin to dawn on her at one point, when she thinks, “‘[T]his man is almost too gallant to be in love’” (49); she quickly brushes the realization aside, however.  Emma is, typically if regrettably, more sensitive to what offends Emma than to what might offend Emma’s dear friend.  It is not until Emma is forced to recognize that she herself is his object, that she recognizes Elton’s hypocrisy for what it is:  “There had been no real affection either in his language or manners.  Sighs and fine words had been given in abundance; but she could hardly devise any set of expressions, or fancy any tone of voice, less allied with real love” (135).  Elton’s “fine words” are addressed to Emma’s £30,000 rather than to Emma herself.


Such hypocrisy as Elton’s is especially offensive in a text such as this, in which truth, like charity, is paramount.  Elton, like a coarser Frank Churchill, fails to observe the standards of strict honesty.  Emma, when driven to consider “‘what a man should be,’” talks about “‘that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life’” (397).  Plainly, her standards are set by Mr. Knightley.  Truth in this narrative is related to love, or more precisely to the appropriate male love object, for here the males most worthy to attract females—Mr. Knightley, Mr. Martin—are the truth-tellers.  Mr. Knightley is represented as nothing if not honest, and in his relation with Emma it is in part “‘the beauty of truth and sincerity’” that he values (446).  Emma shares his values, and, after her engagement, is wounded by her need to conceal certain details for Harriet’s sake.  She finds the need to practice a degree of deceit towards Mr. Knightley “little inferior to the pain of having made Harriet unhappy” (463).  And, when Harriet is safely in the hands of Mr. Martin and the need for reticence is over, “[h]igh in the rank of [Emma’s] most serious and heartfelt felicities, was the reflection that all necessity of concealment from Mr. Knightley would soon be over.  The disguise, equivocation, mystery, so hateful to her to practise might soon be over.  She could now look forward to giving him that full and perfect confidence which her disposition was most ready to welcome as a duty” (475).  For Emma, sincerity is a value she accepts both instinctively and intellectually.


Elton’s speech, with its compliments and “parade,” offends against sincerity.  It also offends against the values implicit in Emma in a less serious but related way.  “‘One man’s style must not be the rule of another’s,’” says Mr. Knightley, as he reads Frank Churchill’s letter, having finally achieved a degree of tolerance for Frank (445).  All the same, it is quite clear that he does take his own style as a rule and that his style is the plain style, quite at odds with the “‘fine complimentary’” approach of Frank Churchill and Mr. Elton (445).  The treatment of the plain style in Emma implies that it is an indication of moral quality as well as of good taste, that it is of value to the community in general, not merely an indication of social class.  When Knightley asks Emma to marry him, he uses what the narrative voice describes as “plain, unaffected, gentleman-like English” (448), a significant conjunction of adjectives, placing the moral (“plain” and “unaffected,” which imply “truthful”) alongside the social (“gentleman-like”).  Knightley himself seems to think of his own plain-spokenness as a guarantee of sincerity:  “‘I cannot make speeches,’” he tells Emma, “‘If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.  But you know what I am.—You hear nothing but truth from me’” (430).  The narrative voice seems to support this implied connection between plain speech and sincerity.  When the Knightley brothers meet, “‘How d’ye do, George?’ and ‘John, how are you?’ succeeded in the true English style, burying under a calmness that seemed all but indifference, the real attachment which would have led either of them, if requisite, to do every thing for the good of the other” (99).  Knightley’s bluntness occasionally verges on rudeness but never quite crosses the line.  Margaret Kirkham believes he is insulting to Miss Bates, as offensive as Emma at Box Hill, in asking her, “‘[A]re you mad, to let your niece sing herself hoarse in this manner?’” (229; Kirkham 133).  Miss Bates, however, clearly recognizes his good intentions, and minds no more than Emma minds when Knightley affectionately calls her a “‘[n]onsensical girl’” (214). 


Use of the plain style also indicates Robert Martin’s fine qualities.  His language is described in precisely the same terms as that of Mr. Knightley:  “The style of the letter [proposing to Harriet] was much above [Emma’s] expectation.  There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer.  It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling” (50-51, my emphasis).  Mr. Knightley, too, praises Robert Martin for his use of plain language:  “‘I never hear better sense from any one than from Robert Martin.  He always speaks to the purpose; open, straight forward, and very well judging’” (59).  Like his landlord’s, Robert Martin’s language communicates warmth, openness, and sincerity.  In Emma, verbal style indicates moral style.



My title alludes to silence as well as speech, but so far I have discussed the speech rather than the silences in Emma.  But silences are essential to this novel, which would have virtually no plot without them.  Many people, notably P. D. James, who knows about these things, have written about Emma in terms of the detective story or mystery, and such narratives demand silences, gaps in the available information.  But silences in Emma work beyond the level of plot.  Like speech, silences—failures or refusals to communicate—can be aggressions against communal values.  Jane’s silence, and even more so Frank’s combinations of misleading speech and silence, offend in that they unsettle normal community interactions in a closely-knit society, in which people are accustomed to expect to understand the network of relationships amongst which they live. 


For Emma, Frank’s concealment is an abuse of those communal values.  She attacks Frank’s behavior, and her implicit grounds are again the importance of those standards embodied in Mr. Knightley—the need for truth and sincerity in a community:  “‘What has it been but a system of hypocrisy and deceit,—espionage, and treachery?—To come among us with professions of openness and simplicity; and such a league in secret to judge us all!—Here have we been, the whole winter and spring, completely duped, fancying ourselves all on an equal footing of truth and honour’” (399).  Emma’s anger, of course, arises partly from her sense of her own foolishness in talking to Frank about Jane and Mr. Dixon.  But she is right in her judgment of Frank, too, in that though he is intelligent and good-natured enough to avoid the worst offences of the Eltons, his value for truth and direct dealing is suspect, to say the least.  “‘I am the wretchedest being in the world at a civil falsehood,’” he says; but even as he speaks he is deceiving Emma about his knowledge of Jane’s piano, and he can find plenty of additional ways to distort the truth, both through speech and through silence (234).


While silences can be abused, in almost any society they are sometimes desirable and inevitable:  “[s]eldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure,” says the narrative voice (431). Emma loves “‘every thing that is decided and open’” (460) and acknowledges the beauty of frankness, but she cannot tell the whole truth about her recent emotional history to Mr. Knightley without wounding Harriet further than she has been wounded already.  The paramount values of this novel, truth and charity, are occasionally and realistically incompatible.  There are occasions when truth does damage.  Emma, with its stress on community, puts forward the ideal of a careful and intelligent negotiation between speech and silence, between openness and tact, for the benefit of communal living. 


Indeed, although Emma undoubtedly has the “‘open temper’” that Mr. Knightley loves (289), she is also a mistress of the kindly or polite silence.  As Claudia Johnson says, “Emma has ready stores of ‘politeness,’ which enable her to respect what is delicate by leaving it unsaid” (129).  In relation to these silences, Johnson also comments on what I have called Emma’s verbal aggressions:  “Shameful as these infractions are, they stand out precisely because they are so infrequent, and if Mrs. Elton’s presence on the scene helps us to identify and deplore them, it also helps appreciate how much better Emma handles herself by comparison” (130).  Emma, unlike Mrs. Elton, negotiates between the values of truth and those of charity, sometimes through speech and sometimes through her own silence.  When she has to listen to John Knightley’s complaints about Mr. Weston’s unwanted hospitality, for instance, “she had resolution enough to refrain from making any answer at all.  She could not be complying, she dreaded being quarrelsome; her heroism reached only to silence” (114).  The comfort of family relations, perhaps especially among relations-in-law, depends on such restraint.  Similarly, when Mr. Weston is justifying himself for tactlessly drawing the Eltons into the Box Hill expedition, “Emma denied none of it aloud, and agreed to none of it in private” (353).  Sometimes her silence arises from self-protection rather than politeness or consideration for others:  when she realizes that Harriet loves Mr. Knightley, she keeps silent about her own feelings, but what she says to Harriet is no more than the truth:  “‘Harriet, I will only venture to declare, that Mr. Knightley is the last man in the world, who would intentionally give any woman the idea of his feeling for her more than he really does’” (411).  As Andre Brink points out, “in a situation where open revolt or defiance is ruled out, one of the only possible alternatives to compliance is silence, and on occasion Emma does resort to it” (304).  Compliance might involve hypocrisy; revolt might be destructive; silence preserves the moral order.


This sense of the need to negotiate between speech and silence for the sake of the group is something Emma shares with Knightley, for of all the many couples in this marriage comedy, they are the only pair held together by shared principles.  Austen demonstrates the fundamental agreement between Knightley and Emma by showing them working together for the comfort of the family group—by organizing speech and silence.  All the way through the visit of John and Isabella Knightley to Highbury these two cooperate to negotiate peace in the family circle, both at Hartfield and at Randalls, by providing speech as a diversion so as to protect the necessary silences about certain sensitive subjects—rival doctors, seaside holidays:  “At times, almost inadvertently,” says Mary Waldron, “they achieve a kind of instinctual harmony of purpose which hints at a latent kindredship of spirit—as for instance during the incipient quarrel between John Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse during the family visit to Hartfield, when they both make strenuous and concerted efforts to change the subject . . . and at the snowy Christmas Eve party at Randalls when both combine to extricate Mr. Woodhouse” (120).  Their closeness and mutual understanding is very clear in the sheer brevity of their exchange about leaving Randalls:


[W]hile the others were variously urging and recommending, Mr. Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences:  thus—

“Your father will not be easy; why do not you go?”

“I am ready, if the others are.”

“Shall I ring the bell?”

“Yes, do.”  (128)


This scene shows them, as Juliet McMaster observes, as “essentially compatible partners” (“Secret Language” 129).


The closeness between Knightley and Emma has become increasingly apparent since the first chapter of the novel, which shows Emma’s mode of speech to Mr. Knightley as completely different from her mode of speech to her father.  She speaks to Mr. Woodhouse as one does to a fractious child, gently coaxing and persuading:  “‘Not a tear, and hardly a long face to be seen.  Oh! no, we all felt that we were going to be only half a mile apart, and were sure of meeting every day,’” she says, cajoling her father into cheerfulness over the wedding of “‘poor Miss Taylor’” (11).  She has taken on early the role of daughter-as-parent.  With Mr. Knightley, however, she speaks as an equal, ready to be playful or argumentative as the fancy takes her.  Their relationship is at the heart of the novel not just because the novel is a love story, but also because at its best that relationship shows the full use of speech as right communication both between two people and, beyond that, between those people and a larger society.  In fact, love in Emma is presented in terms of such communication.  As Butler suggests, they are both “supreme in dialogue” (272).  Their unique relationship shows itself most clearly in their conversation, as does that of Darcy and Elizabeth.  The dialogues between Knightley and Emma are perhaps the product of a more mature art in that they show the two lovers acting together within a community, and, in part, for the sake of that community.



The appropriate conclusion of any discussion of speech in Emma is surely a tribute to the “talker” of my title, and indeed my argument would be incomplete without a consideration of Austen’s representation of Miss Bates.  Community is a vital concern of this novel, as I have said, and the interactions of Emma and Knightley are directed in part by communal needs.  In the community of Highbury Miss Bates is central, literally in her rooms in the house opposite Ford’s, the haberdashers, as well as figuratively in a dozen different ways.  Miss Bates is central in part because, in a novel so concerned with community obligations, she not only fulfils her own obligations but is also a most proper recipient of other people’s charity:  she needs their hindquarters of pork and sacks of apples, and she also needs their tolerance and kind words.  More significantly, perhaps, through Miss Bates, Austen provides a remarkable example of a character who, though she has “no intellectual superiority” (21), unlike Emma and Mr. Knightley, nevertheless combines the values of the novel in herself.  She is instinctively charitable:  “[s]he loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness, quick-sighted to every body’s merits” (21); and she is so truthful that even when a social lie (explaining Jane’s refusal to see Emma) is required of her, she has to tell the truth (378-79).  She is central in terms of plot, too:  most of the clues in this “detective story” depend on Miss Bates’s truth-telling.  And for the reader, she creates a sense of the wider community beyond the gentry who are the main characters:  the baker, the baker’s boy, the servants at Hartfield and Donwell as well as her own Patty—we are conscious of all these lives going on because Miss Bates tells us about them.  It is largely because of Miss Bates’s talk that we have such a strong sense of the community of Highbury, a sense best expressed one hundred and thirty-odd years ago by the distinguished Victorian novelist Margaret Oliphant:  “It is impossible to conceive a more perfect piece of village geography, a scene more absolutely real. . . . We know it as well as if we had lived there all our lives and visited Miss Bates every other day” (Southam 224).





1.  Mr. Knightley talks to Mrs. Weston about Emma (78-82) and makes some observations about Jane Fairfax (302-06).  I believe that these are the only places in the novel in which we see through other eyes than Emma’s.


2.  Anne Elliot’s visits to Mrs. Smith in Persuasion are a rather different matter, as Mrs. Smith and Anne are of the same social class.


3.  Kristin Flieger Samuelian in her edition of Emma notes the inaccuracy of Mrs. Elton’s Italian, which Chapman corrects (254).  See also Sutherland 214.


4.  Having written this essay, I was amused to hear Janet Todd also use the expression “non-U” of Mrs. Elton in her plenary talk to the Vancouver AGM.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. R. W. Chapman3rd ed.  Oxford: Oxford UP, 1933.

Brink, Andre.  The Novel: Language and Narrative from Cervantes to Calvino.  New York: New York UP, 1998.

Fergus, Jan.  Jane Austen: A Literary Life.  London: Macmillan, 1991.

Butler, Marilyn.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.

Gregory, John.  A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters: A New Edition.  London, 1784. 

James, P. D.  “Appendix: Emma Considered as a Detective Story.” Time to be in Earnest:  A Fragment of Autobiography.  Toronto: Vintage, 2001.  243-59.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1988.

Kirkham, Margaret.  Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction.  London: Athlone P, 1997.

McMaster, Juliet.  “The Secret Languages of Emma.”  Persuasions 15 (1991): 119-31.

_____.  “Mrs. Elton and Other Verbal Aggressors.”  The Talk in Jane Austen.  Ed. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg.  Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2002.  73-90.

Newark, Elizabeth.  “Words Not Spoken: Courtship and Seduction in Jane Austen’s Novels.”  The Talk in Jane Austen.  Ed. Bruce Stovel and Lynn Weinlos Gregg.  Edmonton: U of Alberta P, 2002.  207-24.

Samuelian, Kristin Flieger, ed.  Emma.  Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2004.

Southam, Brian, ed.  Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, 1811-1870.  London: Routledge, 1968.

Sutherland, Kathryn.  Jane Austen’s Textual Lives from Aeschylus to Bollywood.  Oxford: OUP, 2005.

Waldron, Mary.  Jane Austen and the Fiction of Her Time.  Cambridge: CUP, 1999.

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