One of Jane Austen’s most popular novels is Emma, the story of a matchmaker who doesn’t know her own heart. Frequently inspiring modern sequels and spinoffs, film adaptations, and scholarly interpretations, this is a novel whose popularity is not going to drop off any time soon!
It has an almost modern feel to it–despite frequent references to such antiquated subjects as class, birth, and marriage for money–with a title character who charms us with her flaws and invites us to identify with her. I am actually fortunate enough to be taking a college course on Jane Austen, and I wrote a paper on the three central marriages of Emma
as one of my assignments. Feel free to grab a cup of tea and snuggle into the nearest nook while you read on 🙂
Three Romances: Marriage and Status in Jane Austen’s Emma
“Follow your heart and your dreams will come true” could be taken as the watchword of the ideal modern American romance, in which affairs of the heart may be slightly influenced by such tedious issues as money and family background, but true love triumphs in the end. This has not always been the utopian model, however; earlier periods observed a very different set of standards. In the novel Emma
, Jane Austen writes about romance in Regency Era England, where the plot swirls around the secrets, joys, and follies of three central couples. Austen highlights a clear connection between marriage and status—marriage is more than the fulfillment of true love; it is a ritual governed by a set of proprieties, and a tool to be used for one’s advantage. On a first reading it might seem that Emma’s world is wholly materialistic, obsessed with wealth, reputation, and heritage to the exclusion of true love and common sense. But there is more to be discovered. We must examine each of these three couples to see if true love really does “conquer all”, even when so much is determined by social standing.
The first couple is Robert Martin and Harriet Smith. They are the lowest class characters in Emma
, with no wealth or honorable background to grant them respectability. Mr. Martin is a knowledgeable tenant farmer with aims to move up in the world, and Harriet Smith is the educated but illegitimate daughter of a tradesman. Robert and Harriet develop a shy attachment, but before it can blossom into love it is hindered by the novel’s heroine, a rich gentlewoman named Emma Woodhouse, who takes Harriet under her wing to teach her social graces. Emma considers Mr. Martin to be “illiterate and vulgar,” and encourages her young friend to aim at a loftier match, with disastrous consequences (Austen 47). This brings us to one of the difficulties that low-status people of Austen’s era had to contend with: submission to their social betters. The weak-willed Harriet is more than happy to defer to her “superior” friend’s advice, while Mr. Martin seeks Mr. Knightley’s approbation before proposing to the woman he loves. They must both be careful to not look too high above their station, finding happiness within the confines of their rank. And they do find happiness in the end— “Harriet had always liked Robert Martin…his continuing to love her had been irresistible,” and notwithstanding the meddling of a certain gentlewoman they are at last engaged (Austen 394).
Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are in the uncomfortable position of loving outside their rank. The attractive Mr. Churchill has been raised by his rich aunt and uncle, indulged, and given every privilege. Jane is a poor orphan who has been raised by generous friends, destined to spend the rest of her life laboring as a governess unless she is rescued by an advantageous marriage. This unlikely couple falls very deeply in love, but the obstacles in their way seem insurmountable. Frank’s capricious aunt would never consent to his marriage with a penniless woman of such low birth, so they must resort to a secret engagement which results in much pain to both. Regency society could make marriage between the classes extremely difficult (Mr. Churchill’s own parents’ marriage “was an unsuitable connection, and did not produce much happiness” [Austen 15].). At the end of Emma
, Frank and Jane have brought their romance into the open (thanks to the fortuitous decease of the aunt) and have a full future ahead of them, but it is not without some scars from past indiscretions.
At the pinnacle of society stand George Knightley and Emma Woodhouse, lifelong friends and well-suited to one another. They were both born into well-respected families of sizeable wealth, and in the beginning neither shows much inclination to marry. Mr. Knightley is in his mid-thirties and has never been paired with anyone, and Emma sees marriage as a way to get what she has no need of, “Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want. I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield…” (Austen 73). The idleness of fortune might be considered an obstacle to romance, as it leads Emma to dabble in other peoples’ hearts until she hardly knows her own. But this blindness does not last, and by the last chapters Emma and Mr. Knightley are in love with each other, with the complication of believing that the other person is in love with somebody else. Their difficulties are largely internal rather than external, however, and it only takes an expression of love from Mr. Knightley to end all confusion and join them at last.
By writing about three couples from widely different strata of society, Austen shows us the result of hearts finding happiness in a variety of ways. Each of the six people discussed above finally found true love, though their searches were complicated by considerations that might seem archaic. But are their stories so different from the ones we live out today? Perhaps rank, fortune, and family connections are no longer the usual conversation on a first date, but these things have to be taken into consideration just as much in the 21st century as they were in the 19th. A match in which the couple is unequal in intelligence, cultural background, finances, etc. holds many potential pitfalls, and the incidents in Emma
are a word to the wise. Still, Austen leaves us with a significant point: despite meddling interference, incongruous circumstances, and the confusion of not knowing their own hearts, all six characters have their dreams of love come true. The author seems to echo Shakespeare’s sentiments, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments. Love… / is an ever-fixed mark, / That looks on tempests and is never shaken…” (Shakespeare 60).
Austen, Jane. Emma
. London: Penguin, 1996. Print.
Shakespeare, William. The Sonnets
. Ed. Stephen Orgel. New York: Penguin, 2001. Print. The Pelican Shakespeare.
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