The Novel “Emma” by Jane Austen
Jane Austen’s book titled Emma is a novel focusing on romantic misunderstandings and youthful hubris. Initially published in 1815, the book entails events in the fictional Highbury country village that explores the difficulties and concerns of women during Georgian-Regency England. The book is a comedy that highlights social status, age, sex, and marriage issues. The author admitted before writing the piece that she desired to create a character (heroine) that none would like. Hence, Emma Woodhouse comes out as one who dramatically over-estimates her matchmaking capacity, unable to discern her meddling tendencies and misleading perceptions and imaginations. In the novel, Emma comes out as self-deluded, head-strong, spoiled yet with a happy disposition and very little to distress her. The author uses the events surrounding the main character Emma to depict the changing role of women in the United Kingdom in the 1800s and highlight social class issues that existed at the time.
The book centers its themes on relationships surrounding a few families in the Highbury area. The romantic drama begins when Emma introduces Mr. Weston to Miss Taylor, a former governess. The two become married, and Emma takes credit for their union and assumes that she has excellent matchmaking skills (Austen, 1969). Thus, Emma embarks on matchmaking sprees that often backfire catastrophically and leave many wounded in the wake. Her efforts set off a flurry of engagements and love proposals that do not pan out but eventually lead to confusion and heartache.
The author depicts the main protagonist of the story, Emma Woodhouse, as a partially spoilt young lady in her early 20s. Nevertheless, she is intelligent, beautiful, and high-spirited. Even though she portrays a strong sense of class, she also shows much compassion towards the poor in society. She possesses a powerful conviction that she is always right and has little experience in life, causing her to make several mistakes noted in the captivating piece. She believes she can make perfect couple matches, yet she vowed never to marry herself and has no experience with romantic issues. Thus, the author demonstrates a sense of naivety on her part.
Illustrations of Social Class
As per the novel, Emma Woodhouse belongs to England’s landed gentry class in the 1800s. The gentry, also called the landed gentry, denoted a historical, social rank composed of landowners. The members at least had country estates and could survive entirely on rental income. Even though the gentry, like Emma, was socially underneath and distinct from the British peerage, their economic foundations on land were similar. Some gentry members were more affluent than the British peerage in some instances.
Moreover, there were several instances of relations, even marital, between the British gentry and the peerage. The gentry comprised gentlewomen (like Emma), gentlemen, squires, and knights. They did not have to work to earn a living since they had much fortune (Bianchi, 2020). They became the most significant class in Britain during Elizabethan times as their numbers increased rapidly. They mostly started as knights and gradually built wealth and titles via marriages and generations of hard work.
The highest social class in Britain was the noblemen. Noblemen were powerful and wealthy, and kings and queens like Elizabeth, Henry VIII, and Henry VII ceased appointing new nobles to keep their numbers small since the noblemen were sometimes considered threats to the crown (Oberman, 2009). Even though the nobility could lose their fortunes, only high crimes like treason could see them also forfeit their titles.
Just beneath the gentry were the Yeomanry. The Yeomanry (the middle class) lived on the savings they accrued over the years. However, there was a risk of losing their wealth through illness or famine at any given time. The Yeomen had simpler uses for their pieces of land than the gentry, who spent vast amounts of money putting up palatial homes (Bianchi, 2020). The middle class mostly worked to expand and improve their land in most cases. The last social class consisted of the poor, who had no food, clothing, or shelter. The territory passed Poor Laws to aid the poor since their numbers increased. Any individual from the group who could perform an honest day’s work yet chose otherwise would undergo the death penalty as per the regulations.
The novel depicts the classes but gives more detail to the gentry and the nobility, who often intermarried freely. The class differences come in various marriage proposals in the story. For instance, Mr. Elton becomes enraged when Emma proposes a relationship between him and Harriet because he deems Harriet socially inferior (Austen, 1969). Mr. Elton is a social climber who always seeks a higher social position and possesses an insatiable desire to make a name for himself. Therefore, the proposal remains unattractive to him due to his perceived social standing. The novel illustrates relationships and marriages only between persons of equal social classes as many consider it loathsome to marry beneath their station in society.
How Elites Viewed the Lower Class
During the 1800s in England, the elites viewed the lower classes with loathing. The higher classes deemed the lower ones inferior and considered them a burden to society. Jane Austen portrays the differences between ranks primarily using the themes of marriage and relationships. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Elton feels offended that Emma would propose a marriage between himself and Harriet, who he deems socially inferior to him. Mr. Elton himself comes out as a social climber, desperate to reach the higher cadres of society and etch out a name for himself. Thus, the elite viewed the poorer classes as inferior and not worthy of holding interactions with, while many of the lower classes constantly sought to raise their social profiles through marriages and hard work.
In 1834, Britain introduced Poor Laws that encouraged everyone to work harder to sustain themselves, reduce the number of street beggars, and lower the cost of caring for the poor. The resulting Poor Laws created workhouses where the more impoverished of society received shelter, food, and clothing in exchange for labor for several hours daily (Liu, 2014). The middle and upper classes that paid the cost of caring for the poor started complaining about the economic weight placed upon them and lamented that the laws merely permitted the less fortunate to become lazier and avoid working.
The 1834 Poor Law came into place to ensure the program’s sustainability as the more impoverished went into workhouses that featured deliberately harsh labor and a monotonous lifestyle that sought to discourage the perceived lazy poor from venturing therein. The Poor Laws became unpopular and punished the poor for their misfortunes (Malone, 2016). Eventually, only orphans, the insane, the sick, and the old opted for the workhouses reluctantly. Thus, even in the novel, Jane Austen depicts the contempt with which the more affluent classes treated the lower ones. For example, even though Robert Martin is a well-spoken, educated, and respectable young man, Emma sees him as a mere farmer who is not worthy of marrying Harriet (Austen, 1969). She advises Harriet to marry the richer Elton, who also becomes angry at the prospect of marrying a woman of a lower social class. The fact that intermarriages and social links between ranks were rare indicates the elites’ disdain for the lower classes. It was rare even for the gentry to marry a noble person in the 1800s in England.
Position of Women in the Early 1800s in England
Jane Austen’s novel also goes a long way in highlighting the position of women in the early 1800s in England. In Victorian society, women fulfilled various household chores, managed servants, cooked for (fed) the family, raised and educated the children, and served as home physicians using knowledge of medicinal plants and herbs (Klemann, 2012). The society was predominantly patriarchal, and women enjoyed fewer rights than they do presently. However, the scenario started changing in the early 1800s as women began helping their husbands run small businesses. Despite its strict stereotype, maiden signs of the feminist political movement kicked off in Victorian society, as illustrated in historical records and Jane’s novel.
Jane Austen creates a character in Emma Woodhouse that portrays modern-day female independence and individuality (such as finances and romance). Emma can live independently due to the fortune she inherited from her father, making her self-sufficient, educated, and capable. She espouses the attributes of a woman in the women’s rights movement that started emerging at the time. Women who owned property like Emma Woodhouse would participate in local elections in some areas. In the novel, the author portrays the main protagonist (woman) as one capable of influencing the actions of more affluent men and deciding their marriages. The woman emerged as having more influence over men, a phenomenon that was slowly emerging in the Victorian era. Emma was a daughter with a dowry (natural daughter) whose marriage brought great fortune to her would-be husband. The ability of women like Emma to inherit property from their fathers set them up on the road to emancipation. It boosted their influence in the communities, as seen in the novel.
Jane Austen’s Emma depicts the social situation in England in the early 1800s. The book portrays the tide in the women’s rights movement at the time as many started agitating for their rights to vote and own property. Moreover, the issues of social class in the 1800s become apparent as one comb through the novel. Many consider marriage partners only from categories above or similar to theirs and not below. As seen in some marriage proposals in the book, the marriage dispositions are due to the widespread discrimination based on economic status. Emma portrays a woman eager to emerge from the shadows of men and influence society’s direction.
Austen, J. (1969). Jane Austen: Emma. Aurora.
Bianchi, F. (2020). Pride and Prejudice on the Page and the Screen: Literary Narrative, Literary Dialogue, and Film Dialogue. Nordic Journal of English Studies, 19(2), 166– 198. Web.
Klemann, H. M. (2012). Ethos in Jane Austen’s Emma. Studies in Romanticism, 51(4), 503.
Liu, Y. (2014). The prosperity of English literary criticism in multicultural contexts: Jane Austen’s ideas on kinships in Emma in the perspective of ethical, literary criticism. Theory and Practice in Language Studies, 4(3), 636. Web.
Malone, M. (2016). Jane Austen’s Balls : Emma’s Dance of Masculinity. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 70(4), 427–447.
Oberman, R. P. (2009). Fused Voices: Narrated Monologue in Jane Austen’s Emma. Nineteenth-Century Literature, 64(1), 1–15. Web.