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The (Mis)Education of Harriet Smith: Confidence, Perception, and Character Development in Emma

Emma in Emma is all about Emma, and because she is both heroine and titular character, the reader’s attention often focuses on Emma’s growth and development. While readings of the changes in Emma’s character, such as those done by scholars like R. E. Hughes in “The Education of Emma Woodhouse,” provide valuable insight on the way women of Austen’s time interacted with the world around them, close inspection reveals that other characters, such as Harriet Smith, are written with the same consideration. Though many dismiss her as simply a contributor to Emma’s development, Harriet is much more than a one-dimensional foil; rather, her character development as she moves between social classes, initially as a “natural daughter of somebody” and then a married “daughter of a tradesman,” gives validation to women of all socioeconomic backgrounds, demonstrating the necessity of both confidence and accurate perspective of both self and others to the development of womanhood (Austen 17, 390).

Hughes points out that Emma’s “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” education results in Emma’s newfound knowledge of the way the outside world affects her (74). Yet while Emma’s education leads her to a radically new perspective on love and society, the same cannot be said of Harriet. The rapid change in Emma’s desires—from wanting to stay single and matchmake others, to craving companionship and detesting matchmaking—is not shared by her young friend. Rather, Harriet begins and ends with the same desires, pointing to the fact that her character development is not like Emma’s. Hughes contends that for Emma, it is “only when she recognizes that there is something outside” that “is Emma redeemed” (71). Conversely, for Harriet it is instead when she recognizes that there is something of value already in her nature that she can truly grow. Thus, while Emma’s character develops from one point to another, Harriet’s opinions and beliefs are affirmed rather than changed as she ends where she begins—contentedly in love with Robert Martin and at peace with the rest of Highbury. The change in Harriet’s character, then, is not in her perspective of society, like Emma, but in her perspective of herself. If viewed from Hughes’s analysis of Emma as earning an education in the novel, Harriet can be seen receiving a miseducation that negatively alters her perception and from which she must learn to validate her own beliefs. Analysis of this miseducation in conjunction with the way Harriet moves between social classes directs attention not only to Harriet’s unique development, but also to the way Austen writes and presents women beyond class structure. Harriet gains a new perspective of herself as her social status transforms with the discovery of her parentage and her marriage, demonstrating the importance of both confidence and correct perception of both self and others to womanhood regardless of class.

Initially, it appears that Harriet has a proper perspective of merit and value—for example, she respects the Martins and finds herself in love with Robert Martin, who Mr. Knightley affirms is “an excellent young man, both as son and brother,” and even Emma, when trying to deny the excellence of his proposal, comments that it is “a better written letter . . . than I had expected” (Austen 47, 40). In gaining praise from both Mr. Knightley and Emma, who often are at odds with each other in the novel, Robert Martin proves himself worthy of Harriet who, in turn, returns his affections. Though she is young, Harriet’s desire to marry Robert Martin makes it clear that her judgement is somewhat unclouded at this point, as she is able to recognize the merit in his character that a variety of other characters also see.

Her ability to recognize Robert Martin’s value, however, is hindered by her initial lack of confidence. When Emma first meets her she is described as “so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference,” establishing her as a figure of submission (18). This submission then leads Emma to the idea to befriend Harriet, the narration describing “she would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners” (18). Their friendship thus begins with Emma’s total control over Harriet and, correspondingly, Harriet’s eagerness for Emma to take control of her exposes her own uncertainty in herself. This lack of confidence in her own views thus leads Harriet to allow Emma to contort her perception of others and of herself.

Harriet’s submission to Emma’s control of her “opinions and her manners” leads to the warping of her self-perception and, subsequently, her perspective of others. This is first seen in Harriet’s (or, more accurately, Emma’s) rejection of Robert Martin. It is ultimately Emma’s twisted teachings that lead to this rejection, which she justifies by leading Harriet to see herself in a warped and inaccurate manner. This can be seen, for example, as Emma defends Harriet’s rejection of the proposal by speculating that “there can be no doubt of your being a gentleman’s daughter” (23). With Emma’s prodding, Harriet learns to accept this misrepresentation of her social status as truth. While Emma’s words may seem encouraging, they ultimately prompt Harriet to see herself and her relationship to society inaccurately, leading to further conflicts within the novel. Though her initial refusal of Robert Martin is Emma’s doing, Harriet is clearly negatively impacted by her teachings, as it is her guidance that distorts Harriet’s perception. This rejection marks the beginning of Emma’s misguided matchmaking attempts for Harriet, and thus highlights the beginning of Harriet’s miseducation.

Harriet’s misguided self-perception in Emma’s hands is further solidified in her experience of heartbreak with Mr. Elton. Initially, Mr. Elton’s rejection appears to bring Harriet back to a more grounded sense of self. She, for example, accepts the news of his true feelings, “in every thing testifying such an ingenuousness of disposition and lowly opinion of herself . . . she never could have deserved him—and nobody but so partial and kind a friend as Miss Woodhouse would have thought it possible” (113). Yet while Harriet learns to see the reality of Mr. Elton’s feelings, she still evidently submits to Emma. The humility that Harriet gains does not give her a proper perspective on Emma’s character or her own; instead, she continues to yield to Emma, thinking her “so partial and kind a friend” rather than recognizing that it was Emma who caused her heartbreak. Mr. Elton’s rejection of Harriet and the nature of her resulting humility thus affirm her misguided sense of self and others. Her response to his rejection reveals the extreme level of deference Harriet gives to Emma, and subsequently points to the warping of her perception.

It is evident, however, that as events of the novel continue, Harriet learns to see beyond Emma’s teaching and begins to develop her own distorted self-perception. Her actions begin to depart from Emma’s guidance when, for example, Harriet’s recognition of Mr. Knightley’s merit leads her to mistakenly view him as a viable partner. Harriet’s desire for Mr. Knightley is orchestrated by no one but herself, demonstrating how Emma’s previous teachings that skewed Harriet’s perspective continue to persist even beyond Emma’s control. In fact, she is so miseducated under Emma’s guidance that when she first meets Emma before explaining her love for Mr. Knightley, her “behaviour” is “so extremely odd, that Emma [does not] know how to understand it. Her character appear[s] absolutely changed” (328). Emma finally recognizes that her control over Harriet has changed her character to a point where it is unrecognizable. Her miseducation of Harriet, which originally leads her to view herself and others inaccurately, gives Harriet both the confidence as well as a warped sense of self that leads to her make decisions that go even beyond Emma’s control.

It is evident that Harriet’s miseducation builds upon her experiences with Emma and eventually teaches her to develop inaccurate perspectives of herself and of others without Emma’s help. This can be seen, for example, when Harriet claims Mr. Knightley’s mutual affection for her and defends her beliefs with evidence. Emma’s initial mistake with Mr. Elton lies in her misreading of his “manners” towards Harriet and herself (107). Harriet appears to learn from this experience, and only falls in love with Mr. Knightley when she is confident in supposed proof of his love for her. Harriet’s confidence in Mr. Knightley’s returned affection reflects her confidence in herself and her own misguided perceptions; for example, when Harriet admits her affection, Emma asks “have you any idea of Mr. Knightley's returning your affection?” to which the narration describes Harriet commenting: “‘Yes,’ replie[s] Harriet modestly, but not fearfully—‘I must say that I have’” (331). Emma’s misunderstanding of Harriet’s feelings demonstrates the way her miseducation has taught her to only fall in love with assurance, yet also to mistakenly read Mr. Knightley’s actions and words in the same way Emma had previously misread Mr. Elton. Harriet furthermore speaks “not fearfully,” which contrasts with her initial introduction as a submissive, demure girl. This demonstrates the growth of her confidence, despite its misplacement. Thus Harriet, by the revelation of her love for Mr. Knightley, has learned to make her own mistakes without Emma’s help, surpassing Emma, her teacher of a misguided education, and proving that she has developed confidence in her own misconceptions, leading to self-deception. While Harriet tells Emma “I never should have presumed to think of it at first . . . but for you” (333), the misunderstanding between the two clarifies that Harriet’s love for Mr. Knightley is entirely her own idea and the result of her own warped point of view. Harriet’s affection for Mr. Knightley thus reflects the growth of her confidence under Emma’s miseducation, which empowers her to stand firmly beside her own beliefs, yet at the same time also misleads her to believe in inaccuracies. Thus Harriet’s initial education in Emma’s hands grants her both confidence and warped self-perception; her final growth involves the reworking of the way she perceives others and herself with this new confidence. It is then not Emma, but the knowledge of Mr. Knightley’s true affections that ultimately leads Harriet to this final proper education. After recognizing that Mr. Knightley does not love Harriet, Emma finds that “Robert Martin had thoroughly supplanted Mr. Knightley, and was now forming all her views of happiness,” and Harriet herself is able to recognize “that she had been presumptuous and silly, and self-deceived” (390). Harriet’s ability to recognize Robert Martin’s value, despite Emma’s original teaching deeming him to be “illiterate and coarse,” demonstrates how she begins to see society around her in a more accurate way, untainted by her previous miseducation in Emma’s hands (26). Furthermore, her recognition that she had been “presumptuous and silly, and self-deceived” demonstrates how Harriet has developed the ability to perceive herself and her actions accurately, as well as the confidence to admit her offenses. Her acceptance of Robert Martin’s proposal reveals not only the restoration of her sense and perception, but furthermore the continued strength of her confidence in herself, as she is finally able to make her own choices without Emma’s guidance. Emma’s miseducation thus does ironically help Harriet gain confidence; her recognition of Emma’s misguidance furthermore allows Harriet to teach herself to value her own beliefs and desires.

Harriet thus ends the novel married to the man she originally loved, as well as solidified in society as her “parentage become known. She proved to be the daughter of a tradesman, rich enough to afford her the comfortable maintenance which had ever been her’s, and decent enough to have always wished for concealment” (390). Some may argue that Harriet’s ascendance into society and wealth refutes a reading of her character as affirming the value of lower-class women, yet it is evident that despite Harriet’s newfound wealth and status, she continues to see Robert Martin’s merit and upholds her original decision to choose him as a husband. The restoration of Harriet to society as well as her marriage to Robert Martin may then be read as reflections of her restored value in herself and others. The affirmation of Harriet’s original desires and her newfound confidence to fulfill them demonstrates the importance of both confidence and perspective to womanhood despite class.

Emma is then concerned with education in that both Emma and Harriet must learn: Emma to recognize “something outside Emma” (Hughes 71) and Harriet to see not only others, but also herself, accurately. Harriet’s education under Emma’s teaching, while misguided, does lead her to gain the confidence she originally lacks, though it twists her perception of herself and of others. Ultimately, Harriet is able to move beyond Emma’s guidance and learn to perceive the value in her own character and others more accurately. Some scholars like Morris perceive Harriet as a purely simple character, reducing her to merely a demure figure: “in whatever context she is finally settled, Harriet will not be renowned for resource and positiveness in reasoning. Her capacities as displayed in the novel are limited.” Yet analysis of Harriet’s character and the way it develops confidence and affirms value throughout the novel demonstrates that her capacity to reason is not limited—rather, her education takes an unusual turn to bring her right back to her original perception of merit, prompting the idea that Harriet must learn not to conform to an external moral standard, but rather to validate the value she already has. In this way Harriet’s character may be read as a positive affirmation of women beyond all social classes, and an example of the necessity of both confidence and proper perception to the development of female characters in Emma.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Print.
  • Hughes, R. E. “The Education of Emma Woodhouse.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 16.1 (1961): 69-74. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 10 May 2016.
  • Morris, Ivor. “The Enigma of Harriet Smith.” Persuasions On-Line 26.1 (2005). Web. 17 Feb 2016.
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