In her third novel, Jane Austen created a flawed but sympathetic heroine in the young Emma Woodhouse. Widely considered her finest work, Austen's Emma once again deals with social mores, particularly those dealing with ethical actions and social status.
This paper focuses on how Austen uses the figure of George Knightley to propose a new English Gentleman Ideal to criticize the strictures regarding the role of women and the skewed relationship between the sexes. In the first part, this paper looks at the social world of England in the early 19th century, in which Austen lived. It then compares the reality of these conditions with the seemingly idyllic settings Austen portrayed in novels like Emma.
The second part of the paper then examines Austen's redefinitions of the ideal English gentleman, as embodied by Mr. Knightley. Despite the expected happy ending, this paper argues that Austen presents George Knightley as a gentleman who is both socially upright, an ideal marriage partner for Emma Woodhouse. By "quitting Donwell (and) sacrificing a great deal of independence of hours and habits," Austen portrays Mr. Knightley as a person who, in his own way, understands and accommodates the changing roles of women in society.
England in Jane Austen's time
Jane Austen's life spanned the late 18th to early 19th centuries. She was born on December 16, 1776, in Steventon, a small town in the English province of Hampshire. The effects of the French Revolution, following "reign of terror" were sweeping through England. The American colonies were waging a war for independence. The Industrial Revolution provided new employment opportunities and caused a stream of movement between the rural countryside and the cities.
The new political and technological upheavals, however, did not necessarily translate to changes in the status of women. Until well into the mid-19th century, most English women still worked in agriculture. In addition to farm work like feeding animals, milking cows and preparing hay, countrywomen also took care of domestic works and care taking.
In the cities, most women were confined to the traditional occupations like seamstress, embroidery or millinery. Unskilled women, however, worked in undesirable occupations like chimneysweeps and butchers. The most common unskilled occupation, however, was working as a prostitute. In 1801, there were an estimated 70,000 prostitutes out of a population of 900,000.
Towards the end of the 18th century, women were deemed incapable of too much education, limiting the teachings to social graces like dancing, piano-playing and French language lessons. Those with limited education from ladies' academies sought work as governesses. In some instances, such as Austen's, women from polite society turned to writing, which was one of the few occupations open to respectable members of the gentry. Otherwise, women's lives were to revolve around their husbands, the home and family.
For many women of the late 18th and early 19th century, the object was to marry well. Because most marriages required a dowry, however, only 30% of English women could afford to marry. The rest would grow into spinsterhood, destined to become wards of their wealthier male relatives.
Marrying well was prized because it brought women financial security. The laws of primogeniture prohibited women from inheriting property from their families. Thus, even women from relatively wealthy families stood to lose their property upon the death of their fathers. Austen touched on the unfair effects of this law on the Bennett girls in Pride and Prejudice and the Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility, although this same restriction was not applied to Emma Woodhouse.
Peasant women could still find husbands if they proved sturdy and hard working. Middle-class women, on the other hand, needed to have social skills and pleasing personalities. In Emma, part of the heroine's flaws was her strong "masculine spirit," which was a stark contrast to Isabella, the quiet and indulgent mother who was the "model of right feminine happiness."
Upon marriage and in the narrow confines of the domestic sphere, women were expected to run the household but to defer to their husbands. In Emma, Mr. Knightley observes that the heroine was "preparing (her)self to be an excellent wife all the time (she) was at Hartfield...on the very material matrimonial point of submitting (her) own will and doing as (she) was bid."
In addition to managing the household, the married woman's main task, was to bear children. Because of poor nutrition and hygiene, however, one in every four pregnancies ended in miscarriages. Infant mortality was high as many more babies succumbed to malnutrition and infection. Health problems like tuberculosis further added to the child and infant mortality.
Seen in this light, the preferences for virginity, abstinence and even spinsterhood, which Austen portrayed in her novels and chose in real life, are also largely informed by 18th and 19th century physical and health concerns.
However, England was not immune to the social and scientific upheavals sweeping throughout Europe. Scientific advances brought new understandings on nutrition, health and hygiene. This contributed to increased fertility among women, resulting in more births and healthier children. The social upheavals in France and the waning influence of the Catholic Church meant more young women engaged in sexual activity and a concomitant rise in the illegitimacy rate.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of these changes for Austen was a growing respect for novel writing. This was a fairly new genre in England, and the influential Evangelical and Unitarian movements in 19th century England saw fiction as wastes of time or even potential corruptors of morals. Despite their popularity, novels that openly discussed taboo subjects like fornication and divorce were seen as dangerous, particularly for those who are not well educated.
The disrepute of the literary novel and Austen's desire for privacy are part of the reason Austen published Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Emma anonymously. Also, while she was clearly critical of the era's impositions on women, Austen decided to write domestic novels rather than the more overt "women's rights" novels penned by Mary Wollstonecraft. In novels like Mary and Maria, Or the Wrongs of Woman, the feminist Wollstonecraft advocated for legalized prostitution, women's financial autonomy and a woman's right to divorce.
On the surface, Austen's novels deal with more traditional concerns, like the pursuit of marriage. However, critics like Claudia Johnson observed that through "the device of centering her novels in the consciousness of...women," Austen exposed and explored "aspects of traditional institutions - marriage, primogeniture, patriarchy - which patently do not serve her heroines well."
In Mansfield Park, for example, Austen explores the situation of Fannie Price, who is dependent on her wealthy uncle for her future. In Emma, Mrs. Bates shows how the death of a male relative can cause even a wealthy woman's fortune to spiral downward.
Seen in this light, Austen's novels and settings could be read as microcosms of 18th century English society. Georgian England lived under a strict hierarchical social order, determined by both class and gender. This is illustrated in the importance placed on social standing in novels like Pride and Prejudice and Emma. One obstacle to the marriage of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett has social roots, since Darcy assumed the middle-class to be uncultured while Elizabeth believed that all aristocrats were snobs. The first step towards their relationship is forged when Elizabeth impressed Darcy by showing an understanding of the manners required in polite society.
Thus, the balls, dinners and extended visits which pre-occupied many of Austen's earlier characters were evidence of a woman's role as an arbiter and preserver of morals in early 19th century England. Thus, even Anne Elliot and the penniless Elinor Dashwood won the heart of the previously wealthy clergyman and both found matrimony and social status.
Many of the challenges regarding the rights of women, however, were reflected in Austen's later novels. The waning importance of manners and changing social orders also undermined the women's arbiter role. Many women were beginning to question their confined lives and express discontent regarding their traditionally defined roles.
Fearing that this questioning would lead to frustration and discontent, Austen seems to advocate women actively seeking a role in public life. In Persuasion, published after her death, Austen writes of a naval wife who joins her husband at sea and who took it upon herself to take care of the legal and financial aspects of renting a house. More important, her husband sees these as positive changes and brags to his friend about his newly "independent" wife.
Thus, Emma and the rest of Austen's novels should be read in the context of Austen's time. Poor health made childbirth dangerous for women and diseases like tuberculosis were rampant, thus making spinsterhood less frightening and in some cases, even desirable. Social norms against open discussion of moral issues like divorce and the strictures against women in employment meant that Austen's novels needed to end happily, which often meant in matrimony.
More importantly, while Austen set her novels in the domestic sphere, it should be noted that these…