Is ‘Emma’ an Exercise in Conformity?

Jane Austen was so quietly radical – so unostentatiously (unAUSTENtatiously) experimental – that she somehow gained a reputation as a conformist. Her magnum opus, Emma, features one of the most brilliantly transgressive heroines of the nineteenth-century, perhaps only rivalled by some of the heroines of the Brontë sisters. Austen, throughout Emma, uses irony to criticize society – in fact it’s probably the most noteworthy convention of all her writing (except perhaps for marriage – which shall be addressed later). She only upholds the structure of society so she can play devious tricks within its fabric. Jane Austen’s Emma consistently defies adhering to social conventions of Regency-era England and subtly criticizes its structure throughout.

First, take an irony-laced interjection from Harriet Smith. Noted Austen-obsessed academic John Mullan once described Harriet as “the most sublimely stupid person in any novel”: he also declared that in Emma, “all important information…is given by stupid people.” So, when Harriet Smith replies to Emma’s intention of never marrying with the delightfully simple: “Dear me! – it is so odd to hear a woman talk so,” – we know that this is Austen telling the reader something. By this point the reader knows that Emma is “clever” – Austen wrote it in the very first line – and should have worked out that Harriet is… less so. Through this we know that Emma is saying something genuinely interesting, forward-thinking, and quite radical – that she “must expect to repent” a potential marriage. Harriet, the simpleton, is the character who echoes societal expectations. Therefore, the irony of this piece of dialogue carries with it an inherent criticism of society. Austen is appearing to support social conventions whilst secretly indicting them.

There is also a much more serious, straight-faced criticism in a seemingly minor section much later in the novel. The brilliantly vulgar Mrs. Elton is encouraging the ‘practically perfect in every way’ Jane Fairfax to enter into the trade of the governess. Quietly, and very radically, Austen – not long at all after the abolition uses dialogue, quite unadorned with description, to relate the governess-trade to that of the slave-trade. Jane Fairfax concedes that the trade of the governess is not as morally bankrupt however she does add “as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.” Until eight years before Emma’s publication with the Slave Trade Act 1807 – stemming from the stories of Dido Elizabeth Belle and the Lord Chief Justice Mansfield – slavery was seen by many as a normal part of society that passed by without comment – just as the governess role continued to be looked at. Austen does not impart any judgement onto what Jane Fairfax says through free indirect discourse – instead leaving it entirely to the reader. This shocking criticism was to be later followed by novels like Jane Eyre, but Austen was already very subtly questioning its morality while it was still very much part of the establishment. This is nothing if not a criticism of social conventions and structure.

One of the most obvious criticisms in Emma is often somewhat misinterpreted. From the oily Mr Elton to his extraordinarily vulgar new wife Mrs Elton. It is hard to miss that Austen is not overly fond of these two characters – even if she relishes in their collective awfulness. Some readers argue that Austen is criticizing the reprehensible pair for stepping out of societal bounds. However, marrying for social advancement was not frowned upon in society – in fact throughout Europe in the nineteenth-century this was very common. As Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, “The only happy marriages I know are marriages of prudence.” We find in a moment of exquisite dramatic irony, that Mr Elton, after professing his undying love for Emma “just four weeks prior” is to be married after visiting Austen’s despised Bath. This confirms to the reader that this is indeed a marriage of prudence. So, when they are revealed to be vulgar – emphasised by Mrs Elton’s stream-of-consciousness speech forever on the topic of Maple Grove and her “caro sposo” – this is an indictment from Austen of the social-climbing obsession of many a person making up high-society. All of this is yet more defying of society’s fabric on the part of Austen.

Austen’s revolutionary treatment of gender also criticizes social conventions and places herself in the avant-garde of nineteenth-century gender politics. Isabella Knightley (née Woodhouse) is a very minor, very uninteresting character in the novel that one barely remembers her existence. Yet, through biting characterisation, Austen paints a picture of “a model of right feminine happiness.” By implying that society’s perfect model of femininity is simply boring – and its antithesis the transgressive, unromantic Emma, with her lack of typical feminine sensibility (sense being much more important to Austen) being the delightful heroine: Austen tears apart society’s expectations of womanhood. Emma is often described as a proto-feminist novel and small touches like these are precisely why. Emma was published in Austen’s lifetime. Austen has to be subtle in her revolutionary brilliance because to be open about it would leave her unpublished – see, for instance, Emily Dickinson having only a dozen of her poems published in her lifetime. Throughout Austen’s work and none more so than in Emma, Austen is nothing short of pure genius in the modernity and proto-modernism of her gender politics.

Many scholars argue that the rule of Austen’s major six novels – Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey, and Persusasion – all ending in marriage, marks an author committed to the social fabric of Regency-era England. This reader believes the marriages at the end of Emma are a triumph of rejecting the cold, austere, class-driven orientations of its society and embracing Tolstoy’s “antediluvian notions” of a marriage for love. If the marriages of Emma and Mr Knightley; Harriet and Mr Martin; and Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are sound class-wise – that is secondary to the love forged that prompted them: especially in the case of Emma and Mr Knightley. “Brother and sister! – no, indeed.” One of the greatest lines in literature ignites the one condition under which Emma would marry: for love. The later, more famous “with the speed of an arrow” metaphor makes completely obvious what was already set up the marriage at the end of the thirty-eighth chapter. The marriages in Emma conform to the typical notions of society as marriage was of huge importance: but it is only carried out for the benefit of the characters – not society. Austen only appears to conform when she is being devious underneath the surface-layer of conformity.

Jane Austen appears to uphold societal structure at the first glance. When the reader peels back the layers of Austen’s prose; when the reader fully envelops themselves in the irony and reluctant romanticism of her work it becomes apparent that Austen is forever criticizing her society – but she doesn’t let that get in the way of a good love story. As she once wrote, she only wrote for the reader who had “a great deal of ingenuity themselves”.


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