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Education as Social Currency in Jane Austen’s Emma

“A man would always wish to give a woman a better home than the one he takes her from; and he who can do it, where there is no doubt of her regard, must, I think, be the happiest of mortals.”
                                                                                                                  —Austen (401)

Jane Austen’s Emma can be viewed as a subjective case study on marriage. While the marriage of her hero, Emma Woodhouse, is most prominent, it is only one in several marriages that Austen presents; the Westons, the Eltons, the Churchills, the Knightleys, and the Martins are the five couples joined in matrimony throughout the course of the novel. Emma’s marriage to George Knightley, her equal in both high wealth and prestigious family background, is consistent with a common societal view at the time—that one should only marry another whose social status is similar to his or her own—but the husbands and wives of the other four couples are less matched in their social standings prior to marriage. In fact, the sole similarity of the five pairings is that no husband-wife pair is matched in level of education. Evidently, Austen is prioritizing a different metric in determining the suitability of her characters’ spouses. Austen thus presents the ideal marriage as a teacher-pupil relationship, in which one partner can only complement the other by helping him or her to grow intellectually.

A great irony of the story being revealed mostly through Emma’s perspective is that she believes herself to be cleverer than she is, going so far as to name Harriet Smith as her protégé. As R. E. Hughes explains, “The underlying theme of this novel is the education of Emma Woodhouse, and the recurrent irony is that Emma, who must become pupil, insists on acting as teacher” (70). However, despite Emma’s feelings of intellectual superiority to Harriet, Emma should not be perceived as being better educated than Harriet is. The incompleteness of Emma’s education is established from the very first pages of the novel. Though she had been under the care of a governess, Mrs. Weston, for sixteen years, Austen notes that Mrs. Weston had been “less of a governess than a friend” to Emma: “the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away” (Austen 1). As the role of the governess is to be responsible for the education of those under her care, Mrs. Weston’s inability to appropriately assume that role implies that Emma was not able to receive a proper education under Mrs. Weston. In contrast, Harriet has been living as a parlour-boarder at Mrs. Goddard’s school, allowing herself to be shaped by Mrs. Goddard’s teaching: “She had been satisfied to hear and believe just what Mrs. Goddard chose to tell her” (Austen 27). Unlike Mrs. Weston, who had failed to be an authority figure to Emma, Mrs. Goddard has successfully realized her role as educator by being able to exert influence on Harriet. While factors other than education may have influenced Emma’s superior intelligence, Emma, in never having been taught, is clearly not in a position to try to teach another who has already been influenced by another’s principles. Emma’s incomplete education not only makes her an inadequate mentor to Harriet, but also is the reason she must marry Mr. Knightley as opposed to Frank Churchill.

Emma considers Mr. Knightley and Frank as potential husband candidates, chiefly because she views them to be the only two available men whose social standing is equal to hers. However, Mr. Knightley describes Frank as “boyish” (Austen 417), indicating a lack of maturity. Emma also inadvertently realizes Frank’s immaturity; she thinks of him as Frank instead of as Mr. Churchill, despite calling the other single men (Mr. Elton and Mr. Knightley) by their formal titles. Thus, he is unsuitable as a match for Emma; both he and Emma must marry someone who can teach them what they missed the opportunity to learn earlier in life. Frank’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax is perfect in this sense. Jane had planned to work as a governess if not for the eventual confirmation of their marriage, making it reasonable that she should be competent as teacher as well as wife to Frank. By similar logic, Emma also needs to marry someone who can be her teacher. She thus ends up marrying Mr. Knightley, who “was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (Austen 12). Their marriage is meaningful because Emma, in realizing her incompetency in teaching another, will finally be receiving the education that she is lacking. In anticipation of their wedding, Mr. Knightley asks Emma to start calling him by the less formal “George,” but Emma cannot agree to this: “‘I remember once calling you ‘George’ . . . because I thought it would offend you; but, as you made no objection, I never did it again.’” Here, Emma references an event from her childhood in which she attempted to diminish Mr. Knightley’s authority, as she did Mrs. Weston’s, but discovered that she did not have the power to do so. Her voluntary decision to continue addressing him by the formal “Mr. Knightley” suggests that Mr. Knightley’s role as her teacher trumps his role as her husband and lover. In both marriages, fulfillment of a necessary teacher-pupil relationship is more important than societal convention. Jane’s social standing is inferior to Frank’s, and Mr. Knightley breaks convention by choosing to live with the Woodhouses instead of bringing Emma to his home. That such expectations of society in regard to marriage can be overlooked suggests that Austen is prioritizing the need for education over the commonplace societal standards of that time.

The idea of marriage as a teacher-pupil relationship is also present in the marriages formed between supporting characters. The marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Weston is one such union. When Mr. Knightley states that Mrs. Weston is “very fit for a wife, but not at all for a governess” (Austen 36), the idea that her current role as wife contrasts with her former role as governess suggests that as a wife, she has assumed the role of pupil to her husband, who “had received a good education” (Austen 16) and is thus capable of being her teacher. In addition, though Harriet may have received a better education than has Emma, it appears the quality of her education is in want. Mrs. Goddard’s school is described as a place “where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price” (Austen 22), suggesting room for its former pupils to achieve continued educational growth. In this sense, the “intelligent” Robert Martin (Austen 61), whose compositions are deemed as gentlemanly by even his most vocal critic, Emma (Austen 50), is a suitable teacher and marriage partner for Harriet. The remaining marriage to be addressed, that of Mr. and Mrs. Elton, is notable as the only relationship in which the wife comes from a higher social class than that of her husband. However, as a vicar, Mr. Elton has completed at least the minimum education of the church, which makes him better educated than Mrs. Elton, whose “manners . . . had been formed in a bad school” (Austen 253). Again, the unconventional nature of their marriage is another example of Austen allowing the differences in their educational level rather than the dissimilarities in their social classes to determine their pairing. Indeed, the necessity of the teacher-pupil relationship in marriage seems to trump love, social class, or any other factors that might explain the nature of this novel’s five marriages.

However, Austen’s insistence on this dichotomous model of marriage does not mean she is promoting it, or that she believes that it is the best way to choose a compatible marriage partner. Emma, in observing Mr. and Mrs. Elton’s marriage, notes that Mrs. Elton’s ignorance and unpleasant manners make it inevitable that “her society would certainly do Mr. Elton no good” (Austen 253). Though, as the pupil of the relationship, Mrs. Elton may benefit from having Mr. Elton as her husband, Emma sees something wrong in Mr. Elton not being able to gain some non-superficial benefit from his marriage as well. Emma, also sees that Frank’s shortcomings are not solely a matter of his level of education, upon learning of Frank’s deceitful scheme that caused pain to Jane during their engagement:

So unlike what a man should be!—None of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life. (Austen 373)

Frank’s questionable, immoral behavior during his engagement to Jane suggests the possibility of his being able to repeat such improper behavior after their marriage, in which case their union may have negative consequences for her. In contrast to these two couples, in which the teacher-figure seems to derive no meaningful benefit from marriage, the happiness and perfect love of Mr. and Mrs. Weston in their marriage is symbolized by the birth of their first child together (Austen 437). Mrs. Weston, the pupil-figure in this relationship, is of exemplary character, “a friend and companion such as few possessed, intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle” (Austen 8). Unlike Frank or Mrs. Elton, whose questionable behaviors suggest they are capable of doing harm to their teacher-figure spouses in marriage, there is no reason for Mr. Weston to be negatively affected by his marriage to Mrs. Weston. As such, Austen suggests that the only true formula for choosing a marriage partner should be based in character and morals. Though two characters may be drawn together through the necessity of one complementing the other’s education, the issue of compatibility is more concerned with the moral character of the pupil—whether the pupil is accepting of his or her need to be taught.

The emphasis on education and learning within romantic relationships shapes the matches made throughout the novel; however, Austen’s use of the teacher-pupil marriage model applied deliberately to each couple serves to highlight the even greater importance of the pupil being of high moral character. Furthermore, she shows that Emma’s matchmaking skills are not as misguided as they appear. Mr. and Mrs. Weston, the only couple that Emma successfully brought together, are shown to be happy and in love, while Mr. Elton and Frank, whom she had tried to match with Harriet, seem not to be in marriages that guarantee equal benefit for both husband and wife. Though Emma’s naivety is the reason for her failed matchmaking, her untainted view of love is what ultimately allows her to be the best judge of compatibility.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Fiona Stafford. London: Penguin, 2015. Print.
  • Hughes, R. E.. “The Education of Emma Woodhouse.”  Nineteenth-Century Fiction 16.1 (1961): 69–74. Web.
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