Social Class in Jane Austen “Emma”

Hopefully, you will have the opportunity to view the newest film version of Jane Austen’s “Emma,” this weekend or have been fortunate to have viewed it already. I plan to see it with my friend Kim. Below are some of my thoughts on the character of 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 that 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 objects to 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 without connections. His words are not disdain, just the truth. Even though Harriet possessed 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. Some 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 social sphere, 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 ignored Harriet since the placement.

“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.’

19635888.gif “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.]


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain, Jane Austen, Living in the Regency, Regency era and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Social Class in Jane Austen “Emma”

  1. eadavisblog says:

    I do love all things Austen, but I will agree that Emma wasn’t the most likable character out of her most notable works. I still enjoyed the story of Emma and period dramas in general.

    • I enjoy the story, but I do not feel an affinity for Emma. It’s odd, but I cannot muster sympathy for her immaturity. I suppose that is what makes the world go around – we all see stories and events differently.

      • eadavisblog says:

        I think that it is her immaturity that is relate-able to some. In Jane Austen’s world she was surrounded by some people that were expected to grow up and mature, but breeding and circumstances presented an environment where some did not thrive but became self-centered and self-serving individuals. I think that it was sort of brave of her to write this character and show that there were women out there that were just so misguided. It was almost as if she was pointing them out publicly but slyly. Kind of passive aggressive but I see her point. Emma, though her intentions may have sometimes been well meaning were so misguided. However, we know from our own lives that there are always those people that seem to bring enough drama with them wherever they go. I’ve met one too many Emma’s in my time. Just my thoughts.

  2. Beatrice says:

    I don’t dislike Emma; I like her. No, she’s not perfect, but she’s natural. And she’s definitely human – a species not known for perfection. Also, she tries her best, whether or not it’s good enough to meet others’ standards. As for her refusal of Mr Elton, she’d made up her mind he was interested in Harriet and never considered he was interested in herself – a woman who has stated her determination never to marry. Yes, his social standing is below hers, but whatever his social standing, she would think it creepy to be proposed to by someone she mentally associated as in love with a close friend. I’d say, “Ewww!” to a proposal from someone I considered a friend’s boyfriend; her reaction is not necessarily snobbish, though the more we know Mr Elton, the more reason we have to be snobbish around him. Furthermore, she’s loving to her father, who most of us find incredibly annoying, and she can see the world through his eyes – even though it’s blatantly obvious that she can’t see it through anyone else’s. Only after Mr Knightley’s rebuke after the picnic does it occur to Emma to consider other people’s perspective. Only at that point (and none too soon!) do we see her mature out of her earlier mindset; can you not like her then?
    People are so often labeled reserved or snobbish when we haven’t really gotten to know them, Darcy was thought snobbish when really he was feeling out of his element. The entire British population is often labelled “reserved” or “stand-offish”, but that turns out to be wrong when you get to know them.
    Let’s not be too hard on Emma. She only appears snobbish before she gets to know herself
    I always enjoy your work, Regina. I like your name, too. I gave that name to my daughter as a middle name.

    • I do not totally despise Emma, but she is not one of favorite Austen characters.She would be a mid-lister if I made list of characters.I just cannot seem to get into her head. With characters such as Georgiana Darcy or Lydia Bennet or Fanny Price, I can imagine them in my classroom – teenage girls typical of different types. Not so much so with Emma Woodhouse (even though the film “Clueless” portrays that age group0. Perhaps my opinion goes with Paltrow’s portrayal of the Austen character.
      Thanks for the compliment of my name. I did not like it when I was younger. I wanted to be a “Jennifer” or a “Victoria.”

  3. I blame the hypochondriac father for Emma’s behaviour, he is the most annoying person in literature; he has no redeeming features whatsoever so what hope was there for Emma? None. Some smart child who walked all over the supposed head of the household with an elder sister cast in the same mould.No wonder she turned out the way she did; pity Mr Knightley didnt step up earlier, but then had he have done so there would have been no story. Miss Austen certainly knew what she was doing.
    I must disagree with what Beatrice said; the British people are not standoffish or snobbish it is we English that are 😀 there’s not a thing wrong with the Scots Irish and the Welsh, it’s just we English, why will people insist on lumping us all together? We are 4 different peoples; I have never referred to myself as anything but English in my 80 years, does that make me a grumpy old man/ O_o o_O 🙄 🙂

  4. Debra says:

    I have always enjoyed the novel Emma and liked the character. I think you could apply many of the character traits listed as descriptive of Emma to Fitzwilliam Darcy. He grows and changes over the course of the novel P&P, and everyone loves him. He manipulates his friend’s love life, he is a snob, he is rich, he is in control of his estate, he has guardianship of his sister, he believes his opinions are correct, and he is handsome and believes himself to be clever. I don’t know that he allows his imagination free reign, but he does believe Elizabeth is waiting for his proposal. Why is it that these characteristics make people dislike Emma, but not Darcy? Just curious.

    • From teaching P&P for many years, I can say that many readers do not care for Darcy in the first half of the book. As to Darcy being a snob, I found him simply socially inept. He uses the perception of a condescending gentleman (my mother would call him “constipated”) as his shield of protection himself against uncomfortable situations – ones in which he does not best show. He comes off as “intelligent,” rather than as “clever.” Darcy thinks Elizabeth would accept his proposal because it was expected in his day for a woman to accept the hand of a man of his prestige and place in Society, especially if said woman came from the lower gentry class. The novel says that although Darcy has no title that he comes from a noble and noteworthy family. His lineage is strong. As to Emma, I just never felt her “reformation” would stick. I always questions whether she felt sorry for what she did or whether she felt sorry for the notice it brought to her door. But as I said previously, we all find something different in Austen’s stories. That is what makes them timeless. They are stories of human frailties.

  5. Suzan says:

    One of my least favorite of Austen’s works.

    • I liked it when I read it at age 12, but over the years, I found it less appealing. I came to the conclusion it was Mr. Knightley who made the story, not Emma. LOL!

      • Beatrice says:

        I always liked Mr Knightley but now I am old, I do think it’s a bit creepy that he falls in love with someone so much younger whom he has always acted paternally towards, not to mention his frequent disapproval of her actions (or inactions).
        This is my second most favourite Austen novel after P&P. No one is perfect in this book, but I find the characters very human and true to life. Their stories draw me in.

  6. Jane Austen predicted people wouldn’t like young Emma. ‘A heroine whom no one but myself will much like’. I do like her, but because of her flaws – if she was perfect (apart from being handsome, clever, and rich, with a happy disposition) she would be insufferable. Mr. Woodhouse is fab!

    • I always felt as if “Lydia Bennet” served as an early model for Emma’s character. Mayhap I spent too many years teaching high school prima donnas to know a fondness for Emma.

  7. nmayer2015 says:

    In all of my years in reading and discussing Emma with others, I have found that Emma comes second by only a small percentage point to Fanny Price as being the most disliked heroine of Austen’s works. Some even say I they are more disliked than any heroine or main female protagonist. Emma has been home schooled. Her sister was older and married before Emma left the schoolroom. Miss Taylor helped inculcate the idea that she was special. There is no hint in the book that Emma has even visited her sister in London. Isabelle and John make all the visits. Emma was the little princess of the village. No wonder the poor girl didn’t have any idea about consideration for others besides her father and governess. Her father’s real or imaginary ill health has constricted her life. As for being friends with Jane Fairfax. 1) who wants to be friends with a person always held up to you as being superior in any field? 2) Jane Fairfax didn’t initiate or encourage friendship because of her secret engagement to Frank Churchill. It is unfair to blame Emma for the lack of friendship there.
    Her greatest crime is the interference with Harriett’s life. Emma thinks that Harriett has to be the daughter of a person of the upper class— a reference to the belief that the children of the upper class were prettier and more handsome than the lower class one, perhaps?
    Emma has grown up in a bubble and has to learn to live in the real world.
    An excellent post, btw

    • Thanks for reading the post, Nancy. It is wrong to judge Emma, but I admit not liking her. There are other means to learn something of the nature of people than flitting from one social event to the next.

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