Jane Austen: Early Feminist
By Kate Miller
Critics have long been in contention concerning the political nature of the
novel “Emma” by Jane Austen. Written in the early 1800’s, many argue that “Emma” simply presents an honest depiction of the sexual politics and social hierarchy at the time. Critic Harold Bloom argues that Austen was, “not concerned with upholding or undermining patriarchy,” and that Emma herself, “does not think ideologically.” However, the novel revolves around the struggles and development of Emma, a strong, intelligent woman living in 19th century England. At one point Emma even ponders the justice of social hierarchy and sits, “musing on the difference of woman’s destiny.” Austen cleverly expresses feminist views in the novel, “Emma,” through her depiction of the class system, economic realties, and sexual politics of the era.
Austen implicitly critiques the limitations of women by sympathetically portraying the unfortunate circumstances of Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. Miss Bates is described as being in “the worst predicament in the world” (18) because she is not young, rich, handsome, or married. She is described throughout the novel as an impoverished old maid, which Emma explains is, “as formidable an image as could be presented” (79). However, Miss Bates enjoys popularity uncommon for one in her situation due to her “universal good will” and genuine interest in her neighbors. Thus, she is kept respectable through their friendship and charity. She is often receiving gifts from those wealthier than her, such as apples from Mr. Knightly or a “porker” from the Woodhouses. Although she is an incessant talker and dreadful bore, Austen evokes sympathy for Miss Bates when Emma lashes out at her at Box Hill. Mr. Knightly’s reproach is felt strongly not only by Emma, but by Austen’s readers, as he reminds Emma that, “She (Miss Bates) is poor…and her situation should secure your compassion.” (344).
Although Jane Fairfax is depicted as being beautiful and accomplished, because she is a poor orphan, her situation is little better than that of Miss Bates. She has no connections and no advantages. When Frank Churchill and her become engaged, he implores her to keep their relationship a secret because his wealthy aunt will not approve. Emma and Frank often speak condescendingly of Jane’s situation. At one point Emma remarks derisively, “You know Miss Fairfax’s situation in life, I conclude? What she is destined to be?” (183). Emma is implying that Miss Fairfax’s lack of connections leave her with no options but to seek employment, which was frowned upon by the upper class. Interestingly, Mr. Knightly, Austen’s only character who speaks truthfully and honestly throughout the entire novel, speaks highly of Jane Fairfax. He compliments her good sense, one of the highest praises he bestows, and even says of her engagement to Frank Churchill that, “the merit will be all on her side,” (386) despite her lack of fortune.
Jane Austen presents an objective view of the limited options available to women in “Emma.” In English society in the early 1800’s, if women were not wealthy they were forced to either work or rely on the charity of their neighbors. However, remarkably few career opportunities for respectable women existed. Those who did work were usually employed as teachers or governesses. Yet when Jane Fairfax discusses working as a governess with Mrs. Elton, she compares the “governess trade” to the slave trade. Through this comparison she insinuates that one of the few self-sufficient things women could do was still not preferable to the idleness of a wealthy lifestyle. Even if women earned a sufficient income and established independence, the social hierarchy of the era made upward mobility difficult. A more genteel woman wouldn’t work to advance her situation, but marry well. Mrs. Elton’s acute surprise to discovering that Mrs. Weston was Emma’s governess is in accordance with such views. She remarks to Emma that “Having understood as much, I was rather surprised to find her so very ladylike. But she is really quite the gentlewomen.” (254). Emma’s indignation towards this remark reverberates with Austen’s frustrations that independent, hard-working women were considered vulgar or inferior, and shown little respect.
Although Emma is witty and intelligent, marriage seems to be the sole thing that she, and other women of similar social standing, can control. The ability to engage in courtship and the power to reject or accept a man’s proposal was one of the only things in women’s lives that they could influence. Thus, Emma spends the largest portion of her time trying to make good marital matches for her friends. Austen uses Isabella, Emma’s sister, to represent married women in 19th century England. Although Isabella is popular for her “tenderness of heart” (245), she is not a strong portrayal of motherhood. She dulls in comparison to Emma’s wit and energy. Mr. Knightly proclaims that “Emma is…the cleverest in her family” while Isabella is described as “slow and diffident.”(33). Through Isabella’s character Austen conveys that a mother’s life offered women little opportunity for intellectual growth. Furthermore, whether married or single, women’s pastimes were limited and trivial, consisting of social visits, charity, or refining their musical or artistic abilities.
Austen comments on the sexual politics of the time through her comparisons of the men and women in “Emma.” She illustrates a clear picture of the traditional “women’s sphere,” by restricting her female character’s influence to the home and their children. While her male characters are in control of their households, finances, and careers, women’s concerns appear to be significantly more trivial. In “Emma” it is apparent that women are considered the weaker sex. Mr. Knightly illustrates this belief when he criticizes Frank Churchill’s handwriting citing that, “It is too small – wants strength. It is like a woman’s writing.” (272).
Another area where men had advantage over women was in marriage. It was considered more acceptable for men to marry above their social standing than for women. Mr. Weston marries Mrs. Churchill, who is his superior, as Augusta Hawkins is similarly superior to Mr. Elton. However, Mr. Elton ridicules the idea of an attachment between himself and Harriet, exclaiming to Emma, “I am not so totally despair of an equal alliance as to be addressing myself to Miss Smith!” (122). Moreover, although Mrs. Elton comes from a decent family and has significantly more money than Harriet, she is rude and vulgar. Mr. Knightly makes an important point about the value of a woman’s character when he tells Emma that in her plotting for Mr. Elton to marry Harriet she, “would have chosen for him better than he had chosen for himself.”(302). Unfortunately, the majority of people during Austen’s time did not seem to share this sentiment. Mr. Knightly, Austen’s voice of reason and truth, further promotes women of good character when he proclaims to Emma “men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives.” (59). Throughout the novel he is one of the only upper class males to value women for qualities beyond how many thousand pounds they will inherit.
Through the musings of her heroine Emma, Austen alludes to her dissatisfaction with the economic realities of the time. Early in the novel when Emma and Harriet are discussing Miss Bates and the prospect of marriage, Emma remarks that she intends never to marry. Harriet is shocked to hear that Emma would purposely chose to be an old maid, to which Emma replies, “A single woman of very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid!...but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else!” (79). This statement evokes frustration with the fact that only affluent women could literally afford independence, while women of lower classes had to marry to avoid ridicule. It is also lamentable that at the time women who were induced to marry did not marry for love, but married to make a “good match.” Although Harriet is in love with Mr. Martin, Emma advises her to reject his marriage proposal because she believes that he is not her equal. Austen further evokes her reader’s sympathies through Emma’s thoughts juxtaposing Jane Fairfax’s situation with that of Frank’s aunt, Mrs. Churchill. “The contrast between Mrs. Churchill’s importance in the world and Jane Fairfax’s struck her (Emma); one was everything, the other nothing – and she sat musing on the differences of woman’s destiny…” (352). Here Emma has her most political thoughts, when she feels sorrow for Jane Fairfax, who is considered nothing by the world because of her lack of money or family name. Emma seems truly concerned with the fact women were given relatively no opportunity to improve their situation in society or advance themselves economically.
When Harriet receives a letter containing a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, Emma remarks that, “It is a good letter, so good in fact…that one of his sisters must have helped him with it.” (46). Through this seemingly light humorous remark Austen appears to be making an essential point that women are not only equal to men in regards to writing and expressing themselves, but they are superior. Emma describes the letter’s style in detail, asserting that “there were not merely no grammatical errors…the language was strong…and the sentiments it conveyed very much the credit to the writer.” (45). Through this clever exchange Austen asserts that women are fully capable of doing many things as well as men, and some things even better. “Emma” is not merely a straightforward depiction of England’s social hierarchy, economic realities, and sexual politics, but a criticism. Through the struggles and growth of Emma, a strong independent woman herself, there is no doubt that Jane Austen is criticizing women’s limited role in society, compelling those who read “Emma” today to appreciate all that women have gained, while continuing to take strides towards greater equality.
© Kate Miller