Social Class in Jane Austen’s “Emma”

There are those who claim Emma represents Jane Austen’s literary accomplishment. I am not of that persuasion, although I think my indifference comes more from the fact I do not find Emma Woodhouse a character I admire than it does from Miss Austen’s ability to craft a tale. In Edward Austen-Leigh’s A Memoir of Jane Austen, he says that Austen, too, thought Emma not a character that many would like. Emma Woodhouse transforms from snobbish girl to mature woman in the length of the novel, which describes her path to self-knowledge.

So, what do we know of Emma’s character? First Miss Woodhouse…
** is 21 years of age
** believes in the rightness of her opinions
** is clever
** is handsome of countenance
** is rich (an oddity in Austen’s heroines)
** is snobbish about class structure
** possesses the tendency to permit her imagination free rein
** manipulates the path of Love for many of her acquaintances
** is the mistress of her father’s house since age 16
** dominates the affable Mr. Woodhouse
** thinks well of her abilities and judgments

Emma_1996_TV_Kate_BeckinsaleEmma is the younger of Mr. Woodhouse’s daughters. She resides with her father at Hartfield; Woodhouse is the second highest ranking man (behind Knightley) in the neighborhood. Mr. Woodhouse (like Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) comes from an ancient and well-respected family. Like Georgiana Darcy, Emma Woodhouse has a dowry of 30,000 pounds. Her sister Isabella is married to Mr. John Knightley, a lawyer in London and the brother of Mr. George Knightley.

The setting of this novel is more limited than many of the others. Highbury is the center of Emma’s world. People come and go, but Emma never leaves the beloved village where she reigns as the “queen” of society. This constriction creates a quandary for Emma. She would prefer not to associate with those below her social class, but if she acted as such, she would possess no social life whatsoever.

Mr. George Knightley is the ideal country squire. He takes his responsibilities to his land (Donwell Abbey) and to his dependents seriously. He is known for his benevolence to others. The Knightleys and the Woodhouses are the upper echelon of society in Highbury.

One of the things which might appear as out of step with many Regency novels (but is more to the truth of the day) is the fact that Mr. Knightley does not keep a stable of horses. He prefers walking to riding, and when horses are required for his carriage, Knightley lets them. This is a sore point for Emma, who thinks Knightley acting so has people not recognizing his proper place in society. Emma feels that Knightley encourages too much familiarity with those below him.

stovel-figure4Knightley’s interactions with people is in sharp contrast to Emma’s opinions. Knightley is cognizant of social distinctions, but he presents respect to those who are deserving of it. For example, whereas Emma poo-poos Robert Martin’s position as a tenant farmer on Knightley’s land, Knightley calls Martin superior to Harriet Smith, saying that Martin is a “respectable, intelligent, gentleman-farmer.” Knightley claims Harriet without intelligence and no connections. His words are not disdain, just the truth. Even if Harriet were possesses beauty and a sweet nature, her illegitimate parentage would keep her from aspiring to a man above Martin’s station in life. In contrast, Knightley declares Jane Fairfax an appropriate companion for Emma. He judges Miss Fairfax as intelligent, beautiful, and accomplished (although the woman is without a fortune).

Emma is offended by Mr. Elton’s offer of marriage because she feels Mr. Elton should not think himself her equal socially. This situation predisposes Emma to find the new Mrs. Elton as vain and possessing too much self-importance.

Emma’s snobbish attitude is very evident when she tells Harriet:

“A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other.”

Emma even goes so far as to tell Harriet that it pleases Emma that Harriet refused Martin.“I could not have visited Mrs. Robert Martin of Abbey-Mill Farm.”

Below the Knighleys and Woodhouses, we find Mr. and Mrs. Weston. Mr. Weston spent time in the military, but his fortune comes from trade. The Eltons are also part of this middle ground. All we know of Mr. Elton’s past is that he is “without any alliances but in trade.” As a vicar, he has received a gentleman’s education and Elton is accepted in the finer homes in the area. Mrs. Augusta Elton comes to her marriage with a dowry of 10,000 pounds via her parents’ fortune in trade. I find it ironic to hear Mrs. Elton speaking of her sister’s family – a family by the name of Sucklings. The Sucklings flaunt their wealth with a large estate near Bristol and a barouche-landau. In this class, we also find Mrs. Bates, who is the widow of a clergyman. Although the woman’s marital status keeps her in the company of the wealthier families, Mrs. Bates and her unmarried daughter reside in let rooms above one of the shops in Highbury. Even so, the Bateses depend upon “the kindness of others” for the luxuries of life. Mrs. Goddard is the last of this class. She is mistress of the village school.

Some of Emma’s neighbors are part of the “upwardly mobile” class. These include the Coles (who prospered in trade), Robert Martin (a farmer on the Donwell Abbey estate), the Coxes (country lawyers in Highbury), Mr. Perry (the apothecary), and Mr. Hughes (a physician).

We note Emma’s reluctance to interact with those in this group beyond what is necessary. In fact, she thinks to refuse an invitation to a dinner at the Coles until she learns that the Westons and Mr. Churchill will attend.

Below the Coles, etc., we find Mr. and Mrs. Ford (shop owners), Mrs. Stokes (the Crown Inn’s landlady), William Larkins (Mr. Knightley’s steward), Mrs. Wallis (the pastry cook’s wife), and Miss Nash and Miss Prince and Miss Richardson (school teachers). Harriet Smith would be part of this level of society if not for Emma’s patronage.

maxresdefaultHarriet Smith is the illegitimate daughter of a merchant, who placed her with Mrs. Goddard, but who had ignored Harriet since.

“In taking up an illegitimate parlour boarder in Mrs Goddard’s village school, Emma chooses a protégée she can do what she likes with. There is a snag: Harriet has already formed an attachment with a young farmer, Robert Martin. Emma tries to force the issue by telling Harriet that she (Emma) cannot possibly associate with anyone of Martin’s class. The influential American critic Lionel Trilling argues that Emma is ‘a dreadful snob.’ Being aware of one’s position in society, however, is not the same as being a snob.

“Critic Paul Pickrel argues that Trilling has simply misread Austen’s novel. Whatever we think of her heroine, we shouldn’t take what she says at face value. Emma wants to control everyone and everything around her. The combination is a dangerous one, and by interfering in Harriet’s life she poses a real threat to the future of a naive 17-year-old. But it is too simplistic to say snobbishness causes her to sideline Robert Martin: she wants Harriet to herself and, like a child, will say anything to keep her.” [Austen’s Outspoken Heroines]

Other Highbury characters include James (Mr. Woodhouse’s coachman), Patty (the Bateses’ maid), and Mrs. Hodges (Mr. Knightley’s cook).

The characters who visit Highbury and change the village’s complexion include Jane Fairfax (a rival to Emma for Mr. Knightley’s affections), Frank Churchill (who seeks Jane’s affections and flirts with Emma), Mrs. Elton (who snubs Harriet and attempts to manage Jane), and the gypsies.

Austen masterly weaves these levels of society together. The characters of Mrs. Bates and Miss Bates are the link holding the differing levels together. Miss Bates is gregarious and likable, and the woman, as well as her mother, are the “comic relief” in the novel. Emma’s poor treatment at Miss Bates is the source of Mr. Knightley’s criticism of her and the turning point in the novel.

 

Although Austen does not go so far as to include characters such as Squire Western from Fielding’s Tom Jones in the plot of Emma, she does display hints of what we find in her last novel, Persuasion: self-made men who are superior to the gentleman class.

“Some of Austen’s female characters – Jane Bennet, Fanny Price, Anne Elliot – are gentle and passive. Austen’s two favourite heroines, Elizabeth Bennet and Emma, are precisely the opposite. Both are able to have equal and intimate relationships with men through their use of speech and laughter. In her essay ‘Silent Women, Shrews, and Bluestockings,’ feminist critic Jocelyn Harris argues that in allowing her women characters to speak so cleverly Austen subverts ‘misogynist constructions of women,’ who ‘have always been discouraged from knowing, speaking, and writing.’

“In Emma, says Harris, the heroine’s openness is preferable to Jane Fairfax’s reserve, even if Emma ‘says too much too often.’ She, ‘like Elizabeth Bennet, speaks too freely because her father’s power is weak.’ But Austen shields these two outspoken, intelligent heroines from being labelled shrews by the use of free indirect speech – so we sometimes find them thinking uncharitable thoughts that they are too tactful to express out loud. Austen was highly conscious of the effect of gender on language. Anne Elliot in Persuasion comments that ‘men have every advantage of us in telling their story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree.’” [Austen’s Outspoken Heroines]

“Jane Austen and her works are generally considered representative of the late eighteenth-century “classical” world view and its values—judgment, reason, clarity of perception—those of the ‘Age of Reason.’ In its best sense, this is a moral world view, reflecting the values of the Enlightenment. Austen’s values represent order in the face of disorder, but her concept of order embodies what is true, organic, living, not the static order imposed merely on the exterior, from ‘society’ or ‘the church,’ for example. Austen’s attitudes actually differ in subtle ways from the conventional manifestations of the classical attitudes and forms of the late eighteenth century—of the excesses of classicism that the Romantics rebelled against so vehemently. However, Jane Austen’s novels can also be called anti-Romantic in that they counter the extremes of the Romantic imagination epitomized by the Gothic novels so popular during her time, and satirized by Austen in Northanger Abbey. In Emma she also satirizes romantic excess, particularly in the character of Harriet Smith who, in a sense, enshrines Mr. Elton by keeping as ‘her most precious treasures’ relics of a scrap of ‘court plaister’ he handled and an old pencil piece that had belonged to him.

“The ordered society in Austen’s world is one in which people live in authentic harmony—socially, economically, emotionally, and ethically. Balance, order, and good sense exist in the face of too much sensibility; a balance of intellect and emotion, thought and feeling, outer and inner experience, society and the interior life, is the key to understanding Austen’s schema of meaningful experience and right relationships. Throughout Emma we are part of the energy of the novel leading toward the fulfillment of this ideal in the vitality of the characters.” [PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.21, NO.2 (Summer 2000) The Dilemma of Emma: Moral, Ethical, and Spiritual Value by Karin Jackson.]

[Note: Squire Western is a caricature of the rough-and-ready, conservative country gentleman. Affectionate at heart, the Squire nevertheless acts with extreme violence towards his daughter Sophia, by constantly incarcerating her, and even verbally and physically abusing her. However, since the Squire is a caricature, Fielding does not intend for us to judge these actions too harshly. Similarly, the Squire’s insistence on Sophia marrying Blifil has less to do with greed than with his stubbornness and adherence to tradition. Squire Western’s speaks in West Country dialect, and peppers his speech with curses.]

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About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and contemporary novels.
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3 Responses to Social Class in Jane Austen’s “Emma”

  1. I’ve never ever thought of Jane Fairfax as a rival for Mr Knightley’s affections, I always considered him besotted by Emma, but keeping it well contained as would I in similar circumstances 😄

    • I always thought of him as “generous” to others. Emma Woodhouse is not my favorite Austen character, but we are doing a group read along and discussion of the novel on austenauthors.net so I thought to do my part to interest people in the activity.

  2. It’s tempting to look at people of the Georgian and Regency period through modern values and sensibilities. My own view is that the people of that time had quite a different attitude to differences of privilege, wealth and social class. Most accepted them as natural and inevitable. Some people were either inherently ‘better’ than others, or became so by their own efforts or good fortune. Emma thought she was helping Harriet improve her life and future by moving upwards socially and thus ‘bettering herself’.

    It was less acceptable to point these differences out thoughtlessly in a social context, which was usually Emma’s mistake. That was a breach of the ideals of politeness so important at the time. Otherwise, people of the ‘middling sort’ and above would think it entirely reasonable to look down on artisans, labourers or the poor. The language of even some of the most philanthropic and reforming writers, preachers and leaders of the 18th century jars badly on modern ears, though apparently not on their own.

    Can I suggest one of the many benefits of reading books like those of Jane Austen is to help us realise there are fashions in sensibility and aspirations to virtue as there are in everything else? Many of them were changing in the early 1800s, which is why they became targets for satire. Who can say the same may not happen to ‘modern’ ones too? I can easily recall language and attitudes judged normal in my childhood that would get you into severe trouble today with many people!

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