Frank Churchill placed a word before Miss Fairfax. She gave a slight glance round the table, and applied herself to it. Frank was next to Emma, Jane opposite to them — and Mr. Knightley so placed as to see them all; and it was his object to see as much as he could, with as little apparent observation. The word was discovered, and with a faint smile pushed away. If meant to be immediately mixed with the others, and buried from sight, she should have looked on the table instead of looking just across, for it was not mixed; and Harriet, eager after every fresh word, and finding out none, directly took it up, and fell to work. She was sitting by Mr. Knightley, and turned to him for help. The word was blunder…..

… This gallant young man, who seemed to love without feeling, and to recommend himself without complaisance, directly handed over the word to Miss Fairfax, and with a particular degree of sedate civility entreated her to study it. Mr. Knightley’s excessive curiosity to know what this word might be, made him seize every possible moment for darting his eye towards it, and it was not long before he saw it to be Dixon.

Jane Fairfax’s perception seemed to accompany his; her comprehension was certainly more equal to the covert meaning, the superior intelligence, of those five letters so arranged. She was evidently displeased; looked up, and seeing herself watched, blushed more deeply than he had ever perceived her, and saying only, “I did not know that proper names were allowed,” pushed away the letters with even an angry spirit, and looked resolved to be engaged by no other word that could be offered. Her face was averted from those who had made the attack, and turned towards her aunt.

Emma, Chapter 41
Whatever we think of the Knightley brothers, it has to be admitted that  they are most acute observers of the scene around them. John Knightley correctly  divines that Mr Elton is “romantically” keen on Emma, and Mr Knightley, here in chapter 41,  realises that there is something more sinister to this seemingly innocent game of Regency Scrabble, one of the many instances of word play in the novel.

These letters were but the vehicle for and trick. It was a child’s play, chosen to conceal a deeper game on Frank Churchill’s part.

And how clever of Jane Austen to show via the medium of a child’s plaything, that these so-called adults were acting both childishly and recklessly.

They really should know better…all of them.

The alphabet that Emma’s nephews played with  probably looked something like this:

But there were other versions. The photographs above and below show some I have collected: small ivory letters in an ivory box, carved like an heart-shaped basket,  circa 1810:

Learning through play was part of John Locke’s(1632-1704) educational theory:

Play-things, I think, children should have, and of divers sorts; but still to be in the custody of their tutors or some body else, whereof the child should have in his power but one at once, and should not be suffered to have another but when he restored that. This teaches them betimes to be careful of not losing or spoiling the things they have; whereas plenty and variety in their own keeping, makes them wanton and careless, and teaches them from the beginning to be squanderers and wasters. These, I confess, are little things, and such as will seem beneath the care of a governor; but nothing that may form children’s minds is to be overlooked and neglected, and whatsoever introduces habits, and settles customs in them, deserves the care and attention of their governors, and is not a small thing in its consequences.

See: Some Thoughts Concerning Education(1692)

This idea was promoted also by Richard Edgeworth and his novelist daughter, Maria (friends of Jane Austen’s aunt and uncle, the Leigh Perrots) in their book Practical Education:

Many puzzles are highly ingenious;and as far as they can exercise the invention or the patience of young people they are useful….Care however should be taken to separate the ideas of deceit and ingenuity and to prevent children from glorifying in the posession of a secret.

(See: Chapter 1, Practical Education(1780)

What a pity it is that Frank and Emma do not seem to have read this book….