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Education in Emma: The Development and Dethroning of the Highbury Queen

In many of Jane Austen’s novels, the education of the main characters is often mentioned—Elizabeth Bennet’s lack of a governess in Pride and Prejudice, for example, or Lucy Steele’s bad education in Sense and Sensibility—but rarely does it take such prominence as it does in Austen’s delightful comedy of errors, Emma. The novel opens with a review of Emma’s early education, and throughout the book, the effects of her education are under frequent scrutiny. But it is not until Emma receives instruction from someone other than her governess that all conflict in the novel resolves. This emphasis on Emma Woodhouse’s education plays an enormous role in shaping Emma as a novel. It fleshes out the formation of Emma’s personality, moves the plot in intriguing directions, and helps emphasize the patriarchal view of women prevalent in Regency-era England.

Emma opens with a description of the titular character’s academic background. At first glance, this discussion seems necessary only to introduce an important plot point—the marriage of Emma’s governess, Mrs. Weston (neé Taylor). This brief introduction of Emma’s schooling also establishes what sort of adult she had become through Miss Taylor’s teaching. Though hired as a disciplinary replacement for the deceased Mrs. Woodhouse, Miss Taylor was less a strict mistress of learning than a soft-hearted older sister to Emma.  This relationship is conveyed through the way the two women interact. Over and again, Emma and her former governess refer to each other in such sisterly terms as “friend and companion” (4), “dear friend” (396), and “my love” (421). Though heart-warming, this easy intimacy had an unfortunate side effect. Because there was a large degree of loving informality present in the relationship between Emma and Miss Taylor, Miss Taylor’s influence—which should have been based on a healthy fear of punishment—greatly decreased. As a result, “the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they [lived] together as friend and friend very mutually attached” (3). In seeing Miss Taylor as her equal instead of as her superior, Emma felt comfortable arguing with her, even rebuking her, with little fear of repercussion (226). Because she and her governess were on “equal footing,” Emma became convinced of her own superiority among the denizens of Highbury, growing disposed to “think a little too well of herself” (4).

The sisterly intimacy between Emma and Miss Taylor had another detrimental effect; instead of being able to identify and address flaws in Emma’s conduct, Miss Taylor instead “had such an affection for [Emma] as could never find fault” (5). Throughout the story, Miss Taylor is always the first to rebut any mention of Emma’s mistakes. When Emma’s drawing of Harriet is deemed an unfaithful likeness, Miss Taylor defends Emma’s error by saying, “Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted . . . The expression of the eye is most correct, but Miss Smith has not those eyebrows and eyelashes. It is the fault of her face that she has them not” (47). Even while acknowledging the obvious mistake in Emma’s work, Miss Taylor still cannot bring herself to admit that Emma’s drawing is imperfect. This mindset, kindly in a friend, is unacceptable in a governess; the duty of a governess is to help her charge grow by gently pointing out faults and seeking to correct them. In contrast, Miss Taylor seems determined to overlook any sort of error in Emma, maintaining that “where Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times” (39). Instead of teaching Emma to own her mistakes, Miss Taylor instead taught Emma to downplay them. As a result, Emma grew to think herself—not perfect—but perhaps immune to mistakes. This mindset would carry her down questionable paths, from which a little self-doubt might have dissuaded her.

Miss Taylor’s will was naturally weaker than Emma’s. The governess lacked the fortitude necessary to control her charge (4). As such, Emma was able to reverse the student-teacher dynamic and become in many ways the superior. On this subject, Mr. Knightley tells Miss Taylor, “You might not give Emma such a complete education as your powers would seem to promise; but you were receiving a very good education from her, on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid” (37) (emphasis mine).  During the same conversation, Mr. Knightley tells Miss Taylor, “You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished. You know you could not” (36), further hinting that Miss Taylor had become the subordinate in her relationship with Emma. In the same vein, Emma herself later mourns the fact that she neglected her piano playing: “She did unfeignedly and unequivocally regret the inferiority of her own playing and singing. She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood” (232). Though this idleness was primarily Emma’s own fault, Miss Taylor also shares blame. As Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor was responsible for urging Emma to practice the piano, whether Emma desired it or not. Even in such small tasks as reading and practicing piano, Miss Taylor was unable to bend Emma’s will to hers. As a result, Emma always did “just what she liked, highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own” (4). This again proves that Miss Taylor was unequal to the task of helping Emma recognize and embrace wisdom from her superiors.

Miss Taylor’s well-meaning indulgence developed in Emma one very powerful character trait: pride. From this trait stemmed many others: classism, perceived infallibility, and stubbornness. These traits inform Emma’s actions throughout the novel and oftentimes lead her astray. The strongest example is Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith. Encouraged as a child to think herself on equal footing with her own governess, Emma wastes no time in becoming a sort of surrogate governess to Harriet, imparting “wisdom” that only someone unreasonably confident in her own knowledge and social footing can give. When Harriet confesses her feelings for Mr. Martin, Emma plays the part of the superior and immediately challenges the relationship. In her pride, she tells Harriet that Mr. Martin is not a real gentleman: “I had no idea that he could be so very clownish,” she says, “so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two nearer gentility” (31). Not only does Emma frown upon Harriet’s relationship with Mr. Martin, but she does it with such prideful disdain that the malleable Harriet has no choice but to conform to Emma’s—ostensibly superior—opinion.

Later on, Emma convinces Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin’s offer of marriage. Afterwards, Mr. Knightley, who thoroughly disagrees with Harriet’s decision, confronts Emma. He argues that accepting Robert Martin would have been the wisest course of action for Harriet, laying out his argument with logic and solid evidence (64). Emma attempts to respond to this powerful declamation, but eventually, it becomes “most convenient to Emma not to make a direct reply” to Knightley’s argument. By the end, Emma feels vaguely uncomfortable and seems to suspect that Knightley is correct; but in her pride, “she [does] not repent what she had done” and still thinks herself “a better judge” of the situation than he (65). Emma’s immediate and subsequent responses to Knightley’s speech show that she still holds to her position without acknowledging any missteps on her part. In the months that follow, she remains sorry, but unrepentant (69), still certain that “no effects on [her] side of the argument have yet proved wrong” (100).

The novel’s plot continues to unravel as the effects of Emma’s pride-driven stubbornness snowball. At the crux of the story, Emma is at her lowest point; all of her previous assumptions have been proven wrong. Every match-making attempt driven by her prideful assurance of superiority and perceived infallibility has crumbled (415). It is at this point that Emma begins to feel the educational influence of Mr. Knightley.

Mr. Knightley, sixteen years Emma’s senior, provided consistent instruction and direction to his sister-in-law over the course of their relationship. This steady instruction begins to counteract the effects of Miss Taylor’s indulgence, slowly but surely chipping away at Emma’s pride. Mr. Knightley was equipped to guide Emma in ways Miss Taylor was not. First, Mr. Knightley was under no delusion that Emma was without flaw. Indeed, he was “one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them . . . ” (9). While Miss Taylor—now Mrs. Weston—waxes poetic on Emma’s drawing skills, Mr. Knightley bluntly proclaims, “You have made [Harriet] too tall, Emma” (47). While Frank Churchill giggles with Emma after she slights Miss Bates, Mr. Knightley rebukes her, saying, “It was badly done, indeed” (376). When Emma rejoices in the success of her matchmaking, Mr. Knightley blandly replies, “Success supposes endeavor…what are you proud of? You have made a lucky guess; and that is all that can be said” (11). Unlike Miss Taylor, Mr. Knightley refuses to puff Emma up with an unrealistic appraisal of her merits. “Emma knows I never flatter her,” he says (9); indeed, he does not. Throughout the story, Mr. Knightley speaks nothing but the plain truth. “I will tell you the truth while I can,” he tells Emma, “satisfied with proving myself your friend through very faithful counsel” (376).

Mr. Knightley also possessed something which Miss Taylor did not: a strong will. In contrast to Miss Taylor, who was willing to yield to her spirited young charge, Mr. Knightley never wavers in his will. When arguing with Emma, he never allows her to conquer him. Whatever point he argues, he backs it to the end, despite her protests or discomfort. There is no fickleness or fluctuation in his demeanor; instead, there is steadiness of conviction in every encounter with Emma.

Mr. Knightley’s mode of instruction differs wildly from Miss Taylor’s. Miss Taylor attempted to educate Emma through sisterly affection, “the mildness of her temper [hardly allowing] her to impose any restraint” (3). As a result of this indulgence, Emma becomes prideful, stubborn, and extremely self-confident. In stark contrast, Mr. Knightley instructs Emma by speaking the hard truth, “with an endeavor to improve her, and an anxiety for her doing right, which no other creature had at all shared” (417). The effect of this diligent instruction is admirable. Emma’s pride begins to diminish as Mr. Knightley humbles her with steady and systematic discipline. After he severely rebukes her behavior towards Miss Bates, Emma goes to apologize to the older woman, meekly acknowledging her mistake and seeking to mend it. After Emma realizes the true characters of Mr. Elton (331) and Frank Churchill (428), she bows to Mr. Knightley’s superior judgment, confessing that she had been “completely mistaken” about the two men (330), and that Mr. Knightley had been right all along. By the end of the story, Emma is miles from where she began. She has been humbled. When she admits her mistakes, every piece of the plot falls into place. Harriet marries Mr. Martin, Frank Churchill marries Jane, and Emma, at long last, marries Mr. Knightley. Emma’s education, beginning with Miss Taylor and ending with Mr. Knightley, is finally complete.

The narrative of Emma’s education is not just a commentary on the potential harm in indulgent governesses, however. Every element of Emma’s instruction, from her governess’s inadequacies to Mr. Knightley’s diligence, reflects the role of the woman in Regency-era England. Emma, a vivacious and assertive woman, is a sort of anti-hero—someone at whose blunders readers are expected to laugh, but not someone with whom they are prompted to identify. Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, a sensible and widely-respected man, is most definitely a hero. He comes on-scene and “fixes” Emma, systematically eradicating her “faults” and replacing them with socially acceptable character traits, like humility and deference. In addition, Emma “always declares she will never marry” (40). However, by the end of the novel, Emma’s resolution is overturned and subsumed into the marriage-centered culture of the early 19th century. Through the plotline of Emma, readers come to realize that in Regency-era England, it is better for a woman to acquiesce to the patriarchy than to assert herself over it.

The story-wide emphasis on education in Emma serves a three-fold duty: it lends depth to the character of Emma Woodhouse, elucidating the rationale behind her actions. It also acts as a subplot overarching the whole story, transforming Emma from a prideful young girl into a humble, wise woman. In addition, Emma’s education and development combine to highlight the Regency-era idea of male superiority. This outdated perspective on women should not cloud readers’ minds in regards to Emma Woodhouse’s transformation, however. Indeed, the lessons she learns are still applicable to young women and men today. The take-away from Emma is simple: education can shape one’s personality, for better or for worse, and when one listens humbly to his or her superiors and embraces their advice, one’s path can become infinitely smoother.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1816. Print.
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