At the end of Jane Austen’s Emma two marriages take place: the marriage of Emma to Mr Knightley, and the marriage of Jane Fairfax to Frank Churchill. Emma is undeniably a novel that discusses the limitations of not only a hierarchical society, but also the restrictions of a predominantly patriarchal society. There is a clear social hierarchy in the small and isolated village of Highbury, and this allows Austen to reflect upon the class system and the inevitable distinction between the ‘polite’ classes (including Mr Knightley and Emma) and the working classes (including Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax). Moreover, Highbury’s lack of a dominant male-figure (besides Mr Knightley) and the apparent feminine authority throughout the novel aids Austen in meditating on Jacobin ideals that became prominent following the French Revolution. Robert P. Irvine, an Austen critic, commented: “The revolution seemed to have involved, and to have authorised elsewhere, a breakdown in the distinction between proper masculine and feminine roles.” In fact, Austen was writing in a time of great political unrest; the French Revolution of the late 18th Century revealed various tensions and contradictions in English society, and indeed print culture became a medium whereby political beliefs could be expressed. Roger Sales, in his book Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England, argues that Austen should be interpreted in the context of post-Revolution social unrest and unemployment in order for her works to be fully appreciated. Therefore, we must consider Emma to be a novel that discusses not only the society of Highbury, but the society of Regency England as a whole.
Throughout the novel, Austen ridicules and makes fun of those characters that are perpetually concerned with hierarchy, particularly Emma. For instance, when Emma is visiting the Bateses, she expresses her fear of “being in danger of falling in with the second rate and third rate of Highbury.” (page 151) Emma seems almost incapable of relinquishing these obsessions from her mind, and indeed she sees marriage as nothing more than a means by which somebody can raise their position in society. The point at which Austen is most amused by Emma’s self importance is when she writes (page 226): “Emma did not repent her condescension in going to the Coles.” She continues: “She must have delighted the Coles…” The reader is encouraged to laugh at Emma’s proud and egocentric nature, just as we are amused by Sir Walter Eliot’s vanity, and thus Austen is criticising the separation of classes.
Austen also promotes a sense of social injustice in the reader. She is careful to present Emma and Miss Bates as polar opposites immediately upon their introductions. Emma is described as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home” (page 1), whereas Miss Bates, the local spinster, is described as “neither young, handsome, rich” and living “in a very small way” (page 19). Moreover, Mr Knightley tells Emma that Highbury “would be entirely guided” (page 369) by Emma, whereas Miss Bates says: “Oh! as for me, my judgement is worth nothing.” (page 172) The reader is outraged at this because the opposite ought to be true: Miss Bates is one of the first to notice that Harriet has hopes of marrying Mr Elton (she says: “What is before me, I see.”), whereas Emma’s opinion, although it is held in very high regard, is very often mistaken. Indeed Claire Tomalin, Austen’s biographer described Emma’s inner-voice as “consistently wrong”. Not only is Austen criticising Emma for thinking so highly of herself and her opinions, but she is also criticising society and hierarchy; why should Emma’s opinion be more highly regarded than Miss Bates’? Austen, through characters like Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates, is condemning social norms and orthodox attitudes to class. In fact, she is questioning whether hierarchy should be a concern at all.
The fact that Austen’s society of Highbury is mostly female dominated could suggest that patriarchal tradition is both unimportant and out-dated. On page 23, Austen writes: “Emma allowed her father to talk…” and this demonstrates her authority. Emma’s power is not only exercised over her father, but over the majority of Highbury. Mr Knightley himself notes Emma’s influence over the people of Highbury, and indeed she is described as having “rather too much her own way” (page 1). Finally, Frank Churchill refers to her as “she who could do anything in Highbury!” (page 186) The majority of Highbury’s men seem particularly feeble – Mr Woodhouse and Mr Weston are constantly complaining, and Mr Elton is a loathsome character. Mrs Churchill also has a huge amount of power over Frank Churchill; indeed, the power that Mrs Churchill has over Frank is similar to that which Mrs Ferrars has over Edward in Sense and Sensibility. She is described as “a capricious woman” who “governed her husband entirely”. Again, this suggests that Austen supports female emancipation and equality. Even charity is organised by the women: Emma organises the leg of pork that is given to the Bateses. All excursions and parties are largely organised by the females of the novel, and this again suggests that Emma is a feminist novel.
However, is Emma, as well as being a novel that disapproves of class and hierarchy, really a feminist novel? Austen’s use of the typical romantic ending (the book culminating in two marriages) suggests otherwise. Emma is what is known as a ‘Bildungsroman’: a novel that relates the education and moral growth of the hero or heroine. Indeed, Irvine notes:
“The plot of the novel subjects Emma to a process of education whereby she discovers the limitations of her judgement and learns the superiority of Knightley’s: theirs is a lover-mentor relationship…”
This alone suggests that men are more reliable than women. In fact, most of the novel’s true catastrophes are caused by Emma: the Box Hill incident, as well as Harriet’s heartbreak. She is seen as a heroine who must be tamed and educated by a male, just as Catherine Morland is educated by Henry Tilney in Northanger Abbey. At the start of the novel Emma is described as having “a sort of habitual respect for his judgement in general” (page 64), and at the end she has nothing to wish for “but to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgement had been ever superior to her own.” (page 445) Is Austen not suggesting that all women ought to be guided by an intelligent male figure, and that the patriarchal society in which a competent male (i.e. Mr Knightley) rules is better than a female dominated society?
On the topic of hierarchy, Mr Knightley and Emma’s relationship also leaves some contradictions in Austen’s message. During their argument about Harriet (page 57), Emma feels that she must defend her use of social power against Knightley’s objections, who fears fluctuation in Highbury’s hierarchy. Irvine writes: “What is at stake for Knightley is ultimately not the suitability of two people for each other as individuals but the maintenance of a hierarchy of ‘connection’.” This is reinforced by Knightley’s exclamations about Harriet being “the natural daughter of nobody” and a girl with “no respectable relations”. Neither of the two, throughout the argument, questions the existence of a ‘social elite’, but about the intricacies of that elite. Again, Irvine notes:
“Rather, their disagreement is… about where the boundaries of that elite should be set, and what qualifies one for membership; and at a deeper level, about who has the authority to police those boundaries. Such policing is precisely what Emma is engaged in when she persuades Harriet to reject Robert Martin as beneath her.”
Knightley recognises that Elton is of a higher position than Harriet, and indeed he describes it as an “imprudent match”. He also says that Elton “will act rationally” since “be knows the value of a good income as well as anybody” (page 64). He is therefore recognising the importance of hierarchy. As the highest-ranking man, he believes that Emma, the highest-ranking woman, is meddling with matters above her, and he even feels that his position is being threatened. Indeed the two are, throughout the novel, in a competition for power: Emma is arbitrator of domestic matters and matters of love, whereas Mr Knightley controls what is known as ‘Parish business’. One can now read Emma’s marriage to Knightley as a way of resolving the problem of feminine authority:
“the plot subsumes her feminine authority within the authority of her social class as a whole, explaining it decisively as the product of her rank and not her gender. Emma’s recognition that she must marry Knightley is a recognition of the necessity of consolidating the power of their class and maintaining its exclusion…”
Although Emma grows throughout the novel, and although we see the boundaries of the ‘social elite’ stretching (i.e. the Coles become part of the group), Emma’s marriage to Knightley does suggest a consolidation of power and reinforcement of the hierarchical ideal. Is Austen praising the class system because it allows for feminine authority? Or is she suggesting that females are in need of guidance? This idea of consolidation is reinforced by Harriet’s marriage to the less-wealthy Robert Martin. Austen writes on page 474:
“Harriet, necessarily drawn away by her engagements with the Martins, was less and less at Hartfield; which was not to be regretted. – The intimacy between her and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill…”
This demonstrates the fact that, although Emma has developed, she still recognises the importance of hierarchy, and Austen emphasises that the two girls cannot be friends on account of Harriet’s marriage to Mr Martin. Thus the boundaries of the ‘elite’ have been set. The breakdown of Harriet’s relationship with Emma coincides with the beginning of Emma’s relationship with Jane. Since Jane is now in the ‘elite’, and since their circumstances are no longer “confused” as Mr Woodhouse says, the two can now be friends. Indeed on page 451 we see Emma making a conscious effort to interact with Jane, something she rarely attempted before. Again, this shows her concern with hierarchy.
Jane Fairfax’s marriage to Frank Churchill also poses a number of the above questions. Jane is undeniably one of the most admirable characters of the novel: she is “the really accomplished young woman” (page 162) who “had yet her bread to earn” (page 161). She is not born with all of Emma’s blessings, and yet she is just as admirable and accomplished, if not more so. Jane Fairfax “represents a much more female powerlessness, and specifically the possibility of downward as well as upward social mobility.” (Irvine) If Emma’s marriage to Mr Knightley is the consolidation of power and reinforcement of the ‘social elite’, Jane’s marriage to Frank can be seen as almost the opposite. Jane is entering the ‘elite’, and the boundaries are being stretched, to Emma’s outrage (“‘Jane Fairfax! – Good God!!’” – page 389) Irvine comments:
“If there is a story in Emma in which true personal (feminine) value wins recognition from a powerful man despite its lack of wealth and status, that story is not Emma’s or Harriet’s: it is Jane Fairfax’s. But that story… is repeated under cover, as the novel’s shaping secret, itself subordinated to a main plot in which gentry power is consolidated by the marriage of Emma and Knightley.”
Here, Austen could be rejecting hierarchy, suggesting that it should be ignored and disregarded when it comes to love and marriage. Conversely, she could also be suggesting the opposite: that hierarchy is good as it allows feminine virtue to be recognised and to be rewarded. However, this alone is questionable: can marriage to somebody as deceptive and loathsome as Frank Churchill really be seen as a reward?
Emma marries Mr Knightley, thus proving the existence of a social hierarchy. Furthermore, Harriet, despite Emma’s schemes, marries Mr Martin. However, the marriage of Jane to Frank cold serve as a contradiction to both of these ideas. Moreover, the fact that Emma and Knightley’s wedding is “very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade…” (page 476) suggests that pride and arrogance of class is no longer a part of Emma’s character. Consequently, it is impossible to definitively say that Emma is a novel that “praises social class” or “rejects the patriarchal society” because it does both, and does neither at the same time. It shows that society does not need to be male dominated, but also that some females need male guidance. Austen is very equal-handed when it comes to discussing hierarchy and patriarchy, and indeed she sees the good and the bad in both. Detestable female characters such as Mrs Elton make it seem impossible for Emma to be a novel devoted to praising the virtue of women, and indeed Frank Churchill’s deception suggests that both patriarchy and hierarchy are imperfect ideals. If Emma really was about breaking social boundaries, why does Emma not marry the adorable Mr Martin and Harriet Mr Knightley? Despite losing her snobbery, Emma can never truly escape her hierarchical ideals, and this shows her to be imperfect, and therefore human. Austen is not ruling out one thing and supporting another; rather, she is praising certain characteristics (like Mr Knightley’s good will) and ridiculing others (Emma’s vanity and snobbery). Hers is a study of people, not of ideals.