In “Comparison of the Mode of Female Education in the Last Age with that of the Present Age,” Hannah More, an English religious writer and moralist, writes: “The profession of ladies, to which the bent of their instruction should be turned, is that of daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families” (More 500). Such publications were ubiquitous on bookshelves during Austen’s lifetime and advocated the traditional view that successful matrimony and domestic felicity were the ends to a woman’s education. Alongside such literature, Emma was published. The portrayal of life in a conservative, pastoral setting, and kaleidoscopic breadth of social class, educational background and marital status among the female characters presents a social commentary on the inadequacies of the education women received. Against this rich backdrop, Austen redefines female education by arguing that a holistic form of learning such as Emma Woodhouse’s journey of auto-didacticism trumps a formal schooling which only aims to ensnare a useful marriage.
When establishing the background of Emma, Austen refers to a macrocosmic picture of the constraints imposed upon women’s education and prospects. The novel begins with an introduction to Emma and her neighbourhood in Highbury, where Austen brings attention to a modest, local school run by Mrs. Goddard. A “real, honest old-fashioned boarding-school . . . where girls [may] scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies,” the school is “in high repute, and very deservedly” (15). From the wry undertones of this praise, it is evident that Austen does not share this approval but is critical of the notion that immoderately accomplished ladies were “screwed out of health and into vanity” (15), thereby running the risk of repelling potential suitors. Far from being encouraged, the cultivation of a woman’s mind was dissuaded for a higher chance of marriage.
The plot of Emma revolves around newly consummated or anticipated matches because exclusively through engaging in courtship, and accepting or rejecting proposals, could a young woman play an active role in her own future. Their meagre education afforded them few prospects through which they could otherwise exert control over their own lives. Alternatively, women turned to trivial, everyday activities such as evening parties, tea-visits, and harmless gossip (14), strongly reflecting the monotony and stagnancy which dictated women’s lives. But there continues to be little need and few chances for a married woman to exercise her intellect and authority, as represented by Mrs. John Knightley. Her lack of “strong understanding or any quickness” in no way interferes with her being a “devoted wife [and] a doting mother” (68), namely “a model of right feminine happiness” (103). Only the events leading to matrimony opened a small window of opportunity for women to take charge of their destinies before they became trapped in yet another cage. Emma’s emphasis on women’s reliance on marriage to play as the “origin of change” (5) in their lives highlights how a deprived education had inhibited their social mobility.
Even among women, depending on their social and financial backgrounds, formal education carried varied implications, but ultimately all pointed to the same set of values. For Jane Fairfax, on account of “the very few hundred pounds which she inherited from her father making independence impossible,” her education is a necessary “means of respectable subsistence” (118) as she is forced to consider becoming a governess. Yet Jane’s situation is viewed a “penance and mortification” (119) to the extent that “governess-trade” becomes comparable to the slave-trade; the former is “widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on . . . but as to the greater misery of the victims, [Jane does] not know where it lies” (219). The miserable portrayal of a woman’s schooling that warranted financial independence and greater social mobility, instead of an idle married life, represents the misplacement of obligations incumbent on women and their education.
In contrast to Jane, Mrs. Elton is a gentlewoman “in possession of an independent fortune” (131) for whom her education is purely ornamental. “Accomplishments,” often involving musical and artistic skills, played a key part in a woman’s education by drawing admiration from viable suitors, but were usually dropped after marriage. Likewise, Mrs. Elton is “determined upon neglecting her music” since she begins “now to comprehend that a married woman has many things to call her attention” (201). Her education has failed to teach her the importance of self-improvement, whether or not it refers to music or “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant and ill-bred” (204) manner. Mrs. Elton, already “extremely well satisfied with herself” (197), is oblivious to the “familiar vulgarity” (210) with which she encroaches on social etiquette and unable to evolve from the “little upstart, vulgar being” (202) she is. Austen establishes Mrs. Elton as a comedic caricature to illustrate the shortcomings of an education that is reduced to a disposable marketing device.
Against the context of women’s lives and education in the period, the privileged and distinctive nature of Emma’s status stands out. Jane Fairfax’s hardships underscore Emma’s endowments which exempt her from “the usual inducements of women to marry”: fortune, employment and consequence (63). Emma additionally enjoys wielding a rare amount of dominance that no eligible suitor can offer. She adds, “I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield” (63). Since she has “very little intention of ever marrying at all,” Emma does not limit her education to furnishing useful “accomplishments,” as Mrs. Elton does, but pursues her interests freely by virtue of her “active, busy mind” (64). A young woman such as Emma who is bright and inquisitive, and delights in intellectual activity, is Austen’s rebuttal to society’s condemnation of an education that nurtures an appreciation of learning and growth in women.
Yet Austen does not hesitate to point out the shortcomings of Emma’s character and education. Due to her “disposition to think a little too well of herself” (3), Emma is reluctant to acknowledge and overcome her weaknesses. In her artistic endeavours, Emma always falls short of “[approaching] the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of” (32). Emma continues her wilful ignorance in front of others. When Knightley critiques that Emma had drawn Harriet too tall, Emma “[knows] that she had, but would not own it” (34). This chronic overestimation of her powers, added to her unique position of authority and independence, leads Emma to view herself a superior outsider to the social rituals and day-to-day events of Highbury, and proceed to impose her “kind designs” (18) on those around her. As her “errors of imagination” (250) cause her self-delusions to backfire, however, Emma is forced to take a hard look at her indiscretion and true feelings, and enters the three stages of her education.
Emma’s first major blunder and learning opportunity is a series of miscalculations regarding Harriet and Mr. Elton. Her “infatuation about [Harriet] blinds [her]” to Harriet’s limited “claims, either of birth, nature or education” (44), even prompting her to concoct new fancies such as that “[Harriet’s] father is . . . a gentleman of fortune” (45). With Mr. Elton, Emma is likewise “too eager and busy in her own previous conceptions and views to hear him impartially, or see him with clear vision” (81) and gladly mistakes him of “being in the fairest way of falling in love, if not in love already” (30), with Harriet. Emma gets so carried away by her egotistic imagination that she “actually [talks] poor Harriet into being very much attached to [Mr. Elton]” (101). Yet when Mr. Elton professes his love not for Miss Smith, but for Miss Woodhouse, Emma’s grand scheme reveals itself to be an “overthrow of everything she had been wishing for” (98).
Shocked into disillusionment, Emma realises “how much truer a knowledge of [Mr. Elton’s] character had been there shown than any she had reached herself” (99), and reflects on her irresponsibility, taking to heart that “to take so active a part in bringing any two people together . . . [is] adventuring too far [and] assuming too much” (100). But what mortifies Emma more than anything, and thus drives her to such a resolution, is the pain and humiliation she brings upon Harriet, more so than her own oversight. Emma “would gladly have submitted to feel yet . . . more disgraced by misjudgement than she actually was could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself” (98). Her repentance owes to her natural charity, which proves to be an asset to her education by providing further incentive to be more “humble and discreet” (100), and allows Emma to take from this experience a more accurate assessment of her limitations and external reality.
Though she now “[knows] the limitations of her own powers” (165), Emma’s misunderstanding of Jane Fairfax shows that Emma still holds pretensions to keen insight, marking the second development of her education. Even before Jane enters the stage, Emma’s animosity towards Jane is clear, which Knightley explains is “because [Emma sees] in [Jane] the really accomplished young woman which she wanted to be thought herself,” but an “accusation” Emma has “eagerly refuted” (120). Nevertheless, partly out of contempt and partly out of vain satisfaction from Frank Churchill’s “permitted, encouraged attentions” (315), Emma spins a new “mischievous” (121) drama using her “abominable suspicions of [Jane’s] improper attachment to Mr. Dixon” (307).
Yet long before Emma’s fanciful theories are disproved by the truth of Jane and Frank’s private engagement, Emma shows a markedly improved level of sensibility since her previous humiliation. “[D]etermined not to utter a word that should hurt Jane Fairfax’s feelings,” Emma abstains from probing Jane with “an inquiry or two, as to the expedition and expense of the Irish mails” (217) that Emma suspects were from Mr. Dixon. This display of consideration and self-restraint indicates Emma’s graduation from childish impulsivity to mature discipline. When Emma realises her misjudgement, similar to how she had felt with Harriet, she falls into deep remorse over having “made a subject of material distress to the delicacy of Jane's feelings” (307). This second blow to Emma’s conscience cements her understanding of her imprudence, causing her to finally acknowledge “the envious feelings which had certainly been, in some measure, the cause” of her “not having sought a closer acquaintance with [Jane]” (307). Already, Emma is beginning to show a consciousness of her habitual indiscreetness, and continues to gain a greater depth of self-insight by coming to terms with some undeniable, albeit unpleasant, feelings.
The development of Emma’s budding self-awareness is completed by Mr. Knightley’s role as Emma’s mentor, rounding up the third stage of her personal growth. As “one of the few people who [can] see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever [tells] her of them” (7), Mr. Knightley has always spoken for Emma’s conscience. Hence, Mr. Knightley’s words dwell powerfully within Emma, most notably during his stern reproof of her for callously insulting Miss Bates at the Box Hill party. Emma is “most forcibly struck” by his reprimand and finds her voice of conscience awakened: “How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued!” (274). Moreover, Emma’s subsequent despair of having possibly lowered Mr. Knightley’s esteem of herself points to her dependence on his sound perception, while hinting that Emma may be holding Mr. Knightley dear to herself more than she realises.
Emma grasps that she is indeed in love with Mr. Knightley when the thought that “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself” (297) hits her. Considering Mr. Knightley’s ability to incite a part of Emma deep within her but which is often eclipsed by ambition and imagination, it is natural that a full recognition of “the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself” (300) should supersede her realisation of her romantic feelings for him. The feeling of “wretchedness” (300) that overwhelms Emma as she reflects back on all her past mischiefs with a “clearness which had never blessed her before” (297) acts as a form of catharsis. Through self-reconciliation, Emma is soon redeemed from her pain. In this climatic finale, Austen proves that education can not only come from within, but also from the outward influences of interpersonal relationships.
Furthermore, contrary to society’s low expectations of women who displayed their intellect and knowledge, Emma’s love for Mr. Knightley is reciprocated and their marriage happily draws the novel to a close. In fact, it is her quick-wittedness and vivacity that has “brought [Emma] in brilliancy before him” (315). Yet Emma Woodhouse does not just marry. Instead of relocating to her husband’s dwellings, by “marrying and continuing at Hartfield” (328), Emma maintains a large portion of her valuable independence. By defying the 18th century moralists’ views on educated women and marrying, yet living together with her husband at her own home, Emma both breaks and supports tradition, and her marriage marks a shift in traditional gender roles within education and matrimony.
By acquiring wisdom and maturity, and marrying while holding the power to choose between relocating to her husband’s residence or daring to break tradition by staying at Hartfield, Emma Woodhouse debunks the social precept that any sort of cultivation of a woman’s understanding is detrimental to her character and prospects of finding a husband. As opposed to one that systematically trained women into set roles and stifled growth, Austen argues for an alternative vision of female education: a comprehensive and dynamic process that acquires self-knowledge and engenders development.