Tag Archives: Jane Austen Project

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Edited by James Kingsley, Oxford World’s Classics, 2008.

Austen Said: Patterns of Diction in Jane Austen’s Major Novels. The Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, austen.unl.edu. Accessed 4 Dec., 2016.

Ferguson, Frances. “Jane Austen, Emma, and the Impact of Form.” Modern Quarterly, vol. 61, no. 1, 2000, pp. 157-180.

Finch, Casey & Peter Bowen. “‘The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury’: Gossip and the Free-Indirect Style in Emma,” Representations, no. 31, 1990, pp. 1-18.

Goss, Erin. “Homespun Gossip: Jane West, Jane Austen, and the Task of Literary Criticism.” The Eighteenth Centry, vol. 56, no. 2, 2015, pp. 165-177.

“gossip, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 8 December 2016.

“gossip, v.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2016. Web. 8 December 2016.

Moretti, Franco. “Network Theory, Plot Analysis.” Stanford Literary Lab. 1 May, 2011.


In the novel, Austen does not seem to accept gossip as frivolous; indeed, she defends it by making it useful and even central to her novels.  As Erin M. Goss writes, “Austen’s turn to this oft-derided speech act seems designed – much like her turn to novels in Northanger Abby (1818) – to defend it against the derogation, so often lodged at novels as well, of its uselessness, frivolity, and potential for harm,” (Goss, 170).  In making gossip such a central aspect of Emma, Austen legitimizes it as a form of social connection.  She does not mock it or belittle it, but instead portrays it as necessary and interesting.  Gossip is not only part of the plot of Emma; it lays the foundation for the plot.  Emma’s personal growth is rooted in her own mistakes.  Time and time again, she meddles where she shouldn’t and tries to form attachments where none exist.  These mistakes could not exist without gossip, and neither could Emma’s own growth.  For example, in attempting to match Harriet Smith with Mr. Elton, Emma attempts to discuss Harriet’s health with him, to which he responds poorly.  Emma’s personal growth is only possible because of gossip.

In these graphs, we see the women of Emma take center stage and dominate the social scene.  Although the men are objects of interest, they are not generally gossips.  In this way, these graphs allow us to see how women dominate the interactions of Emma from a data-driven perspective.  This trend is evident in the “Full Novel, About” graph, in which women dominate the gossip, while men are more equally gossiped about.  Consider Miss Bates’s node in “Chapter 3, About,” as she gossips about far more people than anyone else.  Here, we see one example of a relatively poor woman using her ability to gossip to her advantage, and we see this phenomenon confirmed graphically.  Additionally, consider how Frank Churchill uses this network of gossip to his advantage in “Chapter 8, About.”  He mimics all of Emma’s theories, using the gossip around Jane’s pianoforte and Emma’s propensity for speculation to his advantage.  Not only do we see how women make use of this social capital to elevate their own importance, but we also see how men might use this network strategically to their advantage.

This project has addressed, and, in some ways, confirmed the literature surrounding the question of gossip as social capital in Emma.  In a patriarchal society, Austen’s female characters use gossip as a way to amplify their own voices and maintain some form of power.  Knowledge provides a certain amount of social currency in the world of the novels.  In a society where sources of entertainment were limited and women were barred from most forms of work, gossip becomes a common pastime, and having access to information gives the gossiper some power. Austen elevates female voices through the use of gossip, and we may look to this graphical evidence for a greater understanding of how she does so.

Unpursued Routes


Letters are a significant mode of transferring information in Austen’s novels.  Although characters more often gossip through face-to-face speech, letters allow them to correspond with people in other locations as well as with those in Highbury.  Some letters arrive in Highbury from outside, bringing news from faraway places, such as the actions and wellbeing of Frank Churchill or Jane Fairfax.  Others are more insular, bringing important news to members of the community, like Mr. Martin’s proposal to Harriet Smith.  The delivery of a letter draws attention to its contents in a way that speech does not allow, and a letter allows the writer to provide a more thorough explanation of their thoughts than they could aloud.  Additionally, letters introduce a physical network to our understanding of gossip in the form of the postal service.  Although barely visible in the novels, the delivery of letters relies on a postal system to move letters from the source to the destination.  This hidden physical network is essential to the delivery of letters, even if we do not see it explicitly in the book.  Without the postal system, the circulation of information within and to Highbury as we see it would be impossible.

Although apparently a physical medium, letters often blur the lines between physical and oral.  Although one might generally assume that one person writes a letter and sends it to another, characters often share the contents of letters with one another, even reading their letters aloud.  For example, Miss Bates delights in sharing the contents of her letters from Jane Fairfax with the whole of Highbury.  Jane’s letters, though addressed to Miss Bates, surely are not only meant for her eyes.  We may suppose that Jane knows the extent to which her aunt likes to gossip and ensures that the contents of her letters are such that having them shared would be no great embarrassment.  Further, the contents of a letter may make it unclear exactly for whom it is intended.  When Mr. Elton delivers his written “charade” to Hartfield, he intends to direct it to Emma.  However, she believes that he is courting her friend Harriet Smith and delivers the charade to her instead.  Because the charade, which we might think of as a type of letter, is addressed only to the ambiguous “Miss – ”, Emma is left to interpret it as she chooses, and she does so incorrectly.

Further, characters often share information they gain through letters aloud, mixing communication through letter with verbal communication.  Some letters we receive in their entirety, like Mr. Elton’s charade.  Others we receive exclusively through speech or description.  Mr. Churchill’s letters home, for instance, never appear in the text, but Mr. and Mrs. Weston are more than happy to share the general messages within them.  In fact, for a large part of their lives, the only way that Highbury hears about Jane Fairfax or Frank Churchill is through letters.  Letters, then, are intrinsically linked to speech.  The written words of one character end up in the hands of another and percolate throughout the town through conversation. In one particular occasion, Emma, the Westons, and the Knightleys discuss the quality of Mr. Churchill’s handwriting, but Mrs. Weston is unable to produce a sample as she does not have one of his letters with her.  In this case, the contents of the letter are far less important than its physical aspects.  The characters have presumably seen and read at least one of Mr. Churchill’s letters, but the physicality is more notable than any news it may contain.

Early in the project, I intended to much more closely consider the role of letters in Emma.  I hoped to incorporate them in the graph in some way and study the role of physical communication in the network of the novel as a whole.  However, I eventually abandoned this idea due to time constraints and the richness of information available in the dialogue-based graphs.  Letters certainly play a significant role in the gossip of Highbury, as discussed above, and this would be a promising avenue of study for future work.  Although I did not examine the role of letters as explicitly as I had hoped, they are relevant to both of the individual chapters of focus.

Free Indirect Discourse

Scholars have previously drawn a connection between gossip and free indirect discourse, and I initially intended to draw such a connection in my own project.  As Finch and Bowen write:

“The very force of free indirect style is the force of gossip. Both function as forms par excellence of surveillance, and both serve ultimately to locate the subject – characterological or political – within a seemingly benign but ultimately coercive narrative or social matrix. It is no coincidence that the first great novelist of gossip should also be the first great technician of the free indirect style.” (Finch, 3-4)

According to Finch and Bowen, free indirect discourse is parallel to gossip in that it makes the private public.  Just as gossip displaces its authority throughout the community, so does free indirect discourse conceal its source.  Austen uses free indirect discourse to make the private known, to share with us the interiority of her characters.  Additionally, because of gossip, “there is nothing, however seemingly private, that is not somehow already illuminated by the normalizing light of public scrutiny,” (Finch, 2).  Free indirect discourse simultaneously shares with us the minds of the characters while also obscuring the truth.  For much of the novel, we are too entrenched in Emma’s perspective to fully see what is happening around her.  Just as Emma is blind to the desires of her friends, so are we.  For instance, Austen hints at the hidden relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, but we are too entrenched in Emma’s perspective to see those signs.  Free indirect discourse, then, is intrinsically linked with gossip in its ability to simultaneously share the truth and obscure it.  When the study of free indirect discourse was a more prominent part of my project, I found the project Austen Said, which visualizes the occurrences of free indirect discourse in Austen’s novels by certainty.  Although I did not end up working with free indirect discourse, I did use their XML documentation of Emma as the basis for my own work with the novel.

Graphs – Volume 2, Chapter 8, About


A manually interpreted graph of gossip in Volume 2, Chapter 8. Each edge begins with the character speaking and terminates at the character being spoken about. Female nodes are pink, and male ones are blue. The nodes are sized by out-degree, so characters who talk more appear as larger nodes.

In this chapter, we watch Frank Churchill use gossip to his advantage to deflect attention from his engagement to Jane Fairfax.  His relationship with her is simultaneously obscured and front and center; the gift of the pianoforte is all anyone can talk about, but no one suspects that the donor could be Frank Churchill.  Frank uses the mystery surrounding the gift and the other characters’ desire to gossip to deflect attention from himself.  He allows Emma to form her own suspicions, then simply follows her lead in his own contributions to the conversation.

Considering Frank’s motives and methods of achieving them, I hypothesized that, in this dynamic graph, Frank would talk about whomever Emma talks about.  Emma, then, would initiate a conversation about Mr. Dixon, and Frank’s node would immediately point there as well.  If you watch the above animation, you will see that this is indeed what happens.  As Emma brings more characters into her suspicions, Frank reflects her thinking, allowing Emma to deceive herself without any obvious guidance from Frank.  This pattern reveals Frank’s mirroring of Emma’s language in order to keep his own secret.

However, this pattern also occurs in the conversation between Emma and Mrs. Weston.  Mrs. Weston introduces a potential match between Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax, and Emma soundly contradicts her speculations.  However, Emma does something that Frank does not in his imitation, which is introduce another topic to the conversation.  While Frank is content to follow Emma’s lead, Emma contradicts Mrs. Weston’s ideas by posing the problem of Henry Knightley’s inheritance.  Whereas Frank is encouraging Emma’s speculations, Emma refutes Mrs. Weston by diverting the conversation to another character.  In all likelihood, it is merely standard for a gossip-driven conversation to follow this pattern of lead and follower, which would explain the structural similarities between two conversations of vastly different motives.

Graphs – Volume 2, Chapter 8, To

A manually interpreted graph of gossip in Volume 2, Chapter 8. Each edge begins with the character speaking and terminates at the character being spoken to. Female nodes are pink, and male ones are blue. The nodes are sized by out-degree, so characters who talk more appear as larger nodes.

As this chapter depicts a party, the flow of conversation was challenging to depict graphically.  The first, and arguably most significant speech in the chapter is when Mrs. Cole relates to a group of people the gossip about Jane Fairfax receiving a mysterious pianoforte.  Austen summarizes this passage but does not provide the exact words of Mrs. Cole’s relation.  Further, we know that Mrs. Cole is talking generally to a group, but we do not know exactly who is in that group.  The ambiguous nature of Mrs. Cole’s audience creates an atmosphere of general mingling and portrays Mrs. Cole as the deliverer of news and the source of the gossip.  For these reasons, I did not include this passage in the graph, even though it is the origin of all the gossip in this chapter.  However, there is one concluding piece of dialogue[1] from Mrs. Cole that does in some way manage to capture her role in the spread of gossip, if not fully.

Another important consideration in graphically representing this chapter was the consideration of time.  When reading Austen’s description of the party, one can imagine a relatively large group of characters mingling.  Characters move from group to group, listening, talking, and sharing gossip.  However, there are only two primary sections of gossip-driven dialogue in the chapter, one between Emma and Frank Churchill and the other between Emma and Mrs. Weston.  Portraying these conversations graphically does not fully capture the sense of time in the chapter.   For instance, someone interrupts Frank and Emma’s conversation, and they both mingle with other characters before reuniting and continuing their previous conversation.  Although the graph portrays this chapter as one continuous conversation, it is important to note the failings of a graphical portrayal of narrative.

An automatically interpreted graph of Volume 2, Chapter 8. Nodes are sized by out-degree.

Note the significant difference between the automatically generated graph and the manually created one.  The manual graph much more clearly captures the flow of conversation as among characters, whereas the automatic graph is much more stark, with lines only from Emma to each character she interacts with.  This difference is likely due to a reader’s ability to detect nuances in conversation that the model for conversation performed by the automatic version cannot.  For instance, Mr. Knightley calls out to Miss Bates to stop Jane from singing for too long.  However, this piece of dialogue is not followed by a response from Miss Bates, so the automatic graph does not portray this interaction.

[1] “‘One can suppose nothing else,’ added Mrs. Cole, ‘and I was only surprized that there could ever have been a doubt. But Jane, it seems, had a letter from them very lately, and not a word was said about it. She knows their ways best; but I should not consider their silence as any reason for their not meaning to make the present. They might chuse to surprise her” (168-9).

Graphs – Volume 2, Chapter 3, About

A manually interpreted graph of gossip in Volume 2, Chapter 3. Each edge begins with the character speaking and terminates at the character being spoken about. Female nodes are pink, and male ones are blue. The nodes are sized by out-degree, so characters who talk more appear as larger nodes.

Manually determining the character about whom other characters were talking proved to be a difficult and interesting task.  Mr. Woodhouse’s role in the conversation is particularly notable.  He almost never directly addresses the conversation, instead making observations such as, “Once, I felt the fire rather too much; but then I moved my chair a little, a very little, and it did not disturb me” (134).  Emma and Mr. Knightley are far more focused on the conversation at hand, while Mr. Woodhouse is far more likely to follow his own train of thought and provide only tangentially relevant observations.  This is evident in the graph, as Mr. Woodhouse’s network only includes the characters in the room, revealing his inability to engage in the wider conversation.  This characteristic is only evident on this small-scale graph.  Because the community of the novel is so small, Mr. Woodhouse’s is about the same as anyone else’s on the scale of the full novel.

Also notable in this chapter is the method by which the news of Mr. Elton’s engagement gets to Emma.  Mr. Elton has sent a letter to the Coles; Mr. Cole shares this letter with Mr. Knightley; and Mrs. Cole shares the information with Miss Bates.  Both Mr. Knightley and Miss Bates arrive at Hartfield to share the news with Mr. Woodhouse and Emma.  Mr. Knightley hints at the news, and I recorded this as talking “about” Mr. and Mrs. Elton, if not explicitly.  Miss Bates seems upset to hear that Mr. Knightley has heard this news before her – “Where could you possibly hear it, Mr. Knightley? For it is not five minutes since I received Mrs. Cole’s note” (136).  Miss Bates’s role is that of the town gossip, and she knows that her ability to spread information is her greatest social capital.

A manually interpreted graph of gossip in Volume 2, Chapter 3. Female nodes are pink, and male ones are blue. The nodes are sized by in-degree, so characters who are most talked about appear as larger nodes. Note that women are more responsible for circulating gossip in the previous graph, while men are more often the subject of gossip, as in this graph.

You can see the characters’ various roles displayed in the graph.  Miss Bates’s network, of course, has the furthest spread, as she routinely mentions five or ten characters in her long-winded passages.  Removing her from the network results in 56.03% edge visibility; approximately half of the graph relies on her, unsurprisingly.  Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, has a more contained reach.  He is focused on the people in the room and on Mr. and Mrs. Elton, the primary subject of conversation.  As a wealthy man, Mr. Knightley does not need to engage quite as fully in the network of gossip as Miss Bates does in order to hold social importance.  Emma’s network is more wide-ranging than Mr. Knightley’s but less so than Miss Bates’s.  Surprisingly, removing Mr. and Mrs. Elton from the graph results in a 75.86% visibility of edges, so the network largely stays intact even without any gossip about their marriage.  This is likely because the chapter opens with some conversation about other topics, and Miss Bates also mentions a variety of other characters in her gossip about the Eltons, so there is plenty of surrounding gossip to maintain the structure of the network.  This would seem to suggest that although Mr. Elton’s engagement is significant to the community insofar as it removes one eligible bachelor, the gossip of the town can and will continue regardless.

Graphs – Volume 2, Chapter 3, To


A manually interpreted graph of gossip in Volume 2, Chapter 3. Each edge begins with the character speaking and terminates at the character being spoken to. Female nodes are pink, and male ones are blue. The nodes are sized by out-degree, so characters who talk more appear as larger nodes.

Consider the above graph, which portrays dialogue from one character to another in Volume 2, Chapter 3.  In this graph, each edge connects the character speaking to his or her audience.  Notable in graphically representing this conversation is the notion of time.  In this representation, each paragraph of dialogue is considered as one unit of narrative time, regardless of the length of the paragraph.  However, there is one instance in which Mr. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse both jump to contradict Emma’s self-deprecation “nearly at the same time” (134).  This moment is represented in the graph as a simultaneous occurrence, rather than two separate pieces of dialogue.  Of course, this method of representing conversation over time is inherently flawed, as it is dependent on textual units of time.  A paragraph is not in reality a unit of time, but instead a unit of textual organization.  However, for the purposes of representing an inherently textual interaction, this method does reveal the way a conversation moves between characters.

Another difficulty in representing conversations between people is the notion of generally addressing the room.  Emma does this quite a bit when Miss Bates appears.  For instance, the statement “Mr. Elton going to be married! He will have everybody’s wishes for his happiness” is not directed at any particular character, but rather the entire room (136).  This is particularly difficult to capture graphically, as here Emma is not really addressing Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley, Miss Bates, and Jane individually, but rather addressing the group as a whole.  This type of speech includes everyone generally rather than each participant individually.  This social convention is perhaps what makes Miss Bates’s and Jane’s tangent about the physical qualities of Mr. Dixon so uncomfortable.  The two have what is almost a private interaction in the midst of a public conversation, which is a jarring contradiction.  Miss Bates briefly fails to include everyone by only talking to Jane, and this reads as a break in the normal flow of conversation, if only for a moment.

A manually interpreted graph of Chapter 3, but nodes sized by in-degree.

An automatically interpreted graph of Chapter 3. Nodes are sized by in-degree.

In contrast with the manually generated graph is the automatically generated one.  In order to create this graph, I assumed that when each character speaks, the next speaker is the first speaker’s addressee.  For instance, if Emma speaks and then Mr. Knightley speaks, this graph assumes that Emma is speaking to Mr. Knightley.  This method of visualization draws attention to the characters speaking in a way that dialogue imbedded in the narrative does not, and it portrays that dialogue in such a way that nodes are either “on” or “off.”  Although this makes a whole set of assumptions about the nature of conversation and its role in the book, the above two graphs are rather similar.  Both are sized by in-degree, meaning that larger nodes are addressed in conversation more frequently.  The manual version of the graph shows more nuance in differentiating the sizes of the nodes, and Emma, rather than Miss Bates, becomes the dominating presence.  Mr. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse are both also allowed greater share of the conversation, due to the phenomenon of addressing the group rather than the individual.  We may take from these differences that, although Miss Bates speaks frequently, she is less often explicitly addressed.  Further, although Mr. Knightley and Mr. Woodhouse are less frequent speakers, they are a significant part of the audience.  This is perhaps indicative of a difference in class, as the most prominent speaker is the poor old maid while the most common listeners are the wealthiest characters.  Those in power merely listen while Miss Bates takes advantage of her information to momentarily take the spotlight.

Graphs – The Novel

An automatically generated graph of interactions in the novel. Each time a character speaks, the next speaker is considered to be the recipient. Edges move from the character talking to the recipient. Nodes are sized by out-degree.

The same graph, but with the Emma node removed.

Unsurprisingly, Emma lies at the center of the novel, and consequently, its graph.  Filtering Emma out of the above graph results in an edge visibility of 36.88 percent.  The vast majority of conversations in the novel involve Emma, and this is evident by such a collapse of the graph.  However, even without Emma, the other nodes on the graph are still connected to each other.  Highbury maintains its structural foundation without her, but the novel inherently takes her point of view.  The story cannot exist without Emma, but Highbury can.  Franco Moretti performs a similar test in his graphical study of Hamlet, in which he removes Hamlet and Claudius, followed by Hamlet and Horatio.  Moretti differentiates, “stability has clearly much to do with centrality, but is not identical to it” (Moretti, 5).  Emma is central to the graph, but even with the resulting 36 percent edge visibility, the graph remains stable without her.

The out-degree of a node indicates the number of edges originating at that node, or in this context, the number of times that character speaks in the novel.  Emma has by far the highest out-degree of any node at 360, while the second highest degree is Mr. Knightley at 151.  Below that are Frank Churchill with 103, Harriet Smith with 93, and Miss Bates with 83.  This ordering makes sense in the context of the novel, as Emma is our protagonist, and Mr. Knightley is her love interest and oldest friend.  It may seem surprising that Frank Churchill ranks above Harriet Smith because he only arrives partway through the novel.  Though Harriet is Emma’s constant companion, she is also rather quiet, while Frank is more social.  Miss Bates appears less frequently than Harriet but has far more to say, explaining her out-degree of 91.

Consider the difference between this general graph of the novel and a graph of gossip in Highbury.  Emma is certainly a prominent figure in Highbury society, but not to this extent.  Harriet, too, is far more prominent in this graph than she is as a figure in Highbury.  These graphs are, like the novel itself, inherently from Emma’s perspective.  They show us gossip in Highbury as Emma sees it, but not in its entirety.  This is a significant distinction in evaluating the data of Emma as well as understanding the novel.  The structure of Emma’s plot depends on us reading from Emma’s perspective, and this bias carries over into the data.  We only see what Emma sees, and consequently, our model can only show us social interactions as Emma witnesses them.

An automatically generated graph of gossip in the novel. Each edge points from the character talking to the character he or she is talking about. Nodes are sized by out-degree. Characters who speak more often appear as larger nodes.

The same graph sized by in-degree. Characters who are more often talked about appear as larger nodes.

In order to generate this graph, every time one character says another character’s name, an edge appears between those two characters.  If Miss Bates says the name “Jane,” an edge appears from Miss Bates to Jane.  This method also takes into account name variations like “Miss Fairfax.”  Generating the graph automatically has the disadvantage of ignoring any pronouns, so it certainly misses instances of gossip.  In addition, addressing a character in the room then counts as talking “about” them.

Note that female characters dominate the graph sized by out-degree, indicating that female voices dominate in Emma.  However, the genders are more equally sized in the graph sized by in-degree, indicating that both men and women are the subject of gossip.  This trend confirms the view of Emma as a female-dominated novel, in which female voices take a prominent role.  It is also in line with the view of women as gossips, sharing information with one another in order to engage with the community.


The digital aspect of this project involves creating a visual network of communication using a combination of Gephi and R script.  The goal of this network is to visualize how information moves throughout the community.  I will visualize each character in the novel as an individual node and consider how they interact with one another.  Revealing this network will answer a number of important questions about the text.  Who has and shares knowledge, and who receives it?  How does that knowledge move between people?  Who is the object of the most gossip, and where does the gossip end?  Beyond the value of the model itself, the process of creating it raises a multitude of questions about the text.  We might consider how Austen structures the text around dialogue and narration and when the narrator interrupts sequences of dialogue.  Further, attempting to divide the text into units raises important questions about chapter divisions: Is there only one conversation per chapter? Do conversations ever last multiple chapters?  Why does Austen structure the text in this way, and what can we learn from it?  These are just a few of the questions that digitalizing Austen’s communities can raise.

My networks will track dialogue between characters.  However, digitalizing dialogue proved to be more complicated than it initially appears.  In considering creating a network of dialogue, one might expect to portray the characters as individual nodes with edges connecting them to show interactions.  However, how do we determine where the connection starts and where it ends?  Let us start with a basic example.  Character A is having a conversation with Character B.  We might digitize this with lines moving from A to B and back again for each piece of dialogue.  However, we might complicate this image by adding a third person, C, to the conversation.  When A speaks, is he speaking to B or C, or perhaps both?  How do we determine this?  One way may be to assume that the next person to speak is the one to whom the first character is speaking. Another would be to assume that each character is always speaking to all the characters in the group.  Both these methods pose problems in their accuracy.  Further, let us suppose that A, B, and C are gossiping about a fourth person, D.  How do we portray this connection?  Any automatic method of portraying gossip is inherently flawed, but considering these problems also helps us to consider how dialogue works in the text.

In my research, I discovered a project similar to my own entitled Austen Said: Patterns of Diction in Jane Austen’s Major Novels.  This project explores forms of discourse in Austen’s novels, most prominently free indirect discourse.  The researchers used XML markup to identify each passage in all of Austen’s major works by the speaker and the form of discourse (direct discourse, indirect discourse, or free indirect discourse).  The researchers have helpfully provided their marked up data on their website, and I will use this data in my own study of Austen’s novels.  Although Austen Said primarily focuses on free indirect discourse, their XML markup does provide information about who “says” each passage in the book, which I used in automatically generating my graphs.

I decided to digitally visualize the full novel as well as two individual chapters in greater detail.  I outlined the following steps for creating my graphs:

  1. Automatically generate a graph of gossip in the entire novel in which each character speaks to the next character who speaks, using the XML markup from Austen Said to identify speakers and listeners.
  2. Automatically generate a graph of each of the individual chapters of focus using the same method as in step 1.
  3. Automatically generate a graph of gossip in the entire novel in which each character speaks about any character they name in their dialogue. For example, if Emma mentions Mrs. Weston in her dialogue, I draw an edge from Emma to Mrs. Weston.
  4. Replicate step 3 for each individual chapter of focus.
  5. Manually create the graphs generated in step 2.
  6. Manually create the graphs generated in step 4.
  7. Add gender.

The first step of the project was to perform an initial analysis of the data for the whole novel.  This initial phase identified the speaker of each passage using the “who” attribute of the markup.  The next passage’s “who” attribute became the recipient of each passage.  This step ignores the narrator and characters speaking as each other, and it excludes any additional information, such as gender or social class.  This version of the graph is inherently flawed, as it makes a whole set of assumptions about the text, like the idea that each character is addressing the next character who speaks.  However, it provides a basic starting point from which to proceed.  As this step was almost entirely automated, I performed it first on the novel as a whole, and then on the individual chapters.

In order to accomplish this, my advisor, Professor Crystal Hall, provided me with a piece of code in R that identifies the tagged speaker of each passage and uses the following speaker as the recipient of that passage.  I ran this code using XML markup of the text and uploaded the spreadsheet into Gephi.  Then, I identified the characters I did not want to include in the graph.  These included the narrator, the narrator speaking as a character (indicative of free indirect discourse), and characters speaking as each other.  I wanted to see gossip as it occurs between characters, so though we might consider the narrator as a gossip in this novel, I eliminated her from the graph.  Additionally, I didn’t want “Emma as Knightley” to appear as a separate character in the graph, so deleted these unnecessary nodes.  Then, I rearranged the nodes in order to see them all individually.

The next step was to create a graph that shows characters talking about one another.  Again, Professor Crystal Hall provided me with an R script that searches for a list of character names and creates edges from the character speaking to those they speak about.  This script also accounted for time, considering one chapter as a unit of time.  I then developed the list of character names, making sure to include variations like “Jane,” “Miss Fairfax,” and “Jane Fairfax.”  In Gephi, I then combined nodes that were different names for the same character.  I performed this analysis on both the whole novel and each individual chapter.  I then performed each of the steps above manually for the individual chapters, manually creating my own Excel spreadsheet of my interpretations of the chapters.  Finally, I retroactively added gender as an attribute to all of my graphs so that I could color the nodes accordingly.


Jane Austen’s novels take place in relatively insular country villages. Inevitably, these “three or four families” intermingle frequently and exchange gossip and letters.  In Austen’s novels, information is a vital currency, and its circulation is central to her plots.  Sometimes, information percolates rapidly throughout the community, as it does with Emma’s engagement to Mr. Knightley in Emma.  In other cases, information proves crucial to other characters, as is the case when Elizabeth hides the contents of Mr. Darcy’s letter in Pride and Prejudice.  In this study, I will examine the circulation of gossip in Emma and how information moves within the town.  I will use gephi to model the circulation of gossip in the entire novel, as well as in individual chapters.

To first define our terms, the Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb “gossip” as, “To talk idly, mostly about other people’s affairs; to go about tattling” (“gossip, v.”).  Based on this definition, we might take gossip to mean the discussion of other people’s business.  Further, the OED defines the noun “gossip” as, “A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler” (“gossip, n.”).  Using these two definitions, we might develop a more complete understanding of gossip.  Generally, we will take gossip to mean the act of sharing information about other people, but the term is loaded with connotations.  Firstly, although both men and women in Emma participate in gossip, it carries a feminine connotation, and we will further explore that later.  Additionally, we might expect that those participating in gossip have no personal investment in the object of gossip.  The news they are sharing is, by all accounts, none of their business, but, presumably because they are idle women, they have nothing else to engage them.[1]  The term “gossip,” then, carries with it highly gendered and patriarchal implications, even when applied to a variety of contexts.

Other scholars have already written extensively about gossip in Jane Austen’s works, and a few specific articles are foundational to my work.  In their article “The Tittle-Tattle of Highbury,” Casey Finch and Peter Bowen discuss the societal power of gossip in Emma and the alignment between public and private.  Gossip makes private affairs public and is “the very ground upon which the community is articulated, identified, and controlled,” (Finch, 2).  Also foundational to my work is the notion of gossip’s inherent femininity; it carries connotations of female idleness and triviality.  Scholars before me have argued that Austen uses gossip in a way that provides women with a degree of power and subverts preconceived notions of gossip as inherently useless.  In the article “Homespun Gossip: Jane West, Jane Austen, and the Task of Literary Criticism,” Erin Goss argues exactly that, and goes so far as to say that “one of the myriad of tasks that Austen sets for herself is the redemption of gossip, as so often in her novels, the reader – along with the characters – must come to accept and even condone gossip that is initially seen as suspect,” (Goss, 170).  Finally, scholars have drawn connections between gossip and Austen’s use of free indirect discourse, which I originally intended to explore in this project.  Finch and Bowen make this claim in their work, and “Jane Austen and the Impact of Form” by Frances Ferguson provides another foundational work for my understanding and critical analysis of free indirect discourse.

Gossip is generally considered a feminine pastime, bringing to mind vapid or silly women with nothing else to do but gossip about their neighbors.  However, Austen legitimizes gossip in her narrative, as it provides information to the characters and to the reader.  In her article “Homespun Gossip: Jane West, Jane Austen, and the Task of Literary Criticism,” Erin M. Goss locates the history of marginalization of the female gossip in the etymology of the word “gossip.”  The definitions of the word develop from a godparent, to a woman’s closest friends, to the modern definition of a woman who shares idle news.  Through these changing definitions, we see that the gossip has shifted from a vitally important member of a family’s circle to an insignificant, gossiping woman.  Goss writes, “Gossip then carries within itself the history of its own marginalization; once the name of an official and even sacramental addition to a family structure, it comes to be the marker of a denigrated and specifically feminine form of discourse that is, at best, useless,” (Goss, 167).

Although most if not all of the characters in Emma participate in gossip to some degree, we might consider Miss Bates the town gossip, and even the voice of gossip[2].  She is in many ways the negative stereotype of the gossip; she is a busybody, constantly prattling on about one insignificant thing or another.  However, we learn to empathize with Miss Bates, as does Emma.  Despite her sometimes annoying tendencies, Miss Bates is a devoted and kind friend and entirely harmless.  Further, as a relatively poor, unmarried woman, she finds herself in need of other characters’ company and empathy, as Mr. Knightley points out to Emma.[3]  In terms of causing harm to the other characters, Emma is far more to blame than Miss Bates.  Gossip “serves as a genuinely alternative mode of communication for women who have been historically excluded from dominant discourses; in one and the same movement, gossip is dismissed as feminine ‘tittle-tattle’ and put to use as a serious and privileged form of knowledge,” (Finch, 3).

Frank Churchill is a central figure in Highbury, but until the second volume of the novel, we only hear about him from other characters.[4]  He is continually absent, but his absence endears him to the residents of Highbury and ensures that a “lively curiosity prevails” in the town regarding his life (Emma, 14).  As the child of Mr. Weston, Frank Churchill holds a position of significance in the town and is often paired with Emma Woodhouse as a potential match.  The fact that Mr. Churchill has visited his father, even for his wedding to Miss Taylor, is indicative of his unreliability.  However, we as readers gladly overlook this fact in the face of the town’s active interest in his life.  He is thought to be wealthy, charming, and single, all traits that appear to be true when he arrives in the town.  Austen spends the entirety of the first volume building up Mr. Churchill’s character, so by the time he actually arrives, we (and Emma) have no choice but to view him as an attractive and eligible bachelor.  Of course, the implications of this impression are that when his engagement to Jane comes as a shock to Emma, we too are just as surprised.  In this way, Austen shapes our perceptions of a character through gossip before we actually meet him.

Just as notable as whose voices are the loudest is whose are silent.  Doctor Perry is a significant character in that other characters frequently refer to him, but he never actually appears.[5]  The residents of Highbury love to look to Doctor Perry for medical advice, and he seems to be an expert at telling them what they want to hear.  Mr. Woodhouse is the character to most frequently cite his advice.  In one notable scene, Doctor Perry reluctantly acknowledges “that wedding-cake might certainly disagree with many – perhaps with most people, unless taken moderately,” (Emma, 16).  However, a “strange rumour” later circulates about the Perry children eating cake, indicating that Doctor Perry has only told Mr. Woodhouse what he wants to hear.  In this way, he encourages Mr. Woodhouse’s fears, and he likewise confirms the preconceived notions of other characters in the book.  This is one of the only instances in which we receive Doctor Perry’s exact language, but of course we only hear from him through free indirect discourse.  The statement that cake can be unhealthy “unless taken moderately,” reveals that Doctor Perry is both pandering to what Mr. Woodhouse wants to hear while still giving medically sound advice.  This instance of free indirect discourse is the closest we get to Doctor Perry, as he does not directly appear anywhere in the novel.  Instead, we hear his medical advice from the residents of Highbury and, as seen above, occasionally through free indirect discourse.  Doctor Perry serves as a reflection of the thoughts and desires of the other characters without having a concrete presence in the book.

In this project, I will explore gossip in Emma through a digital lens.  These ideas will be fundamental to my work as I attempt to digitally examine the way information flows throughout Highbury.  I will focus first on the full novel, then on two specific chapters.  For more information about those chapters, please see this post.

[1] In constructing this definition, we already begin to see how Austen deconstructs the notion of gossip, namely regarding the idea that it is unimportant.  Even if two gossiping characters have no apparent relation to the object of their conversation, the social goings-on of Highbury are of great import to the woman of the story due to their reliance on marriage for a suitable future.

[2] Miss Bates’s role as the town gossip allows her to hold a good deal of information, and she contributes significantly to the network of communication we see in the book. In digitalizing this network (as discussed in the Methodology section), we might expect to find her at the center of the network, one of the most frequent contributors.  However, it also seems likely that she is one of the least gossiped about, as her social standing ensures that she is not a key player in Emma’s romantic endeavors outside of her ability to share news.

[3] “She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born into; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion,” (Emma, 295).

[4] In considering a network of gossip, we might expect to find that Mr. Churchill is a significant figure in terms of gossip about him, but his participation is a different story, at least in the first volume.  Until the second volume, Mr. Churchill only engages in the network through a few letters, and after that he becomes a much more vocal participant.

[5] As we never hear from Doctor Perry directly, we might expect to see him in the network as one gossiped about but not engaging directly in the network himself.