I first read Emma while on holiday in Sweden when I was fifteen, and found it a hard slog. At the time, I had trouble explaining my resistance to the novel, and ultimately settled, somewhat reluctantly, on the title character, whom Austen herself famously described as "a heroine whom no one but myself will much like." Arrogant and self-important, Emma is a sort of feminine Mr. Darcy. Like him, she has been "given good principles, but left to follow them in pride and conceit" (although, unlike Mr. Darcy, Emma's attempts at ordering the world according to her own notions of what is right and proper are rarely successful, and in fact often have the opposite result of the one she intended). Emma is supposed to be the narrative of its heroine's moral and emotional growth, but I found her--and therefore the novel--unsatisfying. Ten years later, I expected to have more sympathy for Emma Woodhouse, and a greater appreciation of the novel which bears her name, but instead I found myself nearly overwhelmed by Austen's treatment of a secondary theme which I had, almost inexplicably, managed to overlook in my first reading--the theme of class.
Class is central to Emma in a way that far outstrips its importance in Austen's other novels. The most obvious example is the sub-plot involving Harriet Smith, a young woman of no family and very little education whom Emma takes under her wing, and Robert Martin, a farmer who is in love with her. In spite of his many qualities--he is described as intelligent, serious-minded, and conscientious, and Mr. Knightley, Emma's mentor and the novel's moral center, holds him in very high esteem--Emma is brutally dismissive of Robert Martin because of his class.
"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. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it."Emma's animosity towards Martin is motivated in part by her belief that Harriet can do better. Partly out of blind affection, and partly out of a desire to gratify her sense of her own importance, Emma schemes to attach Harriet first to the local vicar, Mr. Elton (who has set his sights on Emma instead), and later to her neighbor's son, Frank Churchill (who is secretly engaged to another young lady, Jane Fairfax), in spite of Mr. Knightley's assertions that Harriet has nothing more than good looks and a pleasant nature to recommend her.
Emma's coming to accept Harriet and Robert's marriage at the end of the novel is motivated not by her learning to look past his class and to value him for his character and abilities, but by a clear-headed evaluation of Harriet, and the realization that she possesses very little of either. This reevaluation comes about when Harriet, encouraged by Emma's bolstering of her self-esteem, sets her sights on Mr. Knightley. An oblivious Emma has, of course, been in love with Mr. Knightley all the time, but beyond this personal reason to object to a match between the two, we are also told that "It was horrible to Emma to think how it must sink him in the general opinion, to foresee the smiles, the sneers, the merriment, it would prompt at his expense". At the end of the novel Emma, now happily married to Mr. Knightley, is drifting away from Harriet, and the novel treats this cooling of their friendship as something inevitable and desirable.
Emma's inability to accurately gauge Harriet's value, both in terms of her class and of her abilities, is part of a larger theme of social and personal blindness within the novel. Emma, obviously, suffers most egregiously from this failing--she doesn't realize that Mr. Elton is interested in her, and unwittingly encourages him while believing him to be in love with Harriet; she falls for Frank Churchill's pretense of infatuation, which in reality is a blind meant to conceal his attachment to Jane Fairfax; she is fooled by Jane and Mr. Knightley's reserve, and fails to realize where either of their affections truly lie. But Emma is far from being the only blind person in the novel--the entire cast blunders about, groping helplessly before them and constantly coming to the wrong conclusions about their friends and neighbors. Mr. Elton believes that Emma reciprocates his affections. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are certain that the entire neighborhood is on the verge of discovering their secret, and that Emma has already worked it out and given them her tacit approval to use her as a beard. Harriet thinks that Emma is encouraging her to pursue Mr. Knightley, whereas Emma is actually talking about Frank Churchill. Even Mr. Knightley initially fails to recognize even those modest qualities Harriet possesses, and he also shares in the common misconception that Emma is so in love with Frank Churchill that the revelation of his engagement to Jane Fairfax must break her heart. As the narrative tells us just at the moment in which Emma and Mr. Knightley realize that the object of their affection returns it, "Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised or a little mistaken".
Were Harriet and Robert Martin's sub-plot the only reference to class in the novel, it might be easier to conclude that it is introduced in service of this greater theme of blindness, but there are other references to class in Emma that are not so easily disposed of:
- Emma is scandalized by Mr. Elton's presumption in proposing to her--"Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior in talent and all the elegancies of mind. ... but he must surely know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family, and that the Eltons were nobody."
- When Frank Churchill proposes holding a ball in the local inn, Emma tries to persuade him that there aren't enough families of sufficient rank in the neighborhood to make up a sizable crowd--"The want of proper families in the place and the conviction that none beyond the place and its immediate environs could be tempted to attend were mentioned; but he was not satisfied. ... Of pride, indeed, there was, perhaps, scarcely enough; his indifference to a confusion of rank bordered too much on inelegance of mind. He could be no judge, however, of the evil he was holding cheap. It was but an effusion of lively spirits."
- "The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury and were very good sort of people, friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. ... 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."
- When Mr. Elton does marry, the woman he chooses is wealthy but unrefined, and the narrative lambasts her for her belief that her nouveau-riche relatives are the equals, and perhaps the superiors, of the old, landed families in Highbury. Mrs. Elton figures quite prominently in the latter half of the novel, and in most of her appearances she is consumed with elevating herself to a position which, we are told, neither her rank as a vicar's wife nor her family connections entitle her to.
- In the only instance in any of Austen's novels of a physical assault against a character, Harriet is accosted by gypsies violently demanding charity, and has to be rescued by Frank Churchill.
Obviously, it should come as no surprise that Jane Austen, an author who hewed so closely to a conservative worldview in other respects, was nothing like a radical when it came to class. Her main characters are all gentlemen and ladies, and although they don't always marry within their exact level their chosen mates are usually gentlemen and ladies as well. Nevertheless, in her other novels there is at least a sense that, although she frowns on social climbing in general, Austen has a grudging respect, even an admiration, for those who practice it. In Persuasion, Anne Eliot is warned that her sister's friend Mrs. Cole, the daughter of Sir Walter's lawyer, is trying to win Sir Walter's affections and make herself the new Lady Eliot. The narrative rewards Mrs. Cole for her troubles, however. Sir Walter's heir, recognizing a formidable opponent, essentially makes her his ally by marrying her--she can no longer threaten his claim to Sir Walter's estate by producing a nearer heir, and he will one day make her a baronet's wife. Sense and Sensibility's Lucy Steele is one of Austen's most fascinating creations--an intelligent, calculating young woman, more chaotic neutral than villain, whom Elinor Dashwood herself calls "better than half her sex."
Mrs. Elton is very much in the vein of these characters. In spite of her coarseness and presumption, she is clearly intelligent and accomplished, and yet, with the exception of Mansfield Park's ghoulish Mrs. Norris, she is Austen's most objectionable creation, whose attempts to place herself in a position of authority within Highbury society--taking on, unasked, the roles of hostess and patroness in communal functions--are viewed with disdain by the narrative and the novel's right-thinking characters. One of the positive results of Emma's marriage to Mr. Knightley at the end of the novel is that it gives Emma the crucial advantages--she is now a married woman, and mistress of the largest estate in Highbury--which allow her to regain the position from which Mrs. Elton ousted her, as Highbury's social leader.
Emma's emphasis on class distinction is also unusual because unequal marriages are so common in her other novels. In Austen's world, husbands and wives can be unequal in their character, class, or wealth, and in her other novels an equality in the first sense, and not the latter two, is held as crucial to the success of a marriage. Anne Eliot, the daughter of a baronet, can marry Fredrick Wentworth, a sea-captain and the son of no one at all, because he is her intellectual and moral equal. Elizabeth Bennet makes a much better wife for Mr. Darcy than Caroline Bingley, in spite of the fact that Caroline has tons of money and Elizabeth is poor and not very well connected, because she is Caroline's superior and Darcy's equal in terms of character.
In Emma, the situation is reversed. The three marriages agreed upon at the end of the story are equal in terms of class and wealth--the gentleman farmer marries the illegitimate daughter of a merchant; the poor young people raised by wealthy relatives marry one another; the landed gentry marry each other--but unequal when it comes to character--Mr. Knightley, Jane Fairfax, and Robert Martin are superior to their chosen mates. In another Austen novel, we'd expect Knightley to marry Jane, Emma to marry Frank Churchill, and Harriet to... well, not to exist. Though Austen is a deft hand at writing persuasive romantic relationships, it's hard for a reader versed in her novels to forget all those instances in which a person marries their moral or intellectual inferior hoping to teach and better them, and ends up being dragged down to their level. Are we really supposed to believe that the same won't happen to Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax?
The difference, presumably, is that at the end of this novel, Emma and Frank Churchill know what they've got and how little they deserve it. Emma resolves to adhere more closely to Mr. Knightley's guidance and advice, and has even begun to do so at the novel's close. As I wrote in my essay about Mansfield Park, however, Austen doesn't usually go in for redemption by proxy. Guided by those good principles I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, Emma tries to reform several times over the course of the novel and fails. At its end, she is just at the beginning of a more comprehensive attempt, but I find it difficult to believe that her success, if it even happens, will be complete or long-lasting unless she sublimates herself completely to Knightley's guidance. I can't help but believe that Emma will always be driven, at least in part, by pride and conceit (and that Frank Churchill's impulsive nature will always drive him). More importantly, I don't get the sense that for Austen, the question of whether or not Emma has truly reformed is as important as the question of whether or not she marries Mr. Knightley.
Jane Austen's fans are always moaning about her works being mistaken for romantic fiction when, in reality, the romance is nothing but a delivery system for her moral ideas--the old-fashioned and objectionable ones as well as the universal ones. Rereading Emma, I can't help but feel that the main character's romantic triumph is given precedence over her moral growth. As opposed to Mr. Darcy, who has to prove that he's a better person through actions, at the end of the novel Emma gets Knightley without having done anything to earn him beyond realizing that she is in love with him. She's wiser, but not yet wise, and yet the narrative leaves her with what is, for Austen, the ultimate reward--marriage to a good man. I had hoped to come away from this reevaluation of Emma with a greater appreciation for it, but instead I like it less--it may be my least-favorite of Austen's novels, for the simple reason that I think it may actually deserve that ignominious moniker, the romance novel.