Saturday, 15 February 2014

Social Class and Hierarchy in Austen's "Emma"

Jane Austen lived a quiet life. She was the unmarried daughter of a rector in Steventon, and her only source of personal income came from the four books she published during her lifetime. She was on the lower-fringes of the English landed gentry, and after her father’s death Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother lived together in a small house paid for by Jane’s brother, Edward. However, this does not mean that she was oblivious to the goings on of the upper-class: Jane’s cousin, Eliza, married a French count and lived out an illustrious lifestyle in France and London;  her brother Edward was adopted by the very wealthy Knight family (relatives of the Austens), and after marrying he went on to become High Sherriff of Kent, living at Godmersham, a very large estate; Jane often visited him there, giving her a glimpse of the lives of the wealthier members of society.

The heroine of the novel Emma is presented as particularly egocentric, and indeed the novel’s opening describes Emma as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home”. By putting this information in the first line of the novel, the reader infers that Emma prides herself on her wealth and class, an extremely unattractive characteristic. Mr Knightley’s behaviour is held in direct contrast with Emma’s; Mr Knightley is one of the wealthier members of Highbury society, living at the luxurious Donwell Abbey. However, he is not introduced as a rich man, nor is he presented in that way; he is extremely kind and charitable, and, unlike Emma, is not concerned with social hierarchy whatsoever. For instance, in Chapter Eight of Volume Two Emma suggests that it would be “a very shameful and degrading connection” (page 221) for Miss Bates to live at Highbury; Emma would see it as a degrading connection, but Mr Knightley would not. Mrs Weston supports this by saying (page 221): “I do not think Mr Knightley would be much disturbed by Miss Bates.” Moreover, Mr Knightley is seen as being extremely charitable towards the Bateses, and indeed he is described as both “considerate” and “gallant” (page 219). Austen’s appraisals of Mr Knightley suggest that she highly esteems the traditional values of both modesty and charity, particularly in the rich; her praise also serves to accentuate the privation of these values in the heroine. The reader can infer, therefore, that Austen has no true qualms with those people who are wealthier than others, as long as they are charitable and modest.

Emma’s lack of sympathy for more impoverished characters is again emphasised by the introduction and presentation of Miss Bates, the local spinster. Austen takes care to present Miss Bates as Emma’s polar opposite, describing her as “neither young, handsome, rich” (page 19) and living “in a very small way” (page 19). This considered, you would expect Emma to feel somewhat sympathetic for the Bateses, and you would hope that she pitied their plight; however, she does not. Although she sends Miss Bates a leg of pork, her meagre act of charity is somewhat overshadowed by Mr Knightley’s gallant behaviour: not only does he provide the Bateses with an abundance of apples (finishing his supply), but he also provides them with a carriage. Emma is also described as “not contributing what she ought to the stock of their scanty comforts” (page 151) and although Emma does go and visit the Bateses, it is only to improve Highbury’s opinion of her, rather than to help or please the Bateses. Austen is again criticising the selfish and unsympathetic behaviour of many of England’s gentry.

Emma’s mind is constantly filled with the importance of social hierarchy, and again we see Emma as a loathsome figure.  For example, Emma, when visiting the Bateses, expresses her fear of “being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury.” (page 151) Moreover, Emma seems to think that the only reason for marrying is to raise oneself in social position; Austen, representing Emma’s thoughts, writes (page 133): “He only wanted to aggrandize and enrich himself.” She thinks that everybody is as concerned with hierarchy as she is. This emphasizes Emma’s preoccupation and eternal concern with social class, but there are two more pressing examples of Emma’s prejudice. Emma refuses to allow Harriet to marry Robert Martin, described by Mr Knightley as “a respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer” (page 60), on account of him being not “Harriet’s equal” (top of page 59) and nothing more than a farmer; she describes the match as “a degradation” (page 60). Furthermore, Emma’s attitude towards the Coles (page 226) presents her as extremely proud and self-absorbed on account of her wealth. Austen is amused at Emma’s self importance, and she writes: “Emma did not repent her condescension in going to the Coles.” Emma exclaims through the narrator: “She must have delighted the Coles…” and we see Emma as extremely arrogant because of this. Emma thinks that the presence of a wealthier member of society must have pleased the Coles, when in fact they are not worried by such petty concerns. This is supported by Austen’s writing (page 203):

“The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them.”

Emma’s utter snobbery paints a particularly dislikeable figure of the English upper-class, and Austen makes Emma’s attitude seem extremely scathing. Her pretentiousness reminds the reader of Persuasion’s Sir Walter Elliot. Austen writes:

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation… He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliot, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion.”

Not only is Austen criticizing Emma and Sir Walter Elliot’s pretentiousness, she is also ridiculing it; she makes a joke of their arrogance and snobbery, thus making her views somewhat obvious.

Austen puts a lot of emphasis on the fact that social hierarchy often prevents certain relationships; for example, it seems perfectly obvious that Jane Fairfax and Emma should be very good friends, but they are not. Mr Woodhouse exclaims: “‘It is a great pity that their circumstances should be so confused!’” (page 168) He wishes for Emma and Jane to be friends, but his exclamation suggests that they are not able to be because of their differences in class. Austen views this as wrong, and presents it as one of the dangers of social hierarchy. This is supported by Austen when she says that Miss Bates “enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married.” (page 19) This again shows Emma’s snobbery: she believes that Miss Bates’s position in society and lack of money should have more of an effect on her social life, but it doesn’t. Miss Bates is almost Jane Austen’s fictional parallel; both were poor, both unmarried, and both spent their lives living with their mothers. We can therefore infer that Austen herself loathes Emma’s snobbery, and that she viewed social hierarchy as a thing to be ignored, rather than a thing to be adhered to. Mr Knightley and Miss Bates are almost certainly the two most moral and amiable characters of the novel; they are both almost always right, particularly when it comes to Emma’s mistakes. For example, Mr Knightley warns Emma of the peril she is putting Harriet in, and indeed Miss Bates is one of the first to notice that Harriet had hopes of marrying Mr Elton (on page 172 she says “What is before me, I see.”) The fact that these two characters have the least concern for social hierarchy suggests that Austen herself wished to present it as somewhat unimportant and loathsome.

Austen also makes a spectacle of Highbury’s particularly high reverence of Frank Churchill; Highbury holds Frank in very high regard on account of his wealth and respectability, even though they have never met him. This is extremely comic, and the fact that Frank turns out to be a deceptive, abhorrent character only serves to emphasize that wealth and class should have no sway on people’s opinions. This encourages the reader to question whether Emma is simply respected in Highbury because of her wealth, or whether it is because she is actually a likeable figure; Austen clearly thinks the former to be true. The reader also questions whether Emma would be so esteemed if she were in the same position as Miss Bates, old and poor. Emma’s judgment, which is very often wrong (i.e. in her match-making), is always listened to and respected by the people of Highbury; for instance, Mr Knightley tells Emma that Highbury “would be entirely guided” (page 369) by her treatment of Miss Bates. The respect that Emma commands is held in direct contrast with that of Miss Bates, who is very often right, but who says: “Oh! as for me, my judgment is worth nothing.” (page 172) Not only is Austen criticizing Emma for thinking so highly of her own opinions, but she is also criticizing society; why should Emma’s opinion be more esteemed than that of Miss Bates?

Austen also criticizes Emma’s opinion of the Coles. Despite being Emma’s neighbors for ten years, and of a “good sort of people” (page 203), they still did not receive her respect. She describes them as “of low origin”, and even though they are “second only to the family at Hartfield” (page 203), Emma still looks down on them. She thinks them not worthy of her admiration on account of the fact that they are newly wealthy (“the last year or two had brought them a considerable increase of means” (page203)), and because they made their money through trade. Emma speaks of them extremely scathingly, and determines that she should reject their invitation on account of their being “only moderately genteel” (page 203). Emma even goes so far as to take her not being invited “as a compliment”, and to say that she would rather remain “in solitary grandeur” (page 204). Austen is ridiculing Emma, and her sardonic humor amuses the reader, but accompanies a more serious message: social class and wealth should not affect people’s judgment as much as it does.

Sir Walter Scott, an author writing at the same time as Jane Austen, praised her for “the peculiar tact with which she presents characters that the reader cannot fail to recognize”.  Austen clearly experienced characters like Emma (pretentious and arrogant), allowing her to represent them so well in her writing. Austen’s novel Emma is by no means criticizing the wealthy, but it is criticizing the uncharitable members of the upper-class, and Austen is also showing her disapproval of the class system. Through characters like Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates, Austen is able to condemn orthodox attitudes to status and hierarchy, and she is able to question the norms of society. For example, she questions whether the wealthy should be held in such high regard simply on account of their wealth, and she questions whether hierarchy should be a concern at all. She makes fun of Emma for her attention to social status, where Austen herself thinks it ought not to matter. The reader sees her views clearly throughout the novel, and they get the opinion that Austen does not care for hierarchy, and thinks it a petty, unimportant concern.

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