Reading Austen’s Emma with Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson, and Deborah Knuth Klenck

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I’m excited to share the news that Deborah Knuth Klenck is coming to Halifax later this month and she’ll speak on “Learning to Read with Emma” at a JASNA Nova Scotia event on Sunday, May 31st at 2pm. Please email me (semsley at gmail dot com) or leave a comment here if you’re interested in attending and I can send you more details.

The following weekend, I’ll be in Philadelphia to give a talk on “Austen and Ambition,” and I can’t wait to meet up with friends both old and new from JASNA’s Eastern Pennsylvania Region. The luncheon and talk will be held at the Sheraton Society Hill Hotel on Saturday, June 6th at 11:30am. Details and registration information are available here.

I’m having such fun writing about ambition in Austen’s life and works—and the fascinating question of whether ambition is a virtue or a vice—and it would be very easy for me to write several blog posts about this topic. But I’ll save that for another time, because right now I want to tell you about Deborah’s talk on Emma.

EmmaThe talk she’s going to give in Halifax is a version of one she’ll give in June at the Jane Austen Summer Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She tells me “it’s about how much more we understand the novel as we re-re-read it. It’s the debut of my theory of reading based on the detective stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: first readers are clueless Watsons who think they’re Holmeses—Emma thinks she’s Holmes and takes a LONG time to see that she’s been Watson all along. Both authors mislead the reader the first time through, and the talk goes through some examples.” Deborah says, “I’ve probably read the novel thirty times or so, but I’m still ‘getting’ stuff I should have seen earlier.”

Deborah was trained at Smith College and Yale University and is Professor of English at Colgate University, where she teaches classes on Shakespeare and Milton as well as on eighteenth-century writers and, of course, Jane Austen. She says her love of Austen was “of such long-standing unabashedness that, at first, it hardly seemed to be a sufficiently ‘academic’ field for research. Fortunately, between Colgate students clamoring for a Jane Austen course and the enthusiasm of J. David ‘Jack’ Grey, a co-founder of the Jane Austen Society of North America,” she says, she was encouraged to begin writing and teaching about Austen’s work.

Her first JASNA AGM talk was on female friendship in the Juvenilia, in Manhattan in 1987. She has since spoken at AGMs in Santa Fe, Lake Louise, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and, she adds, “almost Minneapolis, where my son, an Austenite Ph.D. candidate in his own right, delivered my talk in my stead, after I broke my leg.” She has also been a guest speaker at many regional JASNA meetings. Deborah tells me she is delighted to have a chance to meet some of the members of JASNA Nova Scotia. I know we are equally delighted to have the opportunity to hear her speak.

Today, in anticipation of Deborah’s talk, I’m pleased to share with you a short piece she wrote introducing her idea about reading and rereading Emma with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Emma

I have taught British literature at Colgate University since 1978. I began with courses in the field of my graduate work: Restoration and eighteenth-century literature, predominantly satire. Over time, partly owing to student demand, I have taught more and more courses on fiction—and the shift in my teaching led to my writing on Jane Austen—now a much more important subject of my scholarship than the works of Pope, Swift, or Congreve. My Jane Austen seminar became a frequent offering. Nevertheless, I am always acutely aware that a fiction course presents a special challenge to undergraduate readers and hence to their professor: the problem? In contrast with a course where drama or poetry prevails, a fiction course is rather unforgiving: if one falls behind on the reading, how can one ever catch up with what rapidly becomes a runaway train?

It’s true that a senior seminar on Jane Austen requires a lot of reading, but many students who elect such a course are already familiar with (and love) at least some texts on the syllabus. The first time I taught English 388, Colgate’s “Survey of the British Novel,” on the other hand, I couldn’t count on well-prepared “fans” of the books. I tried to envision how I would “get” the class “through” the texts (one of which was Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa).

I explained my dilemma in a kind of cry for help on the first day of class. I passed out a famous 1912 photograph of Robert Falcon Scott and his four compatriots at the South Pole. I told the class the story of Scott’s doomed expedition, and pointed to the harnesses the men wear in the picture: they were hauling their own sledges, I explained. In contrast, Roald Amundsen, who beat the British to the Pole and brought his men back alive, used sled dogs on the journey. (The dogs were, of course, used in more ways than one: some became, as planned, a food source for men and dogs along the way and on the way back, but this was not the aspect of the contrast I wanted to emphasize.)

South Pole

“Why did I show you this picture?” I asked the class. “Because when I was offered the opportunity to teach this course, I immediately conceived that getting through these novels in a single term would require that I pull you bodily through the texts.”

“I have a bad back,” I continued, “and therefore, in this course, you have to be the dogs.” (The point was about speed and economy of effort—not about any plans to experiment with recipes for cannibal stew. Luckily, the class seemed to appreciate the analogy in the way I meant it.)

By and large, such pep talks have worked, over the years.

But on the eve of the two-hundredth birthday of Charles Dickens, I undertook to revive a senior seminar on his work. The course had been taught by my late colleague, the novelist Frederick Busch, but had languished in the Catalogue since his death. My bold plan was in honor of Fred as much as Dickens, but it filled me with dread—how does one arrange a course in which there will be almost 4,000 pages of reading?

Having wrung all the significance I could out of the dog-sledding metaphor, I came up with another, almost contemporaneous British touchstone for reading: the “Sherlock Holmes method.”

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

The Arthur Conan Doyle short stories and novels are told to us by Dr. Watson, a rather clueless if amiable chap. But at the end of every adventure, Holmes reviews everything that has contributed to the solution of the mystery—clues and plot elements that he has understood from the start—finally letting Watson and the reader know what’s actually been going on. In the late spring before the fall seminar, I sent all the students pre-registered for the course (there were 17 of them) the full syllabus, including the titles and specific editions we were to use. I enjoined them to “pre-read” all of the novels—so that we could be re-reading them together throughout the fall. “On our first readings of a novel,” I explained—or perhaps warned, “we think we understand things—we like to fancy ourselves Holmes. But it often turns out that we’re more like Watson.” I hoped that our second readings during the fall term would be much more useful if everyone got the Watson work out of the way over the summer.

It worked! During the fall term, everyone found their way around the texts with the ease that comes with familiarity. Our class discussions were especially satisfying because everyone entered into them, at every class.

What happens when we apply Sherlock Holmes’s methods to another two-hundredth-birthday subject: Emma? What do we learn when we re-read Emma? And how long does it take Emma herself before she realizes that she’s been “reading” her own surroundings and neighbors as if she is a clueless Watson, not, as she assumes, a clever Holmes?

That’s the subject of my talk, originally titled “‘Elementary, my Dear Harriet?’: Misreadings and Missed Readings in Emma” and now titled, more simply, “Learning to Read with Emma.”

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