Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)
The Social Constructions of Douglas McGrath’s Emma: Earning a Place on Miss Woodhouse’s Globe

Christine Colón (email: is a doctoral candidate at the University of California at Davis. Her dissertation explores the works of religious writers in nineteenth-century Britain.

In 1951, Arnold Kettle declared that "one important criticism of Jane Austen . . . is that her vision is limited by her unquestioning acceptance of class society" (98), and he lamented "her apparent failure to notice the existence of the problem [of class divisions]" (99). Alistair Duckworth responded to Kettle in 1994 and argued that "Emma is ‘about’ the relatively new phenomenon of class consciousness" (152). In the 1990s, many critics have sided with Duckworth, and the question has not been "if" Austen deals with class issues but "how." Mark Parker has summarized much of the complexity of this recent critical debate by stating: "Emma can generate two readings of class: a progressive one, which emphasizes the insidious workings of class in Emma’s disposal of Harriet; and a reactionary one, which sees and accepts this working as part of the price of social stability" (358). This complexity is created partly by the ironic narrator; for, as Parker continues, "[e]ach reading turns on assumptions about narrative voice: whether it is silently indignant . . . or simply complicit" (358-9). As a text, Emma lends itself to contradictory readings that challenge readers with many questions, particularly relating to class structure. We must decide how to position Emma, the narrator, and ultimately Austen within the conflicting ideologies that surround this text. The difficulties increase when we turn to examine film versions of Emma, for here we not only lose the ironic narrator but we gain twentieth-century perspectives through the screenwriter, director, and cast. What happens, then, to class issues in Emma when the novel is transformed into a film?

Deborah Kaplan argues that in the more recent film versions of Austen novels the tendency has been to "harlequinize" them by focusing the audience’s attention solely on the courtship plot to the detriment of other aspects of the novel (178). Not only is the narrator’s ironic commentary expunged but also many of the minor characters and plot twists that might have retained some aspect of social commentary. While I agree that much of the complexity of these texts must be sacrificed to the constraints of film, I believe that it is possible to maintain some of the intricacies of the original text, allowing issues such as class consciousness to be preserved, albeit in a different form. The 1996 Miramax film of Emma, written and directed by Douglas McGrath, remains attentive to class issues despite the simplification of the plot. By using visual clues as well as subtle additions to the text to approximate the ironic voice of the narrator, the film provides similar ambivalences as the novel does, occasionally supporting and occasionally condemning the status quo.

Before I begin to explore the nuances of this film version of Emma, I must mention that Carol Dole also examines class issues in various recent film versions of Austen novels. She compares American and British productions and concludes that "[t]he solidly British productions take the hardest look at class, while the mainstream American films tend on the surface to ridicule class snobbery but on a deeper level to ratify class divisions" (60). Her argument is interesting and persuasive, especially when considering the differences between the films. However, I would like to take a closer look at McGrath’s Emma, for in Dole’s discussion of this version she neglects many of the visual clues and textual additions that subtly enhance our perception of class issues. I agree with Dole that this film "take[s] full advantage of the slipperiness of Austen’s text in devising approaches that will both pay tribute to our ideology of classlessness and reinforce the class structures on which we implicitly rely" (69), but rather than seeing this doubleness as problematic and concluding that it arises from the "American myth of classlessness" as Dole does (75), I will argue that a larger class consciousness frames the entire film, causing both egalitarian and class conscious moments to be viewed within a frame that works to replicate the doubleness of the novel rather than simply the doubleness of American perceptions of class.

From the moment that McGrath’s Emma begins, our attention is drawn to issues of class structure and power, but the message we receive is strangely mixed. A voice, which sounds suspiciously like Greta Scacchi (the actress playing Mrs. Weston), calmly informs us that "[i]n a time when one’s town was one’s world and the actions at a dance excited greater interest than the movement of armies, there lived a young woman who knew how this world should be run."1 While this film, like most adaptations of novels, dispenses with the third-person narration for most of the action, it does rely on a narrative voice to frame the tale with the narrator guiding our thoughts at the beginning and at the conclusion of the film. However, this narrator is very different from the narrator in the novel. As Wayne Booth points out, the narrator in this novel "reinforce[s] both aspects of the double vision that operates throughout the book: our inside view of Emma’s worth and our objective view of her great faults" (256). The narrator of the film seems much more calmly approving than the narrator of the novel. This sense of the narrator’s complacency may stem in part from the connection of the voice with the character of Mrs. Weston. As we know from the novel and as we begin to see in the film, Mrs. Weston never overtly criticizes Emma. The fact that the narrator sounds exactly like Mrs. Weston seems to suggest that the film will be calmly approving of Emma’s actions in a way that the novel is not. Perhaps Emma does know how this world should be run, and we are going to watch her carefully arrange her society to its benefit.

However, the gentle voice of the narrator is countered by the shot of the spinning globe that opens the film, for this globe draws our attention to the complexities of class issues much more directly than the narrator. Initially, the globe seems simply to reinforce the words of the narrator. By creating this wedding present for the Westons, Emma demonstrates her power over her universe as she neatly charts their world on the confines of the globe. However, as we examine the globe further, we begin to see how it actually draws our attention to the dangers of Emma’s position, for the image of the globe is not as calmly approving as the narrator is. Instead, it shows the limitations of Emma’s vision. We may see these limitations first in the quick move that the globe takes from London to Highbury. As Emma crafts her world, she ignores this large metropolis, focusing instead on the tiny world of Highbury, which she can control. While this jump is logical since Emma could not possibly map out the larger city, it is still important, for it illustrates precisely how small her world is as well as how limited her powers are. Despite Highbury’s proximity to London, Emma’s world is remarkably tiny, consisting of only eight people including herself.

Emma’s limitations are also seen in the way that she maps out the connections between the people in her society. The globe presents Emma’s vision of her world as she moves from the lowest people with whom she must have contact to the highest. This linear progression begins with Mrs. and Miss Bates and moves through Mr. Elton, the Westons, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Woodhouse before finally resting on Emma, herself, as the center of her universe. Even before the story begins, we can perceive everyone’s relative importance to Emma. This view may seem natural at the beginning of the film when we simply expect to be introduced to the main characters. But, as the film progresses, we begin to notice all of the people who were not included in Emma’s world, and the selectivity of her globe becomes problematic. We may begin to wonder what the purpose of the globe is. Is it simply a picture of those people who are important to the Westons? After all, it is meant to be a wedding present for them. But if so, where are Frank and Isabella? Where are the other friends that the Westons receive that Emma does not? Is it simply meant to be a picture of Highbury? If so, it is highly selective, for as the film progresses, we begin to catch glimpses of a world in Highbury that is never pictured on the globe. The globe, then, is rather a picture of Emma’s confined world, including only her social contacts in Highbury, and it draws our attention not only to Emma’s limited resources but also to her perceptions of important class distinctions that exist within her world. In addition, the globe reveals that the beautiful world we are about to enter may actually be only a projection of Emma’s own perceptions. We are not going to receive an objective view of Highbury but rather Emma’s construction of her world. Indeed, the globe subtly draws our attention to what might be missing from Emma’s perspective. The juxtaposition of the narrator and the globe in the opening sequence, then, has introduced us to the doubleness of the text of Emma as we shuttle back and forth between acknowledging Emma’s worth and recognizing her blindness. The rest of the film continues to emphasize the differences between Emma’s perceptions and the realities of the world around her.

McGrath’s Emma has been criticized for refusing to take class issues seriously. For example, in his review of the film, Anthony Lane complains that McGrath portrays the "hierarchies of Highbury life [as] a complete joke" (76). He particularly objects to the "gag" where the camera pulls back to reveal the huge proportions of Donwell Abbey just as Mr. Knightley declares that instead of attending the ball, he would rather stay where it is "cozy." Dole agrees with Lane, arguing that "[s]ince the gradations of rank remain largely unexplained, any character’s attention to those gradations seems foolish snobbery" (69). I disagree. The emphasis on class in this film may not be precisely the same as in the novel, due primarily to a contemporary film audience that may not catch the nuances of nineteenth-century social constructions. However, I would argue that much of the film presents a far more subtle commentary than Lane or Dole acknowledges, as the audience begins to glimpse the world of Highbury that is not pictured on Miss Woodhouse’s globe. In this film the hierarchies of Highbury life are not "a complete joke." Instead, they are so natural to this society that we can only see the inequalities by observing what many of the characters ignore.

The visual clues, for instance, set up a sharp contrast between Emma’s world of privilege and the real work of Highbury. We are quickly introduced to a life of leisure where Emma finds occupation in sketching, embroidering, or decorating a church. The difference between Emma’s world and that of the majority in Highbury is evident particularly in the scene when she and Harriet walk beneath the ornamental apple trees discussing Robert Martin. In this scene, apples appear not as a crop to be carefully cultivated, collected, and sold but rather as a means of ornamenting a pretty path where young ladies may talk and attempt to catch butterflies. For those who have read the novel, this scene may also recall the instance when Miss Bates worries that Mr. Knightley’s gift of apples may have depleted his stores (238-9). Miss Bates knows that apples are valuable and should not be treated lightly, but in the film Emma and Harriet walk down a path littered with the apples that no one has bothered to pick and preserve. Work and commerce seem far from Emma’s world where the comforts of life miraculously appear. Janet Maslin points out that "[i]t’s one of Mr. McGrath’s little jokes to seldom depict servants here, even though an absurd set of props appears on the manor lawn every time a new form of dabbling—archery or stitching or writing or sketching—is under way" (C15). The "absurd set of props," however, may actually turn our attention, at least briefly, to the many servants who work to make this life of leisure possible for Emma, for we know that Emma, herself, did not erect the lovely tent on the perfectly manicured lawn.

In fact, an entirely different world than the one that Emma presents is almost always lurking just outside the frame. Occasionally, we are allowed glimpses into this world of service. While most of the meals and props appear without agency, we do see several servants working at the picnic at Box Hill, and we watch Emma give directions to the cook about preparations for an evening meal. We also see servants in other important areas. For example, in the midst of the snowfall that almost ruins Mr. and Mrs. Weston’s Christmas party, servants not only hold umbrellas over the heads of the departing guests, but they also drive everyone home and perch on the back of the carriages, ready to jump down and open the doors for their passengers. In addition, we are able to perceive that a world of commerce exists just at the edge of Emma’s gaze. For instance, as Emma and Harriet discuss Mr. Martin’s first proposal, we catch a glimpse of a wider realm of business as they walk through the bustling town where the sheep market is clearly occupying more than a few residents of Highbury. When we also take into account the scenes involving other levels of society such as Emma’s charity visit and Harriet’s encounter with the Gypsies, we begin to realize how much has been excluded from Emma’s partial view of Highbury. This attention to the lower classes in the film may be slightly different from Austen’s careful delineation of the gradations of class within Emma’s circle, but by drawing attention to the larger distinctions of class, the film reaffirms what we have already learned from the careful diagram on Emma’s globe: everyone has a particular place in this society, and some individuals are worthy of being noticed by Emma while others are not.

The class distinctions within Emma’s own circle are also explored, albeit it in slightly different ways from the novel, through various additions to the text. The first textual addition that I wish to discuss occurs within Emma and Harriet’s charity visit. The visit is, of course, taken directly from the text, but Harriet’s actions have been added. As a result, the scene becomes a commentary not only on the class differences between Emma and the poor family but also between Emma and Harriet. In the film, Emma behaves just as the novel states, for she "enter[s] into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always [gives] her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will" (86). Harriet’s behavior is added. In the novel, Harriet’s actions are never mentioned, but in the film Harriet is overcome with embarrassment as she repeatedly stumbles into things and drops food on the floor. She is obviously ill at ease amidst poverty and disease. While Emma’s station in life has given her the chance to become accustomed to this world through her charity work, Harriet’s has not. This addition shows that the class differences between Emma and Harriet are substantial, for each has received a very different education and has been prepared for a very different life. Emma may think she has eliminated class differences in her friendship with Harriet, but the film suggests that she cannot remove them entirely.

The danger that these class distinctions may pose for Harriet is exposed even more clearly in the next scene. In this scene, we see that while Emma may show compassion toward the poor, she is not averse to making use of the situation for her other pet charity—promoting Harriet’s relationship with Mr. Elton. In the novel when Mr. Elton appears, Emma only thinks to herself, "to meet in a charitable scheme . . . will bring a great increase of love on each side" (87). In the film, Emma urges Harriet to misrepresent the visit and take credit for the good works that Emma has done. Throughout this scene, Emma’s blindness to the workings of class becomes painfully clear, as does Harriet’s vulnerability. While Emma attempts to craft the world to suit her own desires, the realities of a class structure in which only she is privileged enough to be benevolent begin to appear. Both Harriet and the poor family are victims of a social structure, which forces them to depend upon Emma’s charity for their survival and happiness. We see what Emma does not: her power to distribute charity and Harriet’s vulnerability as the recipient.

Another addition to the film that highlights the importance of class distinctions in Emma’s world occurs after Emma insults Miss Bates at Box Hill. In both the novel and the film, Emma is mortified by Mr. Knightley’s rebuke and visits the Bates’s home the next morning to make amends. In both versions, there is a commotion as both Jane and Miss Bates hurriedly leave the room while Emma waits just outside the door, but the reason for the commotion is very different in the two versions. In the novel, Jane is the one who is upset, and Miss Bates accompanies her to another room. While Emma "ha[s] a moment’s fear of Miss Bates keeping away from her," she is soon relieved when Miss Bates re-enters the room (378). Certainly, the encounter between them is strained, but Emma is soon able to "lead the way to a return of old feelings" by asking about Miss Fairfax and "[t]he touch seemed immediate" (378). In the novel, Emma is able to resolve the problem between her and Miss Bates quickly and easily. In the film, the process is much more difficult, for Miss Bates is the one who feigns illness while Jane accompanies her. Emma is left with only Mrs. Bates, and we never see either Miss Bates or Jane return. In fact, when she returns to Hartfield, Emma is only able to hope that their relationship will gradually improve. This difference between the novel and the film highlights the reality of class distinctions within Emma’s tiny circle perhaps even more than anything else has, for if the audience did not perceive the intricacies of class distinction before, they certainly understand them after this event. Emma’s power to crush anyone beneath her in society is displayed in the serious repercussions of a thoughtless word. In most other circumstances, Emma has been able to ignore the realities of class differences within her own circle to suit herself. Here she is forced to face them even more directly than in the novel.

The conclusion of the text is where the real questions about class issues come to the forefront because it is here that class structures are stabilized, and we are asked to determine what Emma has learned in the course of the story. We must balance what Emma has discovered about snobbery and attempting to control other people’s lives with what actually happens to the characters. In the novel, this problem centers upon the disintegration of Emma and Harriet’s friendship. We are told that "Harriet, necessarily drawn away by her engagements with the Martins, was less and less at Hartfield; which was not to be regretted.—The intimacy between her and Emma must sink; their friendship must change into a calmer sort of goodwill" (482). Is Austen reaffirming class boundaries here as good and proper, or is she illustrating the problems of this class-conscious society? The fact that both readings may occur leads to the doubleness of this text. But what happens to this doubleness in the film version where, once Harriet and Emma are reconciled, their relationship seems to endure? The fact that their friendship remains intact seems to suggest that the film version of this novel is positing a more egalitarian society than is revealed at the conclusion of Austen’s novel. To a certain extent this might be true, but I would argue that the return to the globe at the end of the film problematizes such an optimistic reading. I believe that the final globe in this film reaffirms the ambivalences of the novel, albeit with a slightly different emphasis. It nods toward egalitarian ideas with friendship being more important than class, but ultimately it reinscribes class structure.

McGrath’s Emma concludes not with Emma and Mr. Knightley’s kiss after their wedding as we might expect but with another pictorial representation of Emma’s world. By comparing this representation with the one that opened the movie, audience members may vividly see exactly what has changed and what Emma has learned. The first change we notice is that the relationships are no longer presented as linear with Emma as the final goal. Instead, we have Mr. and Mrs. Knightley in the center with the groups branching out below them. Emma is still in the center of the grouping, of course, but here this position seems more appropriate than it was at the beginning of the film. Certainly, on their wedding day, Emma and Mr. Knightley deserve to be in the center of the globe (as did Mr. and Mrs. Weston who were nudged out of that position by Emma on the earlier globe). Emma may still be in the center of her universe, but she not only shares her position with Mr. Knightley, she also seems willing to relax the strict linear progression, which ensured her prominence. In addition, we can see that she is willing to add to her world. Frank and Jane find a place with Mrs. and Miss Bates while Mr. Elton is joined by his wife, and in keeping with the tone of the film rather than the novel, Harriet and Robert Martin are added to the picture. Emma’s circle has widened, and she grants worth to some regardless of class.

However, the picture on this globe is not entirely egalitarian. Class distinctions still persist. For instance, the images branching away from Emma and Mr. Knightley still move neatly from left to right according to class distinctions. They begin with Harriet and Robert Martin, move through the groups of Frank, Jane and the Misses Bates and Mr. and Mrs. Elton, and end with Mr. and Mrs. Weston. The linear movement is not quite as prominent as it was in the beginning of the film, but it still exists. Class distinctions may not be quite as strong in the case of Harriet and Robert Martin since friendship has allowed them a place on the globe, but status is certainly a factor in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Elton whose presence on the globe can be due only to their social position. Certainly, Emma no longer has feelings of friendship for either of them. In addition, we may once again be aware of everyone who is not allowed a place on Miss Woodhouse’s globe. While Emma’s circle has grown slightly, it still remains incredibly small, and we can now acknowledge that there is an entire world of Highbury that Emma is still able to ignore. The narrator reaffirms this for us when she returns and speaks of the "small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony."

The final image of the globe, then, allows this film to reaffirm the doubleness of the novel even without the decisive rejection of Harriet. By comparing the two globes, we can see that while Emma has learned several important lessons about snobbery and class, she is still fixed within a world where class distinctions remain important. While friendship may obscure the fact that Mrs. Weston was a governess, Mr. Weston made his fortune in trade, Mr. Martin is a farmer, and Harriet is illegitimate, it cannot completely overcome these distinctions; for ultimately, Miss Woodhouse still remains the center of this tiny world, and she decides who may inhabit it.


1 The narrator is not listed in the credits, so I cannot confirm that it is Greta Scacchi. However, the voice is so similar to hers that it might be mistaken for hers even if it is not.

Works Cited

Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1933. Kaplan, Deborah. "Mass Marketing Jane Austen: Men, Women, and Courtship in Two Film Adaptations." Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998. 177-87.
Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: UCP, 1961. Kettle, Arnold. An Introduction to the English Novel. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.
Dole, Carol M. "Austen, Class, and the American Market." Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed.Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1998. 58-78. Lane, Anthony. "The Dumbing of Emma." The New Yorker. 5 Aug. 1996: 76-7.
Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994. Maslin, Janet. "So Gentle, So Scheming, So Austen." Review of Emma. New York Times. 2 Aug. 1996: C1.
Emma. Writer and director Douglas McGrath. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Miramax, 1996. Parker, Mark. "The End of Emma: Drawing the Boundaries of Class in Austen." Journal of English and Germanic Philosophy. 91 (1992): 344-59.

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