Persuasions #13, 1991                                                                                                                             Pages 69-81


What a Biographer can learn about

Jane Austen from Emma



Department of English, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA 02167


Forty years ago Orville Prescott said: “The nice thing about Jane Austen is the quality of the people who like her. They all are intelligent, attractive people.”1  I find it embarrassing, therefore, to confess to this attractive, intelligent audience, that, as a biographer who went to Emma to learn more about Jane Austen, the first thing I learned was that Jane Austen could, at times, be as wrongheaded as her heroine.  I allude, naturally, to the statement she made when she began writing Emma – “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”2  If that was her set purpose, why, I ask you, a hundred and seventy-five years hence, have four hundred people converged on Ottawa to celebrate the happy inspiration that gave existence to Emma Woodhouse?  I know of only one reader who tried conscientiously to take Jane Austen at her word – John Henry Newman.  But he, too, in time, capitulated.  After repeated readings of Emma, he owned: “Emma … is the most interesting to me of all her heroines.  I feel kind to her whenever I think of her.”  Newman appears to have made a trade to arrive at this state of adulation, for he adds: “that other woman, Fairfax, is a dolt – but I like Emma.”3  Such discriminating judgement could not go unrewarded.  Nor has it.  Current report has it that next year Newman will be canonized.  Emma’s own canonization will, in all likelihood, soon follow, for Lord David Cecil has told us that Emma belongs in the “final circle of the paradise of fiction.”4

Bertrand Russell, recipient in 1950 of the Nobel Prize for Literature, once observed: “No woman’s intellect is really good enough to give me pleasure as intellect.”  Recalling Lord Russell’s words later A.L. Rowse remarked: “It would give me pleasure to have Bertie described by the feeble intellect of Jane Austen.”5  Since, with this remark, Rowse has, in effect, flung down the gauntlet, it behoves us now to ask who this woman was whom he does not hesitate to thrust into contention with the author of Principles of Mathematics.  One way to draw nearer to an answer to this question is to examine those aspects of Jane Austen’s works which are self-revelatory.  Since Emma is, by common assent, the pinnacle of Jane Austen’s art, surely it is here we have most to learn.

At the outset of our labors, however, bearing in mind Tony Tanner’s caution that in Emma Jane Austen speaks to us in a “rather elusive authorial voice,”6 we concede that our course is strewn with hazards.  Graham Hough, indeed, detects “several narrative voices” in Austen.  One of the voices Hough hears is “that of the narrator as an individual woman … sensible, sometimes tart, and frequently amused.”  This woman is “permitted to be sharp and lively and also right.”  Now that sounds like it could be Jane Austen.  But that is far from certain because, as Hough reminds us, “when the characters are sharp and lively they are often slightly wrong.”  He also hears another voice that seems to be “talking on behalf of society, or Dr. Johnson, or God.”7  So the confusion grows.

If we cannot count on Jane Austen speaking to us in propria persona, where do we go next?  Wayne Booth lets in a scintilla of light when he says that while Jane Austen “does not talk about her qualities … we are seldom allowed to forget about her for all that.”  The scintilla broadens even as Booth goes on:


When we read [Emma] … we accept her [Jane Austen] as representing everything we admire most.  She is as generous and wise as Knightley; in fact, she is a shade more penetrating in her judgement.  She is as subtle and witty as Emma would like to think herself ….  She is, in short, a perfect human being … she even recognizes that human perfection of the kind she exemplifies, is not quite attainable in real life.8


On the presumption that we have grounded ourselves beforehand in the literary, cultural, intellectual, and social history of Austen’s era, we find ourselves beholden next to examine those aspects of her life, thought, and achievement which grant us some measure of access to her.  These are extensive.  They include her ancestry, family ties, social standing, reading, travels, religious convictions, social concerns, and awareness of the world around her.

Since scrupulous examination of Emma discloses the presence in it of allusions to, or borrowings from, thirty-five works, the productions of thirty-one authors, we must limit ourselves here, in deference to the stringencies of time, to a few, hitherto unnoticed, possible sources.  In Mary Brunton’s Discipline we find an apparent pattern for Mr. Knightley’s courtship.  Mr. Maitland, Ellen Percy’s father’s friend, is, at thirty-four, twice Ellen’s age.  He has tender feelings toward her and counsels her, no easy task since she is capricious and wilful.  His love undeclared, he has trouble hiding his jealousy when a callow suitor appears on the scene.  Ellen’s follies persist.  Thus far the plot parallels that of Emma.  But now Maitland tells Ellen he is going abroad.  Only then does she realize that she loves him.  “I started,” she relates, “as though a dart had pierced me.”  Could this phrase have been the genesis of Emma’s arrow passage?  – “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”  Probably not.  Discipline and Emma were published the same year.  Moreover, unlike Emma, Ellen gets no second chance.  Maitland sails away leaving her to a hard fate.9

In Mrs. Thrale’s letters to Dr. Johnson, a book we know Jane Austen read, we find a pattern for Mr. Knightley’s remark to Emma: “I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it.”10  When Hester Thrale told Johnson, “I have had my share of scolding from you,” he replied, “It is true, you have, but you have borne it like an angel, and you have been the better for it.”11

In Thomas Clarkson’s History of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, read by Jane Austen with such pleasure she told Cassandra that she had fallen in love with Clarkson, we find a passage that may throw light on Austen’s inference that Augusta Hawkins’s family may owe a measure of its affluence to the slave trade.  The English slave trade, Clarkson reports, was inaugurated, contrary to the avowed wishes of the crown, by a man quite as determined to have his way as is the resolute Mrs. Elton – Captain John Hawkins!12

Where did Jane Austen find the surnames for the inhabitants of Highbury?  Through her mother’s kinswoman, Winifred Leigh, she was blood kin to John Churchill, first duke of Marlborough.  Family histories prepared by her relatives, Lady Chandos and Mary Leigh, were well known to the Austens.13  Here Jane would have found that her great-great grandmother (grandmother of the first duke of Chandos), was Emma Charlton; that she had a great aunt Serle (name of the Woodhouse’s cook!); that family baptisms were carried out by a Dr. Smallridge.  Mrs. Elton has a friend, Mrs. Cooper.  Mrs. Austen’s sister was Mrs. Cooper.  But now on to a much more significant tie.

In Persuasion, Sir Walter Elliot deplores Frederick Wentworth’s lack of a connection with “the Strafford family,” that is, the family of Thomas Wentworth, the renowned Earl of Strafford.  Jane Austen herself, was, in fact, related to the Strafford family.  Through her mother she was, even as Thomas Wentworth was, directly descended from Joan Beaufort, granddaughter of Edward III, and from Ralph Neville, first earl of Westmoreland.  Let it be remembered, moreover, that in July 1628, Charles I created Thomas Wentworth, Baron Wentworth of Wentworth-Woodhouse!  What is more, on the failure of the male line (a circumstance no doubt given an assist when Strafford was beheaded), Thomas’s daughter Anne married Edward, second Lord Rockingham, the Wentworth-Woodhouse title then passing to Rockingham.  In time, Rockingham’s daughter, Eleanor Wentworth-Woodhouse, married Thomas, second Lord Leigh.  Eleanor and Thomas thus were the great grandparents of Jane Austen’s cousins, Edward, fifth Lord Leigh, and his sister Mary Leigh of Stoneleigh Abbey, some of whose jewels (presumably Wentworth-Woodhouse heirlooms), were given to Mrs. Austen, Cassandra, and Jane when Mary Leigh died in 1806.  So Jane Austen was twice over connected to the Wentworth-Woodhouses!  Sir Walter take notice!

Chapman, in a buried note in the last index of the Austen letters, points to the likelihood that Mrs. and Miss ‘Molly’ Milles of Canterbury were the originals of Mrs. and Miss Bates.  Miss Milles, whom Jane Austen had had under observation at least since August 1805,14 was a great talker and “so foolishly minute,” Jane says she had to suppress the desire to laugh at her.15  She admired the mother, though, “because she is chearful [sic] & grateful for what she is at the age of 90 & upwards.”16  Is it by chance that in the same letter that contains the above remark, Jane tells Cassandra, “Mrs. Britton called here on Saturday.  I never saw her before.  She is a large, ungenteel Woman, with self-satisfied & would-be elegant manners.”17  Is this our first glimpse of Mrs. Elton?  It was on her return from this same visit to Kent, it will be recalled, that Jane began writing Emma.

As for Harriet, well, we can hardly forget that Fanny Knight, Jane’s niece, once treasured a shaving rag once used by Mr. Plumtre – the immediate inspiration for Harriet’s preservation of Mr. Elton’s court plaister and pencil stub.  Two letters Jane wrote to Fanny, concerning her want of decision about her amorous attachments, were written in 1814 and find Jane cast as counsellor to a veritable Harriet.18

What of Mr. Woodhouse?  Well, his fears concerning snowy roads were not idle.  In November 1811, Humphrey Repton (who landscaped Stoneleigh Abbey), while returning from a ball to which he had escorted his daughters, was crippled for life when his coach overturned on a snowy road.19  For myself I am tempted to believe the foundation of Mr. Woodhouse’s valetudinarianism was laid during his college years.  Did not Parson Woodforde, one of the great diarists of the eighteenth century, who was at Oxford just about the era when Henry Woodhouse would have been there, report, on 5 July 1774, “Mr. Woodhouse, a gent: Com: of University College was very drunk at the Theatre and cascaded [vomited] in the middle of the theatre.”?20  When we recall Alice Chandler’s documentation showing that Mr. Woodhouse’s favorite verse, “Kitty, a Fair but Frozen Maid,” was actually an obscene lyric,21 need we say more?  Yet this is the man of whom A.C. Bradley wrote: “Mr. Woodhouse is … next to Don Quixote, perhaps the most perfect gentleman in fiction.”22  Compensation is not without its rewards.

Dare we suggest that Jane Austen herself was Emma?  Emma is one of the few characters she ever described.  The description given is of herself: “Such an eye! – the true hazle eye – and so brilliant! regular features, open countenance, with a complexion! oh! what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure.  There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance.”23

At one point Emma says of herself: “If other children are at all like what I remember to have been myself, I should think five times the amount of what I have yet heard named as a salary on such occasions [i.e. for a governess’s pay], dearly earned.”24  Thus might Jane Austen have spoken of her own behavior in childhood.  In fact, on a rainy Sunday morning, at Southampton, in early February 1807, Jane took care of Kitty, the nine year old daughter of Admiral Foote.  At the time, she wrote Cassandra: “She is a nice, natural, openhearted, affectionate girl, with all the ready civility which one sees in the best Children in the present day; –so unlike anything that I was myself at her age, that I am often all astonishment & shame.”25

Remarking on “the quality of intimacy” that readers usually feel with Emma, Lionel Trilling speculated that it derives from “Jane Austen’s own closeness to her heroine.”26  Tomlinson is of the same mind.  Austen has succumbed to “self-identification” in creating Emma:  “Emma is a projection of some part of herself.”27  Q.E. Leavis sees Emma as Austen’s attempt to understand herself better and, consequently, to be a better person.  “Isn’t it suggestive,” she says, “that Emma, the heroine who is most thoroughly chastened … closely resembles her author ….  The self-criticism, based on the conviction of the primary importance of achieving self-knowledge, humility, and generosity of mind, is what makes the Jane Austen irony so different from … that of the literature … of our age ….  Her values are moral in the sense of being spiritual ….”28

Was Highbury a place Jane Austen knew?  Since it is given, in fact, a more precise geographical location than any other fictional place in the novels, we feel sure we could locate it on a map.  Yet Chapman says no actual English town meets in location those geographical specifications.  Still, candidates continue to be put forward – most recently, Chawton, by Oliver MacDonagh.29  A passing reference in the novel to Cobham has mustered advocates for that town.30  We now know, however, that in a letter he wrote to Lord Arthur Russell, 21 October 1869, James Edward Austen-Leigh said his aunt Jane told him Highbury is Leatherhead, Surrey.  In 1918, Mary Trebeck, a native of Leatherhead, made out the best case for this locale.  In 1814, in strawberry season, Jane visited her godfather, Reverend Samuel Cooke, at Great Bookham, close by Leatherhead.  Trebeck cites these facts: the pulpit at Leatherhead Church was the gift of a Mr. Knightley.  The names Martin, Otway, and Dixon are those most common in the Parish Registers.  Church House, a young ladies school, such as Miss Goddard’s was, was situated at Leatherhead.  A local estate, the “Priory,” is like Donwell, just twenty minutes walk from Leatherhead.  At Leatherhead there was an estate actually called Randalls.  Another, Thornecroft, answers to the location of Hartfield.  Rooms like the Bateses, above a shop, were found at such a location.  The road that passed that site did periodically flood just as Robert Martin said it did.  An inn, the Swan, offered a model for the Crown.31  Jane Austen knew Leatherhead.  Deirdre LeFaye conjectures that the 1814 visit, undertaken after work on Emma was well advanced, was a field trip taken so the author could fix Leatherhead more fully in her mind.32

Finally, while discussing locations, let us not forget Mr. Elton’s ambuscade at Bath where he staged what might be described as his color-coded courtship.  There was, we hear, the “dinner at Mr. Green’s and the party at Mrs. Brown’s” for which Elton sallied forth from his rooms at the White Hart for the wooing that ended in a swirl of white satin.33  The White Hart was just the place to choose for such a campaign.  On 28 June 1793, the diarist Parson Woodforde noted: “About 10 o’clock this Evening, thank God, we got safe and well to Bath to the White Hart Inn, where we supped & slept – a very noble Inn.”34  Four months later, on 11 October, he further recorded: “We got to Bath … about six o’clock this Evening, to the White Hart in Stall Street, kept by one Pickwick, where we drank Tea, supped and slept, a very good, very capital Inn, everything in stile.”35  In other words, exactly the habitat for a man laying his snares to catch an heiress.  Jane Austen knew the White Hart well.  In Persuasion, the Musgroves are accommodated there in an elegant suite.36

Chapman long ago surmised that Jane Austen hid in her works many jests that could be relished only by family members.  Some of these we have noted in passing, the use of family names, Fanny’s veneration of Mr. Plumtre’s shaving rag.  There are others in Emma.  Was it not a jest to give the name Goddard to the headmistress of a mediocre girl’s school when Jane’s nephews were attending Winchester College where Dr. William Stanley Goddard had long presided as headmaster?37  Was it not a jest to put two Alderney cows in Robert Martin’s pasture when Mrs. Austen had prided herself in owning just such a pair of bovines?38  Many other such touches will elude us but certainly the most interesting one concerning Emma is found in a letter Jane wrote to Cassandra in November 1800.  There she passed along tittle-tattle about the rumored matrimonial plans of Sir Thomas Williams, the widower whose late wife had been their cousin, Jane Cooper.  In the letter is “a palimpsest of the heroine’s name and the opening sentence of Emma” – “The young lady whom it is suspected that Sir Thomas is to marry, is Miss Emma Wabshaw [Wapshare]: – she … is handsome, accomplished, amiable, & everything but rich.”39  The rumor was not unfounded.  Sir Thomas did marry his Emma.  How singular that this sentence lingered more than a dozen years in Jane Austen’s mind to re-emerge, remolded, to stand as one of the most celebrated opening sentences in all of English literature.

Others as well as Trilling have remarked on Emma’s quality of intimacy.  Tanner detects in it, in keeping with its restricted scope, a “reclusive tendency.”40  Indeed, in Emma Jane Austen seems to retreat into cosiness, taking shelter in the snug wisdom of the epigram – a full six dozen of them.  There is a possible way for accounting for this snugness.  In Emma no physical detail is discussed as much as the weather.  There is a good reason for that.  The winter of 1814 was one of the fiercest in a hundred years.  The three letters written to Cassandra by Jane Austen that winter tell of “cruel weather,” snowstorms, frost, unrelenting cold, “Thickness & Sleet,” hazardous roads.  “Getting out is impossible,” Jane wrote and when she did get out she at once caught cold.41  Often in her letters Jane Austen speaks of the pleasure she took being snug indoors warmed by a good fire.  It takes no feat of the imagination to see her, in that frigid winter of 1814, sequestered in a snug corner, taking advantage of the isolation the weather mandated and writing steadily away.  To that winter Highbury may owe the quasi-familial cosiness of its inhabitants, to say nothing of Jane Fairfax’s wet stockings.  Coming out of the confinement it enjoined may have seemed to Jane Austen an experience akin to the ordeal of childbirth and so she suggests in a letter to her niece Anna who, while she had Emma, had had Jemima: “As I wish very much to see your Jemima, I am sure you will like to see my Emma ….”42

Jane Austen’s detractors allege that she showed no awareness of the political, economic, and social issues paramount to her era.  Emma, however, shows us that, without the stridency others displayed, she committed herself amply and sensibly on many of the issues raised by both the political and social revolutions going on in her day – and that includes gender issues, class conflict, and the Jacobin insurgence.  Her handling of class conflicts in Emma can best be understood when it is remembered that her longstanding partiality to Georgian drama, a genre anchored on class differences, was the determining factor that made her give a comedy of manners understructure to all of her novels.  Class-oriented concerns touched on in Emma are mercenary marriage, new wealth generated by commerce, social affectation, clandestine alliances, social games, parental tyranny, irresponsible privilege, social climbing, youthful defiance, and the tradition of happy endings in marriage with everyone paired off with a member of their own class.  Even the Eltons deserve one another.  Most assuredly they do!

In Emma it is through her portrayal of Frank Churchill that Jane Austen quietly repudiates the social dogma of the Jacobin insurgence.  It is, of course, Frank’s frenchified manners and attitudes that give Mr. Knightley the excuse to despise him.  Even his hint of side whiskers could betoken republican convictions.  In due time such a man might put himself in opposition to the existing order and the traditional values on which it was founded.  Frank lacked English sincerity.  Mr. Knightley targets this superficiality when he disputes Emma’s description of Frank as “amiable.”  “No, Emma, your amiable young man can be amiable only in French, not in English ….  he can have no English delicacy toward the feelings of other people: nothing really amiable about him.”43  Previous to making this statement, Mr. Knightley characterized Churchill’s frenchness by charging him with want of “vigor and resolution,” by charging him with having recourse to “manoeuvering and finessing,” classic French terms suggesting guile.  Early in their acquaintance, Emma, without prejudice, remarks Frank’s “indifference to a confusion of rank.”  Later she brings in a bill of particulars – “extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad,” and further tasks him with “a system of hyprocrisy and deceit, – espionage and treachery ….”44 – the very traits that marked out, to the English conservative, the Jacobin adherent.45  At Donwell, Churchill extravagantly asserts (and this in wartime, too!), “I am sick of England – and would leave it to-morrow, if I could.”46  This speech scores no points with Emma.  Moments before, walking about the disciplined grounds of the abbey, with Mr. Weston, she had found the stability she was seeking: “It was a sweet view – sweet to the eye and the mind.  English verdure, English culture, English comfort, seen under a sun bright, without being oppressive.”47  The irresponsible, carefree freedom of Frank Churchill, when contrasted with the reasonable, English conservatism of Mr. Knightley was perceived to be devoid of substance.  Emma knew then whose values to trust.

Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen’s grandniece, boasted that “No admixture of …  foreign blood appears in the pedigree of the Austens.”48  We must not suppose, on that account, that the francophobia of Emma was rooted in racial bias.  Jane Austen knew her Leigh heritage too well for that.  Through the marriage of the first Lord Chandos to Elizabeth de Grey, Jane Austen was descended directly from two sons of Henry III, two of the children of Edward I, two of the sons of Edward III, and, therefore, counted among her own French forebears, Charlemagne, King Louis IV, Charles, Duke of Louvain, Henry II, Count of Brabant, as well as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabelle of Angoulême, Eleanor of Provence, Blanche of Artois, Isabeau of France, Philippa of Hainault, Gilbert deClare, John deBurgh, and Maud Plantagenet.49

Tracking the chronology of Emma, Jo Modert determined that the Donwell visit takes place on Midsummer Eve, the Box Hill outing on Midsummer (a time when, traditionally, young people discover whom they will marry), and that Mr. Knightley proposed on Old Midsummer.  There is yet more manipulation of dates in Emma, this time in keeping with the liturgical calendar – Mr. Elton proposes on Christmas Eve: Emma extols Harriet on Childermas, the Feast of the Holy Innocents; Frank Churchill’s pianoforté is delivered to Jane Fairfax on Valentine’s Day; Frank tries to confess his duplicity to Emma on Shrove Tuesday.50  Though it should not surprise us that the daughter of a clergyman should be mindful of the various stages of the church year, it behoves us to weigh this factor in a larger context.

In Mansfield Park Edmund Bertram says that “the most valuable knowledge” we can have is “the knowledge of ourselves and our duty.”51  There, apparently, he stated what Jane Austen took to be the proper goal of all of us.  Not only in Emma, but in all of her novels, striving to establish criteria of sound judgement and right conduct, she shows a Johnsonian interest in moral growth.  Now what does this tell us about Jane Austen?  Q.E. Leavis sums up in these terms:


We see the marks, over and over again, in the Jane Austen novels, of a fastidious nature, a fine spirit and a keen sense of honor and of value for integrity …. her heroines … ultimately criticize themselves for lacking humility, generosity, self-knowledge, qualities which always turn out to be what Jane Austen considers the most essential.  Jane Austen is a moralist … whose moral values are not theoretical or conventional but proceed from self-scrutiny.52


Emma’s lack of humility leads her into folly but it is not an ingrained flaw and the damage it does is not irrevocable.  Her tender regard for her father, good will toward Harriet, dutiful concern for the poor, all attest that she is not incorrigible.  To whom, then, can she look for the moral instruction she needs?  Certainly not to Mr. Elton.  Elton is a failed Christian – materialistic, ambitious, greedy, self-serving, uncharitable.  His only recorded charity has been his willingness to let Mrs. Bates sit in his pew, the pew which she had occupied for many years when her husband was vicar of Highbury.

From the outset of Emma, Mr. Knightley is set before us as an exemplar of the Christian hero in the Grandisonian tradition.  After riding from London sixteen miles on horseback he immediately sets out on foot, at night, to walk a mile to Hartfield to console the Woodhouses who he knows will be engaged in a “forlorn tête-à-tête” mourning the loss of Miss Taylor, married that day to Mr. Weston.  Knightley’s unobtrusive charity is ever before us.  He watches over and counsels Emma; he gives his supply of apples to the Bateses; he puts his carriage on the road to assure them transportation on a winter night; he dances with Harriet after Elton spurns her; he masterminds the reconciliation of Harriet and Robert Martin; and, ultimately, even relinquishes the comforts of his own home to bring Mr. Woodhouse the reassurance of his presence.  As a sower of harmony only Sir Charles Grandison surpasses him.  “Mystery, Finesse” – Knightley says to Emma, “how they pervert the understanding!  My Emma, does not every thing serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all our dealings with each other?”53  When Emma says, much later, “I love every thing that is decided and open!”,54 we know that Knightley’s precepts and example have prevailed.  Her eyes have been opened and now she can think for herself and, as a consequence, has attained true humanity.  Emma’s realization that she has been blind is the climactic moment of her moral development.  With Emma’s awakening Jane Austen personally endorses those qualities – humility, generosity of mind, and self-knowledge – which Q.E. Leavis says she considered “the most essential.”

The first sixty pages of Emma touch upon the economic and social circumstances of a score of women.  It should not surprise us, therefore, to learn that Emma leaves untouched few of the issues relevant to the situation of women who moved in that segment of early nineteenth century society which Jane Austen knew best.  Although the terms we use to discuss those issues today – female consciousness, female solidarity, feminist affirmation, the imperatives of propriety, the ambience of equality, the demystification of the male – were unknown to her, the concerns they signify were, in some measure, brought into the open by the questions she asked.  “Most of what we learn by asking the questions raised by feminist criticism,” says Wayne Booth, “leave [s] Jane Austen looking perhaps even greater than she did before.”  Indeed, he concedes, she was “by all odds the most perceptive portrayer of women’s fate of her time … a kind of founding mother of feminist criticism.”55  Jane Austen’s goal was not to persuade others that women were the equals of men.  What she wanted understood was that woman’s inferior state was not ascribable to biological reasons but a direct result of the social role men assigned to women.  Women were educated not for adult life but for getting married.  Emphasis was on accomplishments to be displayed during the period of courtship.  Once marriage had been achieved these accomplishments were obsolescent.  Miss Goddard’s school, where Harriet received her formation, inculcated, it is to be assumed, the standard courtship skills.  In Jane Austen’s mind the superior seminaries for young ladies, the “female Etons,” did not answer either.  At such a school, one gathers, Mrs. Elton acquired the art of coquetry, her obsession with dress and ornament, and her fund of affectation.  Jane Austen wanted women to be intelligently educated.  She deplored a world in which women were expected to hide their knowledge and their cleverness.

In Emma, as one of her many concerns, Jane Austen takes up society’s culpability in imposing economic restraints on women.  Society had so arranged matters that sons alone inherited.  Since daughters received no practical education the only career open to them was marriage.  If a dowry was lacking, even that option rarely came their way.  The unattached middle-class woman for whom no provision had been made, was in a lamentable situation.  Jane Austen well knew that since she was one of them.  That had been Miss Taylor’s lot before her marriage.  Mr. Knightley sums it up candidly: “Emma … knows how very acceptable it must be at Miss Taylor’s time of life to be settled in a home of her own, and how important to her to be secure of a comfortable provision ….”56  Mercenary marriage was yet another evil of this era.  Even a woman with a comfortable dowry was not truly secure.  Mr. Elton wants Emma’s wealth more than he wants Emma.  She understands this perfectly: “He only wanted to aggrandize and enrich himself; and if Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield, the heiress of thirty thousand pounds, were not quite so easily obtained as he had fancied, he would soon try for Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten.”57  And so he does.

Jane Austen saw that women often acted against their own interests or those of other women.  Isabella Knightley is described as “a model of right female happiness” and so she is by Biblical reckoning.  She submits her will to her husband, thinks as he does, accommodates herself to his habits and temper, and does his bidding.  So submissive is she, she does not even realize she lives with a man who has a bad temper.58  To Jane Austen Isabella falls far short of ideal womanhood.  Still less appealing to her were such invertebrates as Harriet Smith.  Touched at one point by Harriet’s tenderness of heart, Emma says, “I would not change you for the clearest-headed, longest-sighted, best judging female breathing.”59  This enumeration renders to the reader a useful service.  Even as it calls attention to Harriet’s intellectual shortcomings, it tells us what qualities Jane Austen thought a woman should have.

On one occasion Mrs. Elton says: “I always take the part of my own sex ….  I always stand up for women ….60  On another, she finds it “quite one of the evils of matrimony” that wives have to leave their homes for those of their husbands.61  Later, of course, she lodges the sole protest when Mr. Knightley forsakes Donwell Abbey to live with Emma.62  She speaks of Elton as “my Lord and Master,”63 but is rapidly making him over in her own image.  Her manifestos are self-promotional.  A fraudulent feminist, she is no more an asset to the feminist cause than she is to her husband.

Women in executive roles appear several times in Austen novels.  None is commended.  In Emma it is Mrs. Churchill’s role and she abuses it.  She is an upstart, we learn, who gained through marriage a station in life she had not been educated to occupy.  The failure is society’s because it had failed to prepare women to carry such responsibilities as might fall to their lot.

Jane Austen did not want women to be mindless, spineless, or tyrannical.  She disliked pseudo-feminists and women who denigrated their sex.  She conceded that a man could be a maturing force in a woman’s life.  Conversely, she thought a woman could be a maturing force in a man’s life and believed further that it was not degrading for a man to be raised to a higher level of understanding by a woman.

Common assent has it that Jane Austen’s most convincingly masculine heroes are the two she created last.  Here Mr. Knightley is our topic.  In him Jane Austen singles out those traits she found best befitting a representative of true manhood – a mind alert, decided, and prompt to act; a manner downright and authoritative; vigor and resolution; integrity – strict adherence to truth and principles; an open temper; disdain of trick and littleness; eschewal of ceremony.  She allows, nonetheless, for human failings.  Of Mr. Knightley’s jealousy of Frank Churchill, A.C. Bradley wrote: “[for Jane Austen] that is not only the way a man is made, but the way he should be made.”64  Finally we come to the quality which Mr. Knightley possessed in abundance but which is found lacking in Frank Churchill – “English delicacy toward the feelings of others.”65  This quality encompasses most of Mr. Knightley’s noble deeds but, most especially, it includes that capacity that disposes a man to put greater value on a woman’s mind than he puts on her physical attributes.  Mr. Knightley’s solicitude for Emma’s intellect was unceasing.

Jane Austen knew that the existing social fabric aggravated the differences between men and women, but she would like to have lived in a world in which men and women respected one another’s intellects, and, in doing so, reached their full potential as rational beings.  This becomes possible for Emma and Mr. Knightley only when they attain awareness of their love for one another in that scene which furnishes the novel a climax which is, at one and the same time, emotional, moral, and intellectual.  At the start of that scene both principals are mistaken about the other’s feelings.  With tender grace, however, each is able to put aside self-interest to think of the other’s need.  Knightley is willing to be silent, at Emma’s bidding.  Emma is willing to hear Knightley declare that his heart is given elsewhere.”66  Throughout the novel Emma’s integrity has never been in doubt.  What has been lacking in her has been a capacity for humility, generosity, and self-knowledge.  How fitting then that it should be her rational decision, arrived at humbly, unselfishly, and freely, that makes it possible for Mr. Knightley to speak, and, as a consequence, for their love for one another to become known.  It is then that Jane Austen makes known to us what true womanhood, true manhood, and true humanity meant to her, and, in so doing, shares with us the fullness of her own peerless humanity.





1  Orville Prescott, Jan Struther, and Lyman Bryson.  “Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice,” Invitation to Learning, ed. George Crothers (New York, 1951), p. 429.


2   James Edward Austen-Leigh, A Memoir of Jane Austen (London, 1870), p. 148.


3   Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford, 1988), p. 138.


4   Lord David Cecil, Early Victorian Novelists (London, 1935), p. 52.


5  A.L. Rowse, “Lady Ottoline’s Vanished World,” in Portraits and Views: Literary and Historical (London, 1979), pp. 204-205.


6    Tony Tanner, Jane Austen (Cambridge, MA., 1986), p. 200.


7   quoted in Frederick M. Keener, The Chain of Becoming (New York, 1983), pp. 273-274.


8  Wayne C. Booth, “Control of Distance in Jane Austen’s Emma,” in The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago, 1983), pp. 264-265.


9   Mary Brunton, Discipline (London, 1986), pp. 54ff, 141, 163, The Novels of Jane Austen, ed. R.W. Chapman, 3rd ed. (Oxford, 1933), Emma, 408.  All further references to Jane Austen’s novels are to the volumes in this edition.


10   Emma, p. 430.


11  A. Hayward, ed. Autobiography, Letters, and Literary Remains of Mrs. Piozzi (London, 1861), I, 60.


12  Thomas Clarkson, Abolition of the African Slave Trade (London, 1808), I, 40-41.


13 C.H. Collins Baker, “Lady Chandos’ Register,” The Genealogists’ Magazine, 10:8 (December 1948), 255-264; 10:9 (March 1949), 299-309; 10:10 (June 1949), 339-352.  Agnes Leigh, “An Old Family History,” National Review, 49 (1907), 277-286.


14  Jane Austen’s Letters to her sister Cassandra and others, ed. R.W. Chapman, 2nd ed. (London, 1952), #45 (24 August 1805), 161.  Hereafter cited as L.


15  L, #89 (26 October  1813), 360-361.


16  L. #86 (11 October 1813), 342.


17  L, #86 (11 October 1813), 343.


18  L, #103 (18 November 1814), 103; Emma, pp. 338-340.  In Fanny Burney’s Cecilia, Henrietta Belfield also treasures relics of the object of her devotion (Bk. V, Ch. viii; Bk. X, Ch. iii); see E.E. Duncan-Jones, Notes and Queries, 196 (1951), 15.


19  Edward Hyams, Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton (New York,  1971), p. 206.


20  James Woodforde, The Diary of a Country Parson, 1758-1802 (London, 1949), pp. 96-97.


21  Alice Chandler, “ ‘A Pair of Fine Eyes’: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Sex,” Studies in the Novel, 7 (Spring 1975), 88-103.


22  A.C. Bradley, A Miscellany (London, 1929), p. 52.


23  Emma, p. 39.


24  Emma, p. 382.


25  L, #49 (8 February 1807), 179.


26  Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature (New York, 1965), p. 44.


27  Thomas Tomlinson, “Jane Austen’s Originality: Emma,The English Middle-Class Novel (London, 1976), pp. 33-34.


28  Collected Essays of Q.E. Leavis, ed. G. Singh (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 29-30.


29  Oliver MacDonagh, Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds (New Haven, 1991), 137-145.


30  Emma, p. 95; L. #92 (2 March 1814), 375-377.


31  Mary Trebeck, “Was Highbury Leatherhead?” TLS (13 June 1918), 276.


32  Anon.  “The Original of ‘Highbury’,” Collected Reports of the Jane Austen Society, 1966-1975 (Folkestone, 1977), pp. 60-61; William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh, Jane Austen: A Family Record, revised and enlarged by Deirdre Le Faye (Boston, 1989), p. 191.


33  Emma, pp. 182, 186.


34  Woodforde, p. 439.


35  Woodforde, p. 445.


36  Persuasion, p. 216.


37 James Sabben-Clare, Winchester College: After 600 Years, 1382-1982 (Southampton, 1981), pp. 35, 199, 200.


38  Emma, p. 27.


39 Joseph Kestner, “Two Letters of Jane Austen: The Writer as Emetteur/Recepteur,” Papers on Literature & Language 14, 254; L, #27, (20 November 1800), p. 92.


40  Tanner, p. 205.


41  L, #92 (2 March 1814), #93 (5 March 1814), #94 (9 March 1814), 375-386.


42  L, #124 (December 1815), 449.  Anna Jemima Lefroy was born 20 October 1815.


43  Emma, p. 149.


44  Emma, pp. 198, 205, 399.


45 Ward Hellstrom, “Francophobia in Emma,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 5 (1965), 607-617.


46  Emma, p. 365.


47  Emma, p. 360.


48  Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh, Personal Aspects of Jane Austen (London, 1920), p. 11.


49  Collins’s Peerage of England, ed. Sir Egerton Brydges (London, 1812), VI, 719-721; IX, 421.


50  Jo Modert, “Chronology within the Novels,” in The Jane Austen Companion, ed. J. David Grey et al (New York,  1986), 57-58.


51  Mansfield Park, p. 459.


52  Leavis, pp. 28-29.


53  Emma, p. 446.


54  Emma, p. 460.


55  Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley, 1988), p. 435.


56  Emma, p. 11.


57  Emma, p. 135.


58  Emma, pp. 140, 95, 121.


59  Emma, p. 269.


60  Emma, p. 306.


61  Emma, p. 273.


62  Emma, p. 469.


63  Emma, pp. 296, 455.


64  Bradley, p. 49.


65  Emma, p. 149.


66  Emma, pp. 429-430.

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