2005 JASNA Essay Contest First Place Winner Graduate Division
Rebecca H. Starkins
Oxford University
Brookfield, CT

“The Perfect Happiness of the Union”: Emma and National Ordination

On the 29th of January 1813, Jane Austen wrote to Cassandra of revisions to Pride and Prejudice, which was at the time going to press.  She then continues with, “Now I will try to write of something else; – it shall be a complete change of subject – Ordination” (Letters 202).  For decades, scholars and readers have debated the significance of Austen’s remark, pondering its implications to a definitive and “proper” reading of Mansfield Park, the novel to which it is supposed to refer.  Some take it at face value, insisting upon an interpretation of the novel that privileges its religious elements; others simply dismiss it as a once-possible theme later largely subordinated in the final text.  Both readings are certainly plausible, but what if Mansfield Park is not, after all, the infamous “ordination” novel?

In his recent study of Austen and politics, Edward Neill offers a freshly intriguing and highly suggestive reading of the letter and its Mansfield connections.  He believes the novel is indeed about “ordination,” but not necessarily in the religious sense of the word.  Mansfield Park’s “ordination” is ordination “in a weirdly pure sense, leaning on the etymology of the word” (Neill 87).  Its Latin root, “ordo, ordinis” means “rank,” and in fact, its primary definition in the Oxford English Dictionary has nothing at all to do with religion.  The first sense of the word it cites reflects its Latin origins: ordination is “the action of ordering, arranging, or disposing in ranks or order; the condition of being ordered or arranged” (OED).  Considering the rather precarious and ambiguous position of religious “ordination” in Mansfield Park, it is possible Austen may well have wished to emphasize the ironies surrounding the duality of such a term.  As Neill indicates, it is very much a novel about order, a lack of order, and ordering, about who fits into which social and national role, and how those roles are hierarchically “ordained.”  Yet there remains another discrepancy with the letter.

In a note penned after Austen’s death, Cassandra recorded the dates between which her sister’s novels were written.  According to her, Mansfield Park was “begun somewhere about Feby 1811 – Finished soon after June 1813.”  Emma was “begun Jany 21st 1814” (Honan 324).  Jane’s “ordination” line was written on 29 January 1813.  If Cassandra’s dating is correct, then Jane in all likelihood would have had most of Mansfield Park finished by the time she wrote that letter.  Why the future tense when speaking of it, then, as if it had not yet been stated?  Interestingly, too, the extant letters are strangely silent on Emma until just prior to its publication.  Could Emma have been the “ordination” novel referred to in Austen’s letter?  I think it is certainly possible that it was, and that Austen was contemplating an ensuing project that would focus more clearly on class, rank, and social hierarchy—in short, on “ordination,” or rather the order of the nation.  While Mansfield Park does address these issues, Emma does so to a significantly larger and more complex degree.  Indeed, it is frequently referred to as the author’s most “class conscious” novel, one very much “about” the distinctions made between social classes that necessarily structure and “ordain” the nation (see, for example, Duckworth 152).  I would consequently suggest that early thoughts of Emma could conceivably explain what has been for decades one of Austen’s most problematic phrases.

Returning to Austen’s correspondence in such a way suggests an entirely new reading of the novels and their author.  If the letter’s “ordination” is indeed the ranking and ordering of society and the nation, then it opens Austen’s circle of thought significantly, solving yet another long-standing mystery.  Why, some scholars have questioned, are the letters so different in subject and tone from the novels?  Why does Austen remain silent on certain topics in her correspondence, but address them openly in her books?  Some—but not all—of this disparity is the fault of Cassandra, who is well known to have destroyed a number of her sister’s letters.  The rest remains there to be rediscovered.  Re-reading the “ordination” letter, for example, uncovers a blatantly political side to Austen, one which Cassandra may well have attempted to stifle.  But the evidence remains in the novels, if not also in the letters, that sister Jane did indeed have political opinions, and well-developed ones at that. 

An examination of Emma in view of her newly reclaimed theme of “ordination” eveals that Austen is unequivocally concerned with the ways in which people are ordered and ranked within the nation and, more specifically, with what the basis for that “ordination” should be.  As Austen’s “transition” novel, Emma unearths and exposes the two often disparate principle hierarchies that could potentially ordain society and the nation: those of social rank and personal merit (specifically morality and manners).   It employs the title character and her social situation to work towards a resolution of these existing conflicts—a resolution achieved through nationalism and the imagination of a common England.

Emma, like the other novels, stresses the responsibility of the upper classes to serve as an example to those beneath them socially, which includes a duty to instruct others—via their own behavior—in the established code of manners, morals, and social proprieties.  In the process, a natural hierarchy of personal merit would be created, a hierarchy in place not to oppress but to teach, guide, and protect.  Mr Knightley remarks on the benefits to be derived from such a hierarchy.  Of Harriet Smith, he observes that “her character depends on those she is with; but in good hands she will turn out a valuable woman” (52).  Emma, however, schools her friend not in the ways of becoming a better person, but in the language and privileges of the class structure.  “She had no sense of superiority then.  If she has it now, you have given it… You will puff her up with such ideas…that, in a little while, nobody within her reach will be good enough for her” (56).  The manners and morals Emma imparts are founded on a desire to maintain the existing hereditary class system.  They are class-specific, assigning one set of standards to one group and an entirely different set to another.  She condemns, for instance, Mrs Elton for “manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar” and for “all her notions…drawn from one set of people” (244).  Ironically, Emma censures Mrs Elton for the very same fault which proves Emma’s own downfall: her manners display too excessive a consciousness of her class superiority.  While Emma “unites some of the best blessings of existence” in her social situation, her class-based “bad” education, with “all her notions...drawn from one set of people and one style of living,” make her “ignorant” of the value of any other part of society but herself and her own.

Ordination along the lines of the exclusive class-based manners and notions of social propriety entertained by Emma quite obviously threaten national unity.  The “unnaturalness” of a fragmented social arrangement based solely on class is highlighted in the Box Hill scene, where class conflicts reach their boiling points on that hot Midsummer Day.  Upon arriving at Box Hill, Emma notes the mood of the party.  “There was a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over…[D]uring the two whole hours that were spent on the hill, there seemed a principle of separation…too strong for any fine prospects, or any cold collation, or any cheerful Mr Weston, to remove” (332, italics mine).  Instead of coming easily together as they usually do for dances and evening gatherings, these citizens of Highbury each “separate” into their own unique and class-based groups: the Eltons walk alone; Mr Knightley “takes charge” of those marginal beings in need to his protection (Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax), and Emma and Frank Churchill (with “puffed up” Harriet in tow) “belong” to each other and to their own exclusive superior “set” of two.  Emma finds the outing “insufferable” until they all sit down and Frank turns “every distinguishing attention that could be paid” towards her.  Introduced into the text at this point are a series of class-bound references more frequent and pointed than at any other place in the novel, and all are made in reference to or by Emma.  “You are comfortable because you are under command,” she tells Frank as she revels in her own “perpetual influence”(333).  When Frank introduces the game, words like “command,” “order,” and “desire” are attributed to Emma.  Here she sits, a veritable “man (or rather, woman) of the hill” in the tradition of Fielding’s Squire Allworthy, completely blinded to the rest of the world by her confidence in her own superiority.  Her sense of her social position and her imagination of a strict hierarchy beneath her prompts Emma to act as a Godwinian gentry autocrat; under her rule, the poor, weak, and humble are oppressed, as when she insults Miss Bates.  In miniature, this is the condition of England under the present class-conscious authority.  There is “a want of union” here that “cannot be got over” – at least not until Emma learns an alternative method of nation “ordination.”

Yet while Emma leads Harriet down the artificially landscaped garden path overgrown and obscured with notions of class, Mr Knightley suggests the naturally open and fertile fields that cultivate inherent good sense and personal virtue.  It is Robert Martin the “gentleman-farmer,” and not “handsome, clever, and rich” Miss Woodhouse, whom he distinguishes as the best person to educate Harriet into a socially productive individual.  With his “better sense…open, straight-forward, and very well-judging,” Robert Martin presents an alternative set of manners and morals to those advocated by Emma.  Based on “all his sense and all his merit” rather than on an accident of birth, his is a world classless by nature, ordained only by personal merit and worth.  What is telling, I think, is the degree of similarity between Robert Martin the “gentleman-farmer” (56), and Mr Knightley the “farmer” (90) who is also a gentleman by birth.  Both are described with similar manners (their openness, their good sense, and their honesty), and both are intrinsically tied to the land.  Austen naturalizes this particular kind of English ordination, imagining a national order that nurtures both England itself and England’s people.

The lesson Emma learns is essentially the most important lesson of nation-building.  Reflecting in the end on her faults and misjudgments, Austen writes, “What had she to wish for? – Nothing, but to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgment had been ever so superior to her own.  Nothing, but that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in future” ( 432).  Aware only now of the divisive effects of her extreme sense of class-conscious ordination, Emma wishes for humility.  Her experiences have taught her that individuals in possession of true English morality (like Miss Bates and Robert Martin) have more value to the nation than a polished and treacherous “Frenchman” like Frank, despite the disparity of class.  Nationality and racial pride have thus conquered class-consciousness in the world of Emma, thereby re-ordaining and restoring the community to stability and order.  Unsurprisingly, the novel concludes with a declaration of “the perfect happiness of the union.”  That “want of union” that clouded the day at Box Hill has now been restored.  With its implications of family union, community union, and the national union (her aversion to all of which Emma overcomes in the end), Emma’s final phrase advocates an all-conquering Englishness based on acceptance, incorporation, and national pride.  The lesson Emma learns is the lesson Austen hints at in her letter, a lesson of the power of ordination and its ability, properly used, to create the longed-for “perfect happiness” of a stable national union.  Perhaps Austen’s political voice is not so carefully hidden after all.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. 1816. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998.

Austen, Jane. Jane Austen’s Letters. Ed. Deirdre Le Faye. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Duckworth, Alistair. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1971.

Honan, Park. Jane Austen: Her Life. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1987.

Neill, Edward. The Politics of Jane Austen. New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999.