when I think about Jane Austen’s Emma, and about what so affects me in this novel besides the sheer mental exuberance of its main character, I come to the plot. Jane Austen tells a great story. One reason I know that Austen was particularly fond of Emma, apart from her own explicit statement that “Emma is a character whom no one but myself will much like,” is that she made Emma so much like herself. Emma Woodhouse and Jane Austen are both imaginists, both storytellers about other people’s lives. Moreover, Austen certainly did not write a story in which Emma was required to give up her creativity, to see her clouds of glory, in Wordsworth’s phrase, fade into the light of common day. Near the end of the story Emma can still claim persuasively that she always deserves the best treatment because she never puts up with any other. The resolution to Austen’s plot does offer her beloved creation and fellow creator only the best treatment, which does not include having to give up her imagination. The real difference between the author and her flawed but fabulous heroine is that Austen tells a better story than Emma. And part of what’s better is Austen’s more inventive, and less conventional, vision of romance.
It is one of the great triumphs of Emma, the novel, that it is a love story about a young woman and the man who has lived next door to her for all of her life, in which for most of the narrative, and certainly for all the years that they have been neighbors before the story opens, neither of them even notice that they have any such feeling for each other. She’s a spoiled girl, he’s been a fond but critical family friend. The families have been close, her sister even married his brother. My daughter, who is 12, has yet to have the pleasure of reading Austen’s novels. You can see this lack in the oh-so-skeptical reply she offered a few days ago to a new friend of hers who asked her if she thought a certain boy was really cool. “Did you know, he wouldn’t take off his snow boots for all of the second grade.” Mr. Knightley and Emma would have known all about each other’s habits in snowboots. And they still fell in love.
Austen holds our attention for most of the story with Emma’s love plots, her speculations and machinations for other people. And we are riveted by it all. Then, near the end, Austen suddenly waltzes the romance between Mr. Knightley and his lively young neighbor onto her narrative stage, effectively upstaging the little dramas Emma has spun. And almost as suddenly, we realize that we are looking at a far superior style of matchmaking to any of Emma’s inventions, that this is a much better kind of love story after all.
The plot of this novel is a tribute to everyday life, to the extraordinary richness of the world that is to be found in our very own neighborhoods, to the enormous potential for happiness that can be fulfilled by going no farther than right next door. I think one reason so many of us love this novel is that it celebrates the high possibilities, the real thrills, the enthusiastic creativity and even the “perfect happiness” to be found in the small worlds of ordinary life in which almost all of us live.
What I want to talk about today is what the novel does not celebrate: a commitment to, a belief in, the superiority, both moral and aesthetic, of remaining in our small worlds, of choosing the sedentary and the circumscribed—whether that choice is based on fear or on ego. We need to be wary of our own tendencies, as readers and imaginists ourselves, to romanticize, to look at Hartfield and Highbury as some sort of charming portrait of an idyllic rural life. I want to look at Emma and its relations to Austen’s other novels from what I am calling the perspective of geography. By that I simply mean where Austen’s heroines are located and the range of their locations, how much they move around.
On even the most literal level, readers of Austen’s novels know that her heroines usually do not stay in that “country village” Austen spoke of to Fanny, and often do not spend much time there at all. Let me just remind you of their mobility. Northanger Abbey, probably the earliest written of Austen’s published novels, which actually came out posthumously together with Persuasion, sports a heroine who is on the road for almost all of the novel. Catherine Morland is introduced to us in Chapter One, and the narrator moves quickly from her infancy through age ten to seventeen. So much for her home life. She leaves home on the very first page of Chapter Two, and is delighted to do so. As I am sure you all remember, the rest of the novel is Catherine in the public world of Bath and then as a houseguest at Northanger Abbey. Finally, in Chapter Twenty-Nine, eleven weeks after her departure and with just three chapters left in her story, Catherine quite reluctantly comes home.
Of Austen’s five other completed novels, three also begin with the heroine leaving home. At ten years old, Fanny Price is sent away from a nuclear family with too many children and too little money, to live with her relatives at Mansfield Park. She will never come home again, though she does return to Portsmouth for a visit when she is grown. Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion open with the heroines being literally forced out of their homes by the financial carelessness of their fathers, the Dashwood sisters when their father dies without leaving them any savings and their half-brother inherits their home, and Anne Elliot when the Elliot family must move to rented lodgings in order to pay their bills.
In other words, four out of six of Austen’s completed novels offer, as the opening move of their plots, the heroine leaving home. In the earliest, and I would say the simplest, plot of the four, seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland goes cheerfully off to begin her adventures at being an adult, and returns home briefly at the end of the book. The next three versions are darker and more complex. They open with acute financial problems which result in the heroine regretfully leaving home. All three stories introduce a heroine forced out of the familiar and into the greater world. Nor do they simply move to another place and stay there, though Fanny Price comes closest to this. The Dashwood sisters, driven off by the heirs to their estate, will stay in their rented Devonshire cottage for only a part of the narrative. They soon travel to London and later to yet another country estate, Cleveland, before returning at the end of the book to their cottage. While Anne Elliot is given a brief visit back to Kellynch Hall, most of her story takes place in other houses and villages and towns, at Uppercross and Lyme and Bath. And even in Northanger Abbey, though the narrator explicitly states at the outset that the Morlands were not “poor,” the heroine must leave her family behind and travel with a neighbor, in part because the largeness of her family makes it too expensive to make their own trip to Bath. Fanny Price may move around the least, but on the other hand her very entrance into the novel is as a child out of place, an exhausted “little girl [who] performed her long journey in safety.”
My point is that all this changing around hardly adds up to a stable, in the sense of settled and static, domestic universe as the geographic setting of Austen’s work. We can see clearly how Austen’s own reluctant move from Steventon to Bath after her father retired, and then, after he died, her years of social wandering with her mother, her sister Cassandra, and her friend Martha Lloyd before settling at Chawton, were the biographical basis for the mobile openings of Austen’s plots.
But biographical explanations are not enough. If we are intent upon claiming that Austen’s fiction offers representations of the narrow domestic sphere of upper class country females in regency England, we need to be very precise about where to locate that domestic sphere. In four of the six completed novels it is quite literally not to be found in the heroines’ homes. Instead, I would say that what interests Austen, the moment at which the lives of young women become interesting to her, is precisely the moment when they, whether by choice or by economic force, leave the protection, the safety, and the sheltering innocence of their homes. When they move, and thus become changeable, their stories can begin. And for three out of four (the exception being Fanny Price), the traveling will continue, as the novels, along with their heroines, shift from place to place. Their geography is the geography of England.
It is time for us to acknowledge how vexed Austen’s notion of home really is. And it is time for us to recognize just how often Austen’s heroines move around, how frequently they seem detached from any particular one spot that can be called home, how many places in England they visit, how very itinerant they can be. One major component of the domestic lives Austen creates for her heroines is their lack of domesticity, their wandering feet, the way they are drawn outward, however often reluctantly at first, away from their private and insufficient homes and toward a beckoning larger social world.
The extent to which Austen’s novels are infused with the social issues and public debates of Regency England, the myriad ways the novels take place in a public rather than in a private and domestic sphere, is not a new insight. Many readers of Austen’s work have studied the ways in which her novels examine such topical issues as the economics of marriage and the rights of women, the aesthetic movement and the improvement of estates, theaters and amateur theatricals in the Regency period, and the role of the Royal Navy in British imperial enterprise. One of the most useful recent books to place Austen’s work within the frame of the topics and issues which pervaded the public spaces of her age is Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England by Roger Sales. I found particularly exciting his discussion of the Regency obsession with invalidism, its links to ideas of leisure and consumption, and to the pervasive role of watering places in Regency society and in Austen’s work. Mobility was certainly commonplace for country gentry in Austen’s time. And the reasons for traveling are not hard to see. Given both the financial pressures to marry and the fashionable obsession with illness that Sales delineates, it was a kind of tourism which was virtually required of the men and women of Austen’s class.
But Austen does not always tell her stories through the convention of departures. Pride and Prejudice is one of two Austen novels in which the heroine does not begin her story by leaving home. Elizabeth Bennet spends a great deal of the narrative ensconced in the family estate at Longbourn. I make just two quick points about this. First, I am hardly claiming that Austen’s novels all have or should have the same pattern, but simply that a geographic range covering many locales around England is a central motif in Austen’s novels. My second point has probably already occurred to all of you. Elizabeth may live at Longbourn with her family for most of her story, but she does, of course, leave home during the novel, taking two crucially significant journeys. In the first, the visit to the parsonage at Hunsford, she receives Darcy’s marriage proposal and in the second, touring Derbyshire with the Gardiners, she sees Darcy on his home ground. Both trips are centrally important, operating as key moments in Elizabeth’s process of changing the ways she has looked at and evaluated the world around her. The insights gained on those journeys are high points of the education in perception which will lead to Elizabeth’s final journey: the move to marriage and to life at Pemberley.
And then there is Emma, the exception—as she would probably be pleased to hear—to all these patterns. It is hard to overstate the extent to which Emma does not move around, the narrowness of her physical sphere. She simply never goes anywhere. From the first page of her story to the last, Emma spends all her nights, and virtually all her days, comfortably in her own home. She does stroll the village and have dinner at the Westons. She attends a party at the Coles and a dance at the Crown, visits the estate adjoining Hartfield for the first time in many years, and even goes as far as Box Hill, for the first time in her life. That’s about it. Geographically speaking, Emma remains solidly in the neighborhood of her own home.
What are we to make of this relentless immobility? Well, not only did Austen repeatedly use plot patterns of moving away from home as ways of educating her heroines in her other novels, I would say that she also did so in Emma. Emma’s story, too, offers claims for the value of wider experience, of literal as well as perceptual movement out from the confines of self into the larger world. After all, this strikingly exceptional heroine is wrong for most of the novel, wrong in the personal and class snobbery that keeps her so geographically limited and wrong in the melodramatic conventionality of the romance stories she invents. The narrative point, surely, is that such stasis, and such certainty, are not particularly desirable. Emma should have left home, imaginatively if not literally, should have moved beyond the blindnesses attendant on her overly confined-life. She and her sister have been shaped by a father who is committed to being an invalid, committed, that is, to sustaining the degree of power and control made possible through refusing ever to move outward from the small boundaries of the world you personally rule. Mr. Woodhouse, that gentle tyrant, has taught Emma well, has assured her of her superiority in the little world they dominate and has, through his very inaction, encouraged her in the belief that the only way always to be first is never to leave home.
Emma can be read, then, as a novel about geography, an extended debate between the forces for stasis and the forces for movement out to the regions stretching beyond our domestic sphere, each side struggling to persuade the young woman with “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” to join their point of view.
The novel, after all, is full of movement, of repeated instances of traveling. With the exception of the Woodhouses and the Bates, no one seems to stand still. Since, through the narrative technique, we stand with Emma, we can only get reports about all the trips the other characters take. But those reports are almost continuous. Recollect that Frank Churchill seems to travel so much as to appear virtually adrift. As Mr. Knightley, suffering from stabs of jealousy, so sharply puts it, “‘He cannot want money—he cannot want leisure. We know, on the contrary, that he has so much of both, that he is glad to get rid of them at some of the idlest haunts in the kingdom. We hear of him for ever at some watering-place or other’”(146).
Frank’s conduct, in spite of Mr. Knightley’s rather sniping account of it, reminds us that covering a lot of territory is not really the point, that one can move around with no more purpose than self entertainment—a goal the sedentary Emma is herself far too familiar with. On the other hand, it was on one of those trips to a watering-place, Weymouth, that Frank was so blessed as to get to know Jane Fairfax well enough to become engaged to her, clearly the best thing that could have happened to him. Thinking about Frank suggests that whatever an active geographical sense may mean in one of Austen’s novels, that meaning is complex.
Yet not to move out to the world beyond Highbury is clearly a mistake, and probably an egotistical position to take. I want to emphasize how pervasive movement is in this story, how virtually everybody is doing it. Mr. Weston had traveled all over before settling at Randalls, both as a Captain in the militia and as a businessman. Jane Fairfax, of course, was orphaned as an infant, and in her third family before the age of nine. She has grown up traveling around with the Campbells, and her very presence in the story is as a temporary visitor whose next destination is unknown. Emma’s sister, Isabella Knightley, for all she shares her father’s fondness for the privileges and controls made possible by sickness and invalidism, does her share of traveling, not only living in London and visiting Highbury but even taking a vacation trip to the seaside. Mr. Knightley takes a sudden trip to London to avoid watching Emma flirt with Frank, a motive for travel in no way superior to Frank’s popping into London to buy a piano for Jane. Even Harriet can make a significant journey, accomplishing in London what she did not in Highbury: seeing the dentist and accepting the hand of farmer Martin. And surely one sign of the ways Emma has moved out from the self-centered vision which distorted her better understanding for so much of the novel is that her plan at the end is precisely to travel a little, for she and Mr. Knightley to take as their honeymoon “a fortnight’s absence in a tour to the sea-side”(483).
Clearly, then, leaving home, seeing something of a world beyond the neighborhood, is a major part of all of Austen’s novels, including even Emma. It was, after all, a major part of Austen’s own life. Geographic range, whether it took the form of trips to London, to Bath or Weymouth or Brighton, or to other family’s estates, was typical behavior for the leisured gentry of Austen’s time. One implication of this historical point is that one cannot define the domestic sphere, either in or out of Austen’s novels, as somehow isolated or retired or set apart from public life. In fact, the line between private and public life, unless we mean by public those activities which were explicitly restricted to men, such as serving in Parliament or being in the militia or the navy or riding in horse races, becomes harder and harder to draw.
If the domestic sphere, or private life, takes place not only in girls’ bedrooms or sitting rooms in their homes or in the back rooms of their dressmaker’s shop, but also in the drawing room and at dinner parties at a whole range of houses in various counties of England, and also at the theater or in shops and carriages or on the street or in public rooms, perhaps in London or Bath or Lyme or Portsmouth; then that sphere is surely the sphere where everyone lives, men as well as women, and not some separate women’s world. Austen’s novels are certainly focused on young women who come from the rural gentry, but even in her limited number of narratives these young women go almost everywhere. Her novels are not set so much in domestic spaces as in social spaces: all the places where men and women, whether relatives, friends, acquaintances or strangers, meet and make connections and live their lives.
Geography and Politics
Emma’s stasis, her geographic narrowness, is finally not sustainable either in the England in which Austen lived or in the England which she created. In terms of the plot, where the other characters often travel is precisely to Emma’s enclosed little sphere. The movement of the action is like wave after wave of increasingly less manageable invasions of what Emma had considered her own turf. Mr. Elton and Harriet are more or less locals, it is true. Then along come Jane and Frank, locals but surely from the larger world. And then Mrs. Elton, clamoring, often successfully, to take over Emma’s position as first. There is no place, not even Hartfield, protected from the claims, and the possibilities, of the larger world.
Most of us would agree that Austen’s visions of personal lives carry a political meaning. That meaning is usually discussed in terms of contemporary debates about women’s rights. Roger Sales has argued that “the detail about the travel arrangements in Emma, together with the way in which much of it highlights relationships between mobility and power, needs to be seen as an important part of a political argument about the positioning of women” (162). He suggests that mobility is a kind of opportunity not open to women as it is to men. I would also suggest, somewhat differently, that mobility can as easily represent lack of power. Jane Fairfax has mobility because she travels with a Colonel and his family, not because she has the economic right to control her own location. Without money, Jane must move around as others dictate, while her equally impoverished relatives, Miss and Mrs. Bates, can’t go anywhere. The narrative point is not that men have mobility and women don’t but that both settling down and moving around involve money, and the social independence that economic independence can bring.
But money is not the only issue here. The politics of Emma are concerned in many ways with the position of women, with their economic and their social constrictions and, most eloquently, with their future possibilities. Both the constrictions and the possibilities are presented in generational terms, in Austen’s insight that daughters are inheritors, and they may inherit a great many things besides an income. What they inherit adds a national dimension to Austen’s debate about the future of her heroines. The question of what young women can and should become, cast in terms of what the past has to offer them, turns out to include a perspective on England’s inheritances and possibilities as well.
A telling moment in Emma is when we are introduced to Jane’s “inheritance.” She is the daughter of a Lieutenant Fairfax who had died “in action abroad” (163), most plausibly in the Napoleonic Wars, her mother dying soon after and Jane left without financial or personal support. Jane’s parents, the fighting lieutenant and the widow dead of grief, represent the values and sacrifices of an England caught up for more than two decades in the Napoleonic Wars. Jane is one of the multitude of casualties from those Wars. By 1814, the year Austen wrote Emma, the Wars had been defining national values for years in terms of active aggression and suffering. Paralleling this military view the novel also offers a civilian version, a sketch of those who watched the wars from home, represented by Emma’s father. Mr. Woodhouse is as militant as any soldier in an invalidism which provides him with the victories possible through a policy of isolation. War without and a defensive isolationism based on fear, particularly fear of French invasion, within were the twin poles of British politics during the Napoleonic Wars. These are the two stances which the new generation received as a legacy of those wars. But in 1814, with Napoleon defeated and banished to Elba, peace looked possible at last. Fighting and isolationism looked like an inadequate inheritance, to shape a young woman or a nation.
The daughters who have inherited these legacies, Jane and Emma, must put them aside. Instead, they must forge a new form of relating to the larger public sphere, one which, I would say, can combine Jane’s mobility with Emma’s power to be creative. Jane, who has long since moved extensively in the larger world, will have restored, in extravagant measure, the one element the war had taken from her: the financial security to make her own decisions. And Emma will relinquish the false control inherent in living a confined life and join with Mr. Knightley to take a little trip out into the greater world. She will never become as far-ranging a traveler as Jane. Nor need she. For these new young women, and the new England they will help to make, all the chance for a future requires is the optimism to move outward and that right to make that choice themselves.
The joy of future peace which so animates this novel is seen in its hopes for young women’s new choices and its hopes for a new national identity. Emma’s personal move away from isolation without losing personal power also carries a possibility for England. The nation too needs to abandon attitudes of self-defensiveness, entrenched opinions and conservative identities, both about itself and about other nations. The novel argues for a personal politics of openness and expanding relationships. It argues for the possibilities, political as well as personal, international as well as domestic, in throwing off the protective insularity of the war years and engaging sympathetically with the ever interesting, ever expanding, wide wide world. That is the kind of geographic promise which Austen offers Emma, and which her novels are still offering to her readers.
And yet, and yet . . . , there remains something still to be said. Emma’s story is hardly a simple hymn to the charms as well as the virtues of engaging with the larger peacetime world of Regency England. In terms of the love story, it is hard to see any significant reason for leaving home if what home can offer is Mr. George Knightley cheerfully dropping by.
That is surely part of Austen’s point. Home is a wonderful place to be. But that was true at the very beginning of the novel, when Emma reigned at Hartfield, Mrs. Weston had just left to be married, and Mr. Knightley stopped by, bringing with him the affection of long years. Yet all this is not enough to bring Emma and Mr. Knightley together, for affection to be ignited into passion, or there would be no book to write. Both become aware of their love through jealousy, through thinking another might gain the heart of the person whom they had not even been aware they loved. They need Frank Churchill dashing around looking like such an appropriate beau, and Harriet finding romantic Mr. Knightley’s kindness in asking her to dance, then speaking her admiration for him. Austen’s radical argument is that for Emma and Mr. Knightley to find their happiness rural retirement is not enough. They need the help of the rest of the world.
Once a definition of home and of nation includes the imaginative geography required for women to acknowledge and then to participate in shaping a larger community, the way is cleared in Emma for the happy ending. This larger definition of home helps to explain the narrative function of one of the odder characters in this novel: the other brother, the doppelganger Knightley, John. George and John are presented as notably alike, but with a fundamental difference. John argues, without the gentleness of Mr. Woodhouse (with whom he has more in common than he knows), for the old ways. He represents a domestic tyranny which reads only as “folly”—“people’s not staying comfortably at home when they can” and announces with discomforting isolationist certainty that “‘I never dine with any body.’” John, of course, has chosen control, with the larger world as a threat and home as a safety zone. And part of what makes home so safe is the presence of a dependent woman. Isabella, his wife, is appropriately the sister whose conversations can be ignored and whose decisions can be made for her.
The difference between the two brothers is that George Knightley has long since learned the charms of “not staying comfortably at home when [he] can.” And thus he has come to love a far different kind of woman, a woman never loath to be first, a heroine who will never put up with being ignored and will never understand domesticity as keeping life cozy for a man. Mr. Knightley and Emma both, though he perhaps a little earlier than she, have come to appreciate not only themselves but also the life that lies outside their imaginations and their knowledge. And because they have, the two are capable of that beautifully liberated social and geographic solution to the problem of their romance: that as Emma’s husband, Mr. Knightley will leave his home, and move into hers.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1969.
Sales, Roger. Jane Austen and Representations of Regency England. London: Routledge, 1996.