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Mrs. Elton’s Pearls: Simulating Superiority in Jane Austen’s Emma

AS OBJECTS OF DISPLAY, PEARLS HAVE HISTORICALLY signaled aristocratic status, legitimized authority, and constituted visible assurances of the wearer’s personal worth.  Pearls have also traditionally signaled an array of positive attributes, including purity of soul, modesty, and the ideal woman.  Pearls depicted in royal portraiture of English queens demonstrated the sovereigns’ majestic excellence, or satirically represented luxurious excess.  In Emma, Mrs. Elton wears pearls as regalia of supremacy to elicit esteem from, and assert her delusion of superiority within, the social structure of Highbury, yet her pearls work against her to expose her futile attempts at elegance as she continually reveals herself to be the opposite.  The dissonance created when Mrs. Elton wears pearls but behaves inappropriately is further emphasized by her dictatorial treatment of Jane Fairfax, who does exemplify several symbolic attributes of pearls.  By giving Mrs. Elton pearls, Jane Austen dramatizes the generational gap in the cultural meanings of the gems and their shift from viable markers of nobility of birth towards emblems of extravagance.  In Emma, the pearls become evidence of the conspicuous consumption of an unrefined member of the nouveau riche mounting an incursion through her forward ways on the social codes and conventions of the established gentry and revealing contemporary social anxieties surrounding what Juliet McMaster calls “the assault on gentility of the new mercantile middle class” (119).  This paper will examine the social politics of pearls in Austen’s Emma to shed greater light on the novel’s concerns about the transgression of class boundaries in Regency England. 

Quen Charlotte

Queen Charlotte, with pearls in crown, clothing, and jewelry. Engraving by Thomas Frye (c. 1761-1800).
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
(Click on image to see larger version.)

Mrs. Elton asserts her assumed sovereignty over Highbury through her visual markers of wealth, an ostentation that garners her no friends among the discerning members of this country society.  Emma Woodhouse, in response to the new Mrs. Elton’s clear attempts to jostle for rank, observes her competitor to be a “‘little upstart, vulgar being’” with “‘airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery’” (279).  The less suspicious Miss Bates calls Mrs. Elton “‘[q]uite the queen of the evening’” (329) at the Crown ball, an apt description of her self-important, officious manner towards her “‘inferior’” (283), Jane Fairfax.  The ball presents this usurper queen with the opportunity to flaunt her position through dress, a preeminence she pointedly verbalizes to Jane: 

Nobody can think less of dress in general than I do—but upon such an occasion as this, when everybody’s eyes are so much upon me, and in compliment to the Westons—who I have no doubt are giving this ball chiefly to do me honour—I would not wish to be inferior to others.  And I see very few pearls in the room except mine.”  (324) 

In climaxing her effort to extract attention from her captive audience by calling attention to her preponderance of pearls, Mrs. Elton emphasizes their importance to her as markers of her superiority.  Her ornaments and conversation appear straight out of Jean Rouquet’s 1755 The Present State of the Arts in England

We try everything that is capable of procuring a little homage to our dear individual, even if it be extorted.  The brilliancy and value of jewels is one of the surest means of adding something to the importance of our being:  they proclaim us from afar; they extend, as it were, the limits of our existence.  (qtd. in Pointon, “Intriguing” 508) 

Mrs. Elton wears pearls to extort admiration from her Highbury “subjects,” and when Jane is not suitably complimentary, Mrs. Elton verbally reminds her of her supremacy.  She takes advantage of the “‘common politeness and good-breeding’” (E 280) of other characters, particularly Jane, to construct herself as the pearl-coated Queen of Highbury.

Austen’s depiction of Mrs. Elton and her pearls is one example of the relationship between the novel and a cultural controversy—the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century debate over the rise in status of members of the mercantile middle class based on wealth without merit.  The use of pearls and other gems to display pecuniary and royal power was an enduring tradition, but these significations were contested in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England in manners of taste and prodigality, constituting pearls and other jewels as sites of class conflict.  Mrs. Elton’s appropriation of pearls as an aristocratic symbol of worth places Emma in dialogue with cultural patterns of class status and its material markers.  I argue that Mrs. Elton uses her pearls as one mechanism for the display of her power and mobility within Highbury society and that her social disappointments reveal unresolved social conflicts as well as constraints upon the efforts of the merchant class to penetrate the upper echelons of nineteenth-century English society.

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth, with pearls in crown, clothing, and jewelry. Print by Crispin van de Passe (c. 1603-1604). Courtesy of The Folger Shakespeare Library. (Click on image to see larger version.) 

Historically, in many cultures, including ancient Rome and Elizabethan England, pearls were considered rare and the most prized of gems.  English women desired the pearls they wore to signify their nobility, and none so much as English queens.  Every Tudor, Stuart, and Hanoverian queen, from Mary Tudor to Queen Charlotte, is depicted with pearls in official paintings, constituting their predominance over their subjects through the spectacle and symbolism of the jewels—what Marcia Pointon calls “the semiotics of luxury” (“Intriguing” 503).  After all, “[t]he idea of royal femininity and that of jewelry appear to be inseparable.  A queen stripped of her jewels is no longer identifiable as separate and different from a common mortal” (493).  Royal portraits of Queen Elizabeth I are drenched in the iconography of pearls (Figure 2), resonating with her status as the Virgin Queen of England.  Her preference for pearls contributed to her posthumous label “the Pearl Queen,” and the early modern period in Europe became known as the Pearl Age in deference to the gems’ supreme popularity (Kunz and Stevenson 25).  The significance of pearls in queenly portraits was “hegemonic” in that it was “a set of meanings and values which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming” (Williams 1429).  In other words, the queens wore pearls because they were of royal blood, and they were of royal blood because they wore pearls. 

The continued rise of the merchant class in early modern England, however, meant that more people could afford pearls, making their distribution harder to control.  The threatened dilution of pearls’ symbolic significance contributed to Queen Elizabeth and her Parliament’s enacting sumptuary laws to curb the purchase and display of luxuries like pearls under the pretext of encouraging subjects to buy more useful items like horses.  The effect, however, was to preserve the visual differentiation between the classes and the hegemonic iconography of pearls and to reinforce the social hierarchy.  Although sumptuary laws were almost never enforced, because the nobility could not control everyone’s choices in purchases or attire, the royal portraiture indicates the continuing subscription to the aristocratic iconography of pearls in queenly superiority.

Gillray

“Temperance enjoying a frugal meal.”
Note Charlotte’s necklace and headgear.
Print by James Gillray, (c. 1792).
Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library, Yale. (Click on image to see larger version.)

The public recognized the royal excess of jewels, and pearls began to resonate with conflicting meanings of excellence and extravagance.  In the late-eighteenth-century political landscape of socioeconomic inequality and suspicion of monarchies, Queen Charlotte and George III were mocked both for their miserliness and love of money and for the queen’s excessive consumption of diamonds and pearls (“Intriguing” 510).  Charlotte was frequently depicted wearing her pearls in unflattering cartoons as these satires contest the gems as signifiers of royal excellence.  In Emma, Austen relies on this shift in pearl signification to present Mrs. Elton as a woman worthy of the caricaturists’ scorn.  Mrs. Elton adopts the royal cultural practice of a superfluity of pearls and points out her visible difference to Jane in order to accrue the civilities she feels are her due as Jane’s social superior. 

Mrs. Elton is not an aristocrat but a member of a demographic gaining dominance in England during the nineteenth century—the nouveau riche.  Emma, a member of the established gentry, contemplates Mr. Elton’s speedily acquired new bride, Augusta Hawkins, before her arrival in Highbury: 

What she was, must be uncertain; but who she was, might be found out; and setting aside the 10,000l. it did not appear that she was at all Harriet’s superior.  She brought no name, no blood, no alliance.  Miss Hawkins was the youngest of the two daughters of a Bristol—merchant, of course, he must be called; but, as the whole of the profits of his mercantile life appeared so very moderate, it was not unfair to guess the dignity of his line of trade had been very moderate also.  (183) 

Emma focuses on the fine gradations of social status before judging the character or manners of Mrs. Elton.  It is only after she meets Mrs. Elton that she thinks her “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill-bred” (281).  Mrs. Elton’s failure to gain the honest regard she desires (and attempts to extort through her finery) from important members of the Highbury gentry signals the novel’s discomfort with the fluidity of social positions in the new economic order following the industrial breakthroughs of the 1770’s and the fall of the aristocracy in France as well as in anticipation of the Industrial Revolution. 

The use of luxuries such as jewelry for purposes of social aspiration constitutes what Alistair Duckworth calls a “vicious use of riches” (90), implying moral inferiority in characters like Mrs. Elton.  Marcia Pointon argues that pearls and other gems “that had once communicated transcendent values . . . over distances of time and place ceased to have that capacity as they became debased by their use in public by the lower classes” (“Women” 26).  Their social resonance became muted.  Members of the peerage reacted against this democratization of jewelry and, by implication, the usurpation of gems as markers of superiority.  Works such as Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism (1762) “associate the acquisition of superb and gorgeous things with an appetite for superiority and respect inflamed by riches” (Pointon, “Women” 24).  Articulating a moral economy of possessions and appearances, women’s etiquette manuals of the early nineteenth century cautioned women against wearing excessive jewelry or other finery in order to maintain propriety, decorum, and civility (“Women” 12).  Mrs. Elton’s assertion of her social power through her pearls therefore represents her vulgarity and questionable morality, thus representing a negative consequence of social mobility based on wealth in Austen’s England. 

As members of the nobility chastised their inferiors for the overuse of jewelry, and the monarchy held fast to the iconography of pearls, various eighteenth-century texts revealed a “widespread identification with jewelry as a signifying system understood to be universal—and timeless” (Pointon, “Intriguing” 508).  Ironically, women’s scrupulous and subtle use of pearls was emblematic of the gems’ status as signifiers of “purity, innocence, humility, and a retiring spirit” (Kunz and Stevenson 304), symbolizing the ideal woman.  Neither signification of pearls—royal superiority nor modest humility—works for Mrs. Elton.  As a member of the mercantile class, Mrs. Elton misuses pearls to extort deference from her Highbury neighbors, an illustration of “deploy[ing] material goods on behalf of a political agenda” that is ultimately unsuccessful (Brown 9).

Austen’s characterization of Emma’s vulgar, self-appointed sovereign parallels her portrayal of the Pearl Queen, Elizabeth, in her farcical The History of England, written in 1791 when Austen was fifteen.  She describes Elizabeth as “that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society” (MW 144), much as a reader might imagine Emma, in one of her unguarded moments, describing Mrs. Elton.  The correspondences between the two works become even stronger in consideration of the relationships between the “queens”—Elizabeth and Mrs. Elton—and their “subjects”—Mary, Queen of Scots, and Jane Fairfax.  As she tries to force Jane to take a position as governess, Mrs. Elton’s officious delusion of superiority can almost be defined as iniquity.  In parallel, Queen Elizabeth, Austen writes, was “the destroyer of all comfort, the deceitful Betrayer of trust reposed in her” by her cousin Mary (144), who “had every reason to expect Assistance & Protection” (145) from Elizabeth when she was in trouble.  Instead, Elizabeth’s “wicked” (144) and illegitimate rule brought “this amiable Woman to an untimely, unmerited, and scandalous Death” (145).  In her illustrations for her sister’s writing, Cassandra Austen highlights the discrepancy in Elizabeth’s and Mary’s moral qualities, manners, and social power:  Elizabeth is caricatured as unattractive and appears to have a large pearl dangling from her breast.  The same illustrations could be used to represent Mrs. Elton and Jane Fairfax.  Austen’s two works, separated though they are in time and maturity, create a connection between the wearing of pearls and questionable, even tyrannical, behavior.

Queens Elizabeth and Mary

Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Jane Austen’s The History of England, illustrated by Cassandra Austen (c. 1791).  © The British Library Board, Add.59874, f86.

Although Mrs. Elton does not have Jane murdered, she very nearly destroys her autonomy.  Jane is a financially dependent woman from a good family without living parents, and to avoid the poverty of her aunt, Miss Bates, she must make the “life-defining choice between selling herself in the marriage market or the governess trade” (Hall).  Mrs. Elton notices Jane’s beauty and skill in music, yet she never regards her as having any marital prospects; instead, she becomes Jane’s overly active patroness, attempting to bring “‘her magnificent intentions’” (289) to fruition.  A governess job for Jane is preferable to Mrs. Elton because, if Jane were to marry, her economic status could rise above Mrs. Elton’s, whom she already surpasses in manners and beauty.  Mrs. Elton likes Jane because, despite her elegance and beauty, she is lower on the social ladder than the rich vicar’s wife.  After leaving her wealthy friends, the Campbells, Jane, according to Mrs. Elton, 

“is now in such retirement, such obscurity, so thrown away.—. . . And I think she feels it.  I am sure she does.  She is very timid and silent. . . . I like her the better for it.  I must confess it is a recommendation to me.  I am a great advocate of timidity—and I am sure one does not often meet with it.—But in those who are at all inferior, it is extremely prepossessing.  (283) 

In short, Mrs. Elton prefers Jane’s inferior position and polite deference to Emma’s wealth, silent snubs, and affronting disagreement. 

Mrs. Elton’s imperial behavior towards Jane begins in earnest during the party at Hartfield when she, as authoritarian and “elegant as lace and pearls could make her” (292), insists on having her servant bring Jane her mail under the auspices of maintaining Jane’s health.  In reality, it is more a show of Mrs. Elton’s social superiority.  Her officious patronage infantilizes Jane, painting her as a child incapable of making her own decisions, and therefore encroaches on her autonomy.  She fails to bend Jane to her will, though, and thus brushes up against the limits of her social power.  Mrs. Elton’s attempt to restrict Jane’s movements parallels the villainous Queen Elizabeth’s imprisonment of the innocent Mary.  Both “subjects,” in Austen’s narrations, should have been able to trust their supposedly noble superiors. 

Mrs. Elton’s efforts to suppress Jane socially culminate in her determination to help Jane find work as a governess.  She professes to be Jane’s friend, insisting that she is affected by what she considered to be Jane’s pitiable situation (282) and vowing to do everything in her power to help.  However, Mrs. Elton’s altruism is suspicious because of her denigration of Mrs. Weston on the ground that she was formerly Emma’s governess.  Mrs. Elton tells the astonished Emma, “‘Having understood as much, I was rather astonished to find her so very lady-like!  But she really is quite the gentlewoman’” (278).  Her own impolitic manner, social prejudice against governesses, and doubts as to their gentility cast her later charitable intentions into doubt as she pushes Jane toward what she herself considers a degrading social position.  She looks down on genteel working women and elevates herself by comparison.  Mrs. Elton also uses her social power over Jane to negotiate her relationship with Emma, the reigning “queen” of Highbury.  After Emma expresses doubt about Jane’s need of assistance, Mrs. Elton corrects her, constructing an imaginary unity with Emma in both financial resources and social standing in Highbury, regaling her with their similarities.  Mrs. Elton’s proposed philanthropic “guidance” (284) is rebuffed by Emma, along with the suggestion that she and Emma are equals.  Mrs. Elton’s plans for Jane are both a reaction to Emma’s social rejection and a form of vengeance intended to display Mrs. Elton’s superior social influence.  Her meddling in Jane’s affairs is, in fact, a parody of Emma’s interference in Harriet Smith’s life, but whereas Emma evolves throughout the novel and realizes her mistake in pursuing the self-gratifying task of finding Harriet an eligible husband, Mrs. Elton attempts to force Jane into paid servitude in order to keep her in a lower social station and to flaunt her social advantage to Emma. 

The confrontation between Mrs. Elton’s tyranny and Jane’s polite opposition intensifies when Mrs. Elton tries to coerce Jane into agreeing to look for governess positions immediately.  This coercion is colored by immorality because of the Hawkinses’ association with slavery and the association of pearls with forced labor.  In response to Mrs. Elton’s pressure, Jane replies, “‘There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—Offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect’” (300).  Mrs. Elton then reveals her anxiety about her place of origin, Bristol, a port city important in the English slave trade, and her family’s possible involvement with it (White 52):  “‘You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition’” (300).  Given Mrs. Elton’s Bristol connections and her maiden name, Hawkins, Jane Austen’s contemporary readers would have made the association with the sixteenth-century Sir John Hawkins, the first successful British slave trader (Deforest). 

Mrs. Elton’s pearls are also a possible link to slavery:  in the early nineteenth century, most pearls in England were imported from its colonies, including parts of the Arabian Peninsula and also Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).  In the case of Ceylon, the colonizers exploited its people and pearl fisheries, exhausting the latter within decades (Kunz and Stevenson 29-30).  It is therefore reasonable to assume that Mrs. Elton’s pearls were derived from forced labor or exploitation, further marking her self-assumed authority over Jane, semiotically represented by the pearls, as iniquitous.  Jane responds by stating that “‘governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies’” (300-01).  Jane clearly equates the loss of autonomy and equality inherent in the paid servitude of a governess as well as the “mortification” (300) of working for members of one’s own class, to slavery.  However, her implication is lost on the cheerfully forceful Mrs. Elton, who continues to be “quite serious” about finding Jane a governess post.  Without acknowledging Jane’s desires or wishes, Mrs. Elton relishes her social power to find Jane a proper “‘situation’” (300).  Her social power over Jane is instilled by riches possibly derived through the depravity of the slave trade.  Thus her use of pearls to exert this power illuminates her relationship to Jane as that between a slave-trader and a slave, or between a villainous queen and her subject.

Pearls can represent the modest humility and grace of the ideal woman and in their material reality constitute a luminous and layered subtlety.  In opposition to Mrs. Elton, Jane Fairfax emulates the symbolic and material qualities of pearls. This contrast highlights the novel’s protest against equating financial wealth to social superiority and its validation of internal worth instead.  Mrs. Elton’s naked materialism and obvious insufferability belie the symbolic alignment between her and her pearls.  Emma’s opinion of the only known wearer of pearls in the novel is “that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar” (272).  Mrs. Elton is rather more like gaudy costume jewelry—visually assaulting people with her finery, annoying them with her self-congratulatory loquacity, and giving herself undeserved airs of social authority over the will of others.  This slippage of the pearl’s ability to signify Mrs. Elton’s character is supported by Edward Copeland’s reading of Emma, which argues that “consumer signs are often false and misleading” and that characters should instead be judged by “the ‘real’ signs of social behavior” (138).  Copeland insists that Austen’s novel is a reaction to “major social change, fuelled in some degree by the very goods . . . that set themselves up as signs of social truth” (138). 

In contrast to Mrs. Elton’s transparency, the beautiful and accomplished Jane is presented as a mystery in the novel, like the opacity of pearls.  Soon after Jane arrives in Highbury, Emma chafes at her “coldness and reserve” (166).  Although Mr. Knightley says, “‘What arises from discretion must be honoured’” (171), Emma continues to suspect “‘such extreme and perpetual cautiousness of word and manner’” (203).  Even Jane’s complexion resembles that of a pearl.  She is “‘naturally so pale,’” “‘certainly never brilliant,’” and “‘there was a softness and delicacy in her skin which gave peculiar elegance to the character of her face’” (199), like the natural iridescent smoothness of pearls.  In addition to her “excellent education” (164), Jane Fairfax is intrinsically elegant.  She is the true pearl of the novel. 

Mrs. Elton’s pearls are symbols of societal anxiety over the blurring of class boundaries with the rise of the merchant class.  In Austen’s nuanced distinctions among the middling classes, and their representative characters’ negotiations, failures and successes in staking out their relative ranks, Emma constitutes an utterance in the system of class discourse.  The contested signification of pearls as authorizing social power or representing luxury in excess is one example of the “antagonistic dialogue of class voices” (Jameson 1834) with their “irreconcilable demands and differences” (1833) in the novel.  The pearls are an example of “tradition-annihilating effects of the spread of a money and market economy, with the changing cast of characters” who are continually in opposition (1830).  The end of the novel rewards Jane and Emma for their sincerely good manners, indicative of their excellence of heart, with marriage to their desired mates.  Upon hearing a description of Emma’s wedding, Mrs. Elton “thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.—‘Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business!’” (484).  She may have her pearls, lace, and so many servants she cannot remember their names, but she has been rejected from attendance at the wedding ceremony, rejected from particular friendships with the Highbury elites, and completely displaced as the self-appointed queen of Highbury.  Emma therefore questions social class and power based on wealth, particularly in the absence of higher qualities of mind and manners.

Works Cited
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