Lesson #243: Observations on How Austen Reported Speech (Free Indirect Speech in ‘Emma’)

📗 “You had better explore to Donwell,” replied Mr. Knightley. “That may be done without horses. Come, and eat my strawberries. They are ripening fast … ”

[Mrs Elton replied]: “It is to be a morning scheme, you know, Knightley; quite a simple thing. I shall wear a large bonnet, and bring one of my little baskets hanging on my arm. Here,— probably this basket with pink ribbon. Nothing can be more simple, you see … We are to walk about your gardens, and gather the strawberries ourselves, and sit under trees;— and whatever else you may like to provide, it is to be all out of doors— a table spread in the shade, you know. Every thing as natural and simple as possible. Is not that your idea?”

– Jane Austen, Emma (1816)

We have been enjoying a lot of strawberries from our garden this summer, far more than we have ever successfully grown before! It reminded me of a scene from Austen’s Emma in which the main characters form a little party to visit a farm and pick ripe strawberries.🍓

It is the first of July (and the beginning of #JaneAustenJuly), so what better text to turn to for our Lesson today!

Austen’s Emma (1816) is arguably her best-written novel. In its famous passage describing an outing (an expedition, adventure, or visit) to Mr. Knightley’s farm, Austen made use of a writing technique that scholars now believe she invented. This technique is called ‘free indirect speech’ or ‘free indirect discourse’.


‘Free indirect speech’ tries to imitate the language a character uses when she/he talks to herself/himself. ✍️ The character’s language (in their own voice, first-person perspective) is written with the grammar that the narrator uses (third-person perspective). In this way, the character’s voice and the narrator’s voice are blended together, using third-person narration (storytelling) while using the speaker’s preferred words, phrases, and inflection (the modulation of pitch and tone in a voice).


So how does Jane Austen use free indirect speech to describe Mrs Elton’s way of speaking? 👉 Pay attention to any clues you can think of as you read this passage:

📗 The whole party were assembled, excepting Frank Churchill, who was expected every moment from Richmond; and Mrs. Elton, in all her apparatus of happiness, her large bonnet and her basket, was very ready to lead the way in gathering, accepting, or talking— strawberries, and only strawberries, could now be thought or spoken of. “The best fruit in England— every body’s favourite— always wholesome.— These the finest beds and finest sorts.— Delightful to gather for one’s self— the only way of really enjoying them.— Morning decidedly the best time— never tired— every sort good— hautboy infinitely superior— no comparison— the others hardly eatable— hautboys very scarce— Chili preferred— white wood finest flavour of all— price of strawberries in London— abundance about Bristol— Maple Grove— cultivation— beds when to be renewed— gardeners thinking exactly different— no general rule— gardeners never to be put out of their way— delicious fruit— only too rich to be eaten much of— inferior to cherries— currants more refreshing— only objection to gathering strawberries the stooping— glaring sun— tired to death— could bear it no longer— must go and sit in the shade.”

– Jane Austen, Emma

What clues have you found? 🧐

Here are my 5 observations on how Austen introduces free indirect speech in this passage:


Firstly, as you may have noticed from the opening quotations at the start of this Lesson (👆), Mrs. Elton is quite talkative, opinionated, and self-confident. Austen captures Mrs. Elton’s speaking style in the passage just quoted by using decisive, confident phrases like ‘the best fruit in England’, ‘the only way of really enjoying them’, ‘morning decidedly the best time’, ‘hautboy [a variety of strawberry] infinitely superior’, etc.


Austen uses quotation marks () to show the difference between her writerly narration and Mrs. Elton’s speech. But on the other hand, she also includes Mrs. Elton’s speech within the same paragraph; this helps readers to transition (move from one condition to another) smoothly from one voice (Austen’s narrative voice) to another (Mrs. Elton’s).

This combination of quotation marks and single paragraph structure together again illustrates Austen’s free indirect speech technique.


She uses many dashes to show Mrs. Elton’s pausing for breath between phrases. As readers, we can more easily imagine Mrs. Elton losing her breath as she stoops (bends) to pick strawberries and stands up again, moves a little further and stoops, stands up again, and so forth. All this exercise makes it difficult for Mrs. Elton to speak in full-length sentences! (I wrote a Lesson on such dashes in English, which you can find here).

Dashes also reflect the series of different, sometimes unconnected thoughts that often form a person’s way of speaking.


You will notice how there are very few conjugated verb forms in this speech. Austen wants us to focus on the nouns and adjectives here because when we speak, we tend to emphasise such words aloud even over verbs.

✍️ Remember: Verbs describe an action or state of movement, but nouns and adjectives are the ‘movers’, the real subjects and descriptions in a sentence.


‘preferred’ … ‘renewed’ … ‘could bear it no longer’

These short phrases and words are all in either a past or modal form, but not in a present form. As such, we know that they are being retold by the narrator in third-person form, not in first-person form. If Mrs. Elton were speaking directly, she would have said something like this: ‘I prefer chilli strawberries … When are strawberry beds [supposed] to be renewed? … I can bear [the heat] no longer.’

We can be sure that Austen is using free indirect speech here because the narrator’s perspective is included in this change of tenses (from present tense into past tense or modal forms). ✍️ Her writing combines the narrator’s grammar while keeping the speaker’s own original nouns.

Those are five ways in which Austen uses free indirect speech in her writing, specifically as it relates to the chatty Mrs Elton! 👒

While you should not use this technique in any formal English writing yourself, you can see how English-language writers use it to their advantage to imitate native English-speaking styles and patterns in writing.

I hope you have been able to ‘pick’ a few fruits of knowledge from this Lesson and as always, I am happy to respond to any questions you may have (you can access the query form here). 🍓

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2023)