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“The Encouragement I Received”: Emma and the Language of Sexual Assault

NO ONE IS RAPED IN JANE AUSTEN’S EMMA.  That statement could be replicated by hundreds of like constructions:  no one is drowned, either, or sentenced to prison, or abducted by aliens.  But “not being raped” is part of the discourse of sexual assault, especially in Emma’s literary and historical contexts.  No one is raped in Emma precisely because Jane Austen is writing against an eighteenth-century literary convention that both used rape to articulate women’s victimhood and oppressed social condition and offered the atrocity as titillating novel-reader’s thrill.1  No one is raped in Emma because in this novel, in particular, Austen explores and seeks to confound the silencing of women’s voices.  Rape is not unknown in other Austen novels:  Colonel Brandon’s niece, Eliza, is the victim of the sort of power-assertive seduction that people in the twenty-first century would call rape.  Sanditon’s Sir Edward Denham fancied himself “formed to be a dangerous man—quite in the line of the Lovelaces,” Richardson’s most infamous rapist (LM 184).  No one is raped in Emma because Jane Austen cuts off that “line” as a literary device.  She does not, however, deny the fact of sexual assault, sexual aggression, or sexual power, and the language of such violence creates a good part of the tension of this novel.  Although Mr. Elton does not physically harm Emma when he confronts her with his unexpected proposal of marriage, he defends his aggressive presumption of Emma’s affection with the words of a rapist, insisting he only acted because of “‘the encouragement I received’” (143).

This essay examines the language of sexual assault in Emma from three perspectives:  eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century legal contexts, literary history, and rhetorical or metaphorical rape.  When Jane Austen includes side-stories of sexual assault, sexual aggression, and sexual improprieties in her novels, they are neither central nor melodramatic.  In contrast with the plots of her literary forebear, Samuel Richardson, and other explicit and quasi-pornographic novelists, Austen acknowledges the frequency of sexual misbehavior and miscommunication throughout the social narrative, not as a titillating centerpiece.2  Her novels reflect a world in which the criminal justice system did little to discourage sexual assault and in which men’s language was met with women’s silence.  Although rape was a frequently prosecuted crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many rapists escaped punishment by attacking women’s credibility.  What Emma shows is that this silencing of women and the language of sexual violence—whether Emma is resisting her presumptive suitor or Jane Fairfax is silently enduring her lack of control over her future—defines a structure for other ways women lack power, especially women who lack Emma’s economic and class privilege. 

Rape in the criminal justice system

In the eighteenth century, rape laws and social practices treated women as though they were the property of their husbands or fathers.  Jane Austen can be seen as a bridge between this eighteenth-century perspective and the nineteenth-century view that rape was a moral failing—for men but potentially also for women.  Both views disempowered women and tainted their reputations.  The former made it nearly impossible to prosecute marital rape or the rape of a working class woman by a working class man.  Prostitutes had no recourse against rape, and female servants were victimized by both their employers and their fellow servants (Clark 40-41).  Pregnancy was considered proof that rape had not occurred because of the myth that “forced sexual congress could never result in pregnancy” (Simpson 104).  Eighteenth-century legal interpretations established precedents that placed the onus of proof on women:  complainants had to demonstrate lack of consent; child victims needed corroborative witnesses; and women’s characters and motives were freely called into question (Simpson 104).  In the nineteenth century, when rape began to be viewed as a “moral” issue, women were treated as sexually naïve and in need of protection.  In both centuries, women’s role in the rhetoric of sexual assault was predominantly silent.  While some rape accusations were prosecuted in the eighteenth century, particularly in the upper classes, powerful men extricated themselves from the criminal justice system by attacking women’s testimony in court, especially if they were sexually experienced (Durston 2:15). 

In eighteenth-century London, many rape prosecutions were for assaults on children.  The mythology that having sex with a virgin could cure syphilis (Clark 42; Durston 1:175) perpetuated the practice of assaulting girls under twelve, despite its being emphatically condemned.  But it was difficult to successfully prosecute child rape charges; although the act was considered repulsive, children’s testimony was discounted either because they were too young to comprehend what it meant to be sworn in under oath, or they lacked the vocabulary to accurately describe the acts to which they were subjected (Durston 2:17).  In 1777, clergyman Benjamin Russen was found guilty and executed for the rape of a young girl.  Throughout the trial, the defense argued that the girl, Anne Mayne, “had not been materially injured,” calling upon the testimony of a surgeon and character witnesses.  The Newgate Calendar report concludes, however, that the crime was considered particularly heinous because a man who is both a clergyman and schoolmaster “is bound by a double tie to exhibit every mark of his attention to the duties of religion and morality.” 

In the nineteenth century the mythologies of chastity and modesty similarly silenced women.  Anna Clark notes, “The stress on modest language paralyzed rape victims, for any woman who prosecuted for rape had to speak publicly about sex and expose her loss of chastity, behavior inconsistent with maidenly purity” (63).  The nineteenth-century emphasis on protecting women also perpetuated a “separate spheres” practice that limited women’s movements and work lives as well as their speech.3 

Rape as a literary device 

“Novels are all so full of nonsense and stuff; there has not been a tolerably decent one come out since Tom Jones, except the Monk; I read that t’other day; but as for all the others, they are the stupidest things in creation.”  (NA 43) 

Barbara Benedict and Deirdre Le Faye note that John Thorpe reveals his character through his literary preferences (NA 317 n20).  Whether John (who frequently brags of imagined experiences) has actually read Matthew Lewis’s 1796 gothic horror novel, Austen knew the work’s plot and reception.  In his 1797 review, Coleridge acknowledged Lewis’ imaginative style and poetic language but condemned the mental depravity that arises from “reading lewd and voluptuous tales” (196).  Lewis frames a titillating narrative of rape and murder in a story of demonic seduction.  Similarly, the Marquis de Sade constructs an unrelenting narrative of rape and abuse within the clichés of sentimental literature in Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue.  John Cleland barely sanitizes the pleasure Fanny Hill narrates of coming to enjoy sex after being raped and seduced into prostitution by having her confess regret at the end of his novel, directing readers to take her story as a cautionary tale and to follow lives of virtue.  Readers like John Thorpe could enjoy the titillation of sex, rape, and sadism in The Monk, Justine, or Fanny Hill with impunity:  if an assaulter is possessed or misled, he is not responsible for his actions, and the reader can claim to be reading a warning against the forces of “evil.” 

No one would claim that Jane Austen’s interest in Samuel Richardson was racy.  The family tradition of Austen’s particular pleasure in Sir Charles Grandison is nicely contextualized in Gillian Dow and Katie Halsey’s essay on the Austens’ books and reading preferences.  Both her brother and nephew cite Richardson as a favorite.  But the Jane Austen/Anna Austen Grandison “playlet,” as well as Austen’s concise style and structured plots, demonstrate Austen’s re-orienting her fiction in style and content, bringing a sense of realism to bear on Richardson’s romance narratives (Easton 121).  In the opening chapter of Emma, “evil” is not seduction by demonic spirits, the corruption of human nature, or even, as Harriet Byron invokes the word in Grandison, sexual predation.4  Emma’s “evils” are “the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself” (3).  Emma is a novel that would put John Thorpe to sleep. 

In terms of the language of sexual assault, Jane Austen writes against and turns away from the rhetoric of even conventionally “moral” eighteenth-century literature.  Samuel Richardson’s three novels—despite their frames of virtue, piety, and heroism—comprise a continuum of victimization:  the sexual tease (Pamela), rape (Clarissa), and assault (Grandison).  A few brief examples will provide a contrast to the way similar language functions in Austen’s Emma.

The “tease” of Pamela, of course, is only a “tease” because after many attempts to cajole, bribe, and force Pamela to have sex with him,5 her employer (“Master”) has a remarkable conversion experience.  Mr. B____ is persuaded by the strength of Pamela’s resistance to his attempts to steal her “virtue,” defying cultural conventions, family objections, and his own libertine lifestyle by asking Pamela to marry him.  Like the prostitutes in Fanny Hill and Lord Baltimore’s housemaids, who were charged as accessories in his trial for the rape of Sarah Woodcock (Baltimore), other women in this novel conspire with Mr. B____ to turn Pamela into his mistress.  The housekeeper, Mrs. Jewkes, shares a bed with Pamela and takes part in a plot involving Mr. B____’s dressing up as a third servant, Nan, and climbing into bed with Pamela and Jewkes.  Pamela does not realize the deception and initially thinks that Nan is grabbing her around her waist and kissing her while Mrs. Jewkes holds down her other arm.  When her “Master” finally speaks, Pamela realizes she is about to be raped and is unable to extricate herself from the two bodies holding her down:  “O God! My God! this time! this one time! deliver me from this distress! Or strike me dead this moment!”  When B____ insists that he offers Pamela “nothing,” in a momentary lapse of sycophantic servility Mrs. Jewkes both belittles him and eggs him on:  “What you do, sir, do; don’t stand dilly-dallying. . . . [S]he’ll be quieter, when she knows the worst” (213).  But the assault is interrupted by B____’s fear that Pamela, who has fainted, is dying.  Rape might be acceptable, but he stops short of murder.


Illustration for Clarissa,
by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki (Germany, 1785).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Pamela is a “comedy”:  marriage restores the moral and psychological upheaval of the rape narrative to an acceptable social order.  Clarissa, however, is a tragedy:  Lovelace succeeds in raping Clarissa Harlowe, and she never recovers her physical, spiritual, and mental well-being.  Although she lacks the status of Emma Woodhouse’s long-standing genteel pedigree, Clarissa—with an inheritance from her grandfather—should share Emma’s economic independence.  Her ambitious, social-climbing family, however, pushes her toward a marriage with the repulsive Mr. Solmes—a rich, unintelligent, and unattractive literary model for Mansfield Park’s James Rushworth.  In a lapse of judgment, Clarissa allows Lovelace to help her “escape” from her family, and she hides in plain sight in London, dependent on Lovelace and his unsavory prostitute friends who pretend to be his relations.  The entire novel echoes the theme of force and entrapment, culminating in Clarissa’s rape when she is drugged and unable to resist Lovelace’s assault.  In planning the rape, Lovelace assumes that Clarissa will ultimately forgive him:  “She will not refuse me, I know, Jack; the haughty beauty will not refuse me, when her pride of being corporally inviolate is brought down; when she can tell no tales, . . . when that modesty, which may fill her bosom with resentment, will lock up her speech” (3:90).  Once raped, Lovelace declares, a woman stops protesting.  Despite Richardson’s verbosity, news of Clarissa’s rape is delivered between the lines:  Lovelace writes to his friend, “Belford, I can go no farther” (3:196); Clarissa recounts to her correspondent, Anna Howe, “My strength, my intellects, failed me—and then such scenes followed—O my dear, such dreadful scenes!—fits upon fits (faintly indeed and imperfectly remembered) procuring me no compassion—but death was withheld from me.  That would have been too great a mercy!” (3:371). 

Richardson’s third novel is structured quite differently from Pamela and Clarissa.  The turning points in those novels—B____’s conversion and Clarissa’s rape—occur approximately halfway through the narrative.  In Grandison, Harriet Byron’s abduction by Sir Hargrave Pollexfen and her rescue by Sir Charles Grandison are completed in the first volume and dropped into the background as Harriet’s affection for her rescuer grows and Sir Charles must find a gracious way to extricate himself from his engagement to the beautiful but Catholic Lady Clementina della Porretta.  Harriet’s abduction, however, most closely parallels Emma Woodhouse’s carriage ride with Mr. Elton and helps define Jane Austen’s literary break with her predecessor in terms of the language of sexual assault.


Harriet rescued from her abduction.
From Sir Charles Grandison,
by Thomas Stothard (1782-83).

Harriet Byron’s narrative includes self-blame for attending a masquerade in a flimsy, shape-revealing Arcadian Princess costume.  But Sir Hargrave’s abduction plot is crafted long before the masquerade, and it features several modes of conveyance.  Harriet is directed into a sedan chair following the private event, whose attendants have been paid by Sir Hargrave to divert her to a remote country farmhouse.  At the farmhouse, just like Pamela and Clarissa, Harriet is betrayed by other women who have been paid to abet Sir Hargrave’s planned assault.  Like Pamela and Clarissa, Harriet asserts she would rather die than be possessed by her assailant, and the appearance of death—in a physical tussle Sir Hargrave bloodies Harriet’s nose—also postpones his assault.  Sir Hargrave wraps Harriet (who is still wearing her masquerade dress) in a large cloak and forces her into his chariot.  He attempts to kiss her as they ride.  He silences her by covering her mouth with a handkerchief.  Harriet knows she must not faint, or she can easily be assaulted:  “What I now was mostly apprehensive about, was, of falling into fits; and I answered to his barbarous insults as little as possible, that I might not be provoked beyond the little strength I had left me” (243).  Under eighteenth-century law, Sir Hargrave could have been indicted for “assault with intent to rape,” a misdemeanor (Durston 1:170). 

The rhetoric of sexual assault

Emma Woodhouse is no Harriet Byron—and certainly not a Pamela or Clarissa.  Austen may well have invoked Harriet’s economic independence as a model for Emma; like Emma, Harriet Byron does not oppose marriage but is not financially compelled to marry and will not compromise her values to gain a husband (30).  But Richardson offends readers’ credulity by surrounding Harriet with fawning admirers and forcing her to recount their saccharine expressions of devotion.  Emma briefly considers that she might be excited by Frank Churchill’s attentions, then rationally notices that any affection she bore him beyond friendship had faded.  The characters are most similar in their lack of romantic feelings for the men with whom they are trapped in a coach or chariot.  Emma, considering those she might find charming enough to marry, reminds Harriet that “‘Mr. Elton . . . is out of the question’” (90).

Mr. Elton does not abduct Emma.  He merely takes advantage of the circumstances of their traveling tête–à–tête home from dinner at Randalls.  But Austen’s descriptive passage emphasizes the emotional alarm of both passengers: 

To restrain him as much as might be, by her own manners, she was immediately preparing to speak with exquisite calmness and gravity of the weather and the night; but scarcely had she begun, scarcely had they passed the sweep-gate and joined the other carriage, than she found her subject cut up—her hand seized—her attention demanded, and Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her:  availing himself of the precious opportunity, declaring sentiments which must be already well known, hoping—fearing—adoring—ready to die if she refused him; but flattering himself that his ardent attachment and unequalled love and unexampled passion could not fail of having some effect, and in short, very much resolved on being seriously accepted as soon as possible.  It really was so.  Without scruple—without apology—without much apparent diffidence, Mr. Elton, the lover of Harriet, was professing himself her lover.  She tried to stop him; but vainly; he would go on, and say it all.  Angry as she was, the thought of the moment made her resolve to restrain herself when she did speak.  (139-40) 

To be clear, Mr. Elton is declaring his love to Emma, not trying to have sex with her, but he is grabbing at her, speaking over her, and silencing her.  Emma is angry and offended but incapable of stopping him.  This paragraph begins with a 124-word sentence, suggesting not only breathlessness but mounting sexual tension.

Sir Hargrave

“Sir Hargrave took my struggling hand.” From Sir Charles Grandison,
by Thomas Stothard (1782-83).

The passage begins with a quadruple zeugma, a trope well known to reader’s of Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.  One word—in this case, the verb—governs multiple objects, and their juxtaposition can be ironic.  Thus Pope’s poem satirically warns of a disaster when Belinda might “stain her honor, or her new brocade” (107).  In Austen’s passage, Emma “found”:  1) her subject cut up; 2) her hand seized; 3) her attention demanded; and 4) Mr. Elton actually making violent love to her.  Austen’s zeugma follows Pope’s practice and juxtaposes the abstractions “subject,” “attention,” and Mr. Elton’s declaration of love with Emma’s very personally concrete “hand”; its rhetorical conciseness also contributes to the sense-echoing-sound of sexual excitement that Austen creates in this passage. 

This passage describing Mr. Elton’s declaration of love to Emma in the carriage resembles the “strawberry chatter” of Mrs. Elton at the Donwell Abbey berry-picking party in volume three.  Both Eltons speak over their companions, maintaining control by not letting anyone get a word in edgewise.  But Mrs. Elton’s companions can simply tune her out and enjoy their walk and their pleasure in freshly picked fruit.  Emma is silenced into falsehood, that is, Mr. Elton’s belief that Emma would return his affection once he overwhelmed her with the earnestness of his love.  Emma responds like Pamela:  “‘you forget yourself,’” she tells Mr. Elton (140).  She makes excuses for him:  he must be drunk.  Emma is left with “unpleasant sensations” (142), both from the embarrassed realization that she has contributed to Harriet’s deception and from being trapped in close proximity with an angry man until the carriage reaches the vicarage. 

Like many men on trial for assault, Elton insists that he has only been responding to Emma’s “encouragement.”  In an eighteenth-century rape trial, his argument would be common:  men argued that women allowed their advances, then turned around and charged them with rape to profit through blackmail in civil suits or to humiliate men of distinction in criminal court6  Rejected, he is “too angry to say another word.”  Rape is the intersection of Eros and Thanatos:  Mr. Elton, we are told, rides in a state of “swelling resentment” (143).  Love has given way to violence, perhaps lingering, erotically, in that swelling.  Just like a victim of acquaintance rape, Emma feels compelled to wish “a good night” to the man who has offended her emotionally (“deep mortification”), physically (grabbing her hand), and psychologically (denying her sense of truth) (143). 

Harriet Byron’s kidnapping is told multiple times:  she tells Sir Charles’s sister, who provides the highlights to Harriet’s worried relatives.  Harriet fills in the details even more when she reconstructs the narrative in a letter to her cousin.  Pamela eroticizes her own suffering of the sexual tease by writing letters she cannot send and sewing them into her petticoat—making her story as much an object of Mr. B____’s desire as her body is.  Clarissa never escapes:  death literally displaces love because she never recovers from her rape.  Curiously, Emma is most like and most unlike Clarissa Harlowe in her response to Mr. Elton’s presumptuous proposal. 

Both Emma and Clarissa are ruminators.  Emma remarkably never reveals Mr. Elton’s behavior in the coach.  She is, of course, implicated in the harm done to Harriet, and she focuses on the misery she feels in contributing to Harriet’s pain.  But Emma internalizes the events on the ride home from Randalls, never reporting Mr. Elton’s presumption or impropriety:  “her mind had never been in such perturbation, and it needed a very strong effort to appear attentive and cheerful till the usual hour of separating allowed her the relief of quiet reflection” (144). 

The most important distinction between Emma and Clarissa, however, is that Emma’s “mortification” is not literal death.  Austen’s narrative acknowledges how men’s actions and words can silence women, but the outcome is not melodrama.  It is the routine subjective position of women, even women who, like Emma, are economically self-sufficient and superior in class to the men about whom they will not speak.  Emma’s rationalism saves her.  It stands in stark contrast with the easily love-struck and more emotional Harriet Smith.

Emma’s second misprision of Harriet is supposing her in love with Frank Churchill for the “service” he renders by “rescuing” her from a crowd of “gipsy” children.  Harriet prizes Mr. Knightley’s rescue on the dance floor after Mr. Elton’s snub more highly than Frank Churchill’s physical assistance; the humiliating social pain, tinged with her own misplaced guilt for liking Mr. Elton, has tormented her longer than this moment at the ball.  But the question remains, why were the beggars from the gipsy camp so terrifying?  Jane Austen echoes some of the common mythology of Romani people believed in the eighteenth-century and lingering in some perceptions today:  that transient bands of outsiders disturbed the social order, often with criminal malice.  Harriet’s response to the group of children, a “stout woman,” and a “great boy,” however, is not the fear of losing her purse.  Harriet has felt cramps from dancing, so unlike her walking companion, Miss Bickerton, she cannot run away.  Her reaction is more like a rape victim:  she is “absolutely powerless.”  She views the group as “assailing” her.  She begs them “not to want more [money], or to use her ill” (360-61).7  When Frank Churchill happens upon the scene, Harriet Smith “cling[s]” to him with the intensity of Harriet Byron clinging to her rescuer, Charles Grandison.  Indeed, Emma herself, in hearing the story, turns it into a romance narrative:  “Such an adventure as this,—a fine young man and a lovely young woman thrown together in such a way, could hardly fail of suggesting certain ideas to the coldest heart and the steadiest brain” (361-62).  Emma, the rationalist, does not seem worried about the “attack,” but she delights in Harriet’s deliverance. 

Austen is also less worried about direct attacks on women and more about the cultural tolerance of women’s broader subordination.  The rhetoric of sexual assault, expressed by words of aggression and force that silence and disempower women, turns out to be expressed far more in regard to Jane Fairfax’s situation than to Emma’s or Harriet’s.  As an impoverished woman silenced into a secret engagement and an economic dependent destined to become a governess, Jane Fairfax is constructed in the narrative with language more familiarly connected to sexual assault.  Austen seems to do so consciously. 

After Frank Churchill’s aunt dies and he receives his uncle’s blessing to marry Jane Fairfax, Mrs. Weston wishes Emma both to confirm that she is not attached to Frank and to allow that Jane Fairfax is to be forgiven for violating propriety by allowing a secret engagement.  “‘And how much may be said in her situation,’” Mrs. Weston leads, “‘for even that error!’”  Emma is more than sympathetic:  “If a woman can ever be excused for thinking only of herself, it is in a situation like Jane Fairfax’s.—Of such, one may almost say, that ‘the world is not their’s, nor the world’s law’’” (436).  The Cambridge editors note the slight error in Emma’s quoting from Romeo and Juliet, whose context is Romeo convincing the apothecary to sell him illegal poison (“The world is not thy friend”).  Romeo asserts that poverty and famine supersede law if a man will die from want. Cronin and McMillan suggest that Austen invokes Samuel Johnson’s use of the quotation in his Rambler essay on seduced and abandoned women, who—like Colonel Brandon’s Eliza in Sense and Sensibility—do not recover from sexual victimhood but descend into prostitution and are enslaved by those who exploit them (595 n4).  This context reminds us that Emma is not sexually naïve; she has taken the lead in concocting the racy suggestion that Jane Fairfax had an affair with her dear friend Mrs. Dixon’s husband. 

Patrick McGraw develops an even stronger reading of the Shakespeare/Johnson quotation in his essay on the “Plight of Jane Fairfax” to argue for Austen’s strong sympathy for Jane as a woman of limited means and limited financial options (223).  McGraw connects Jane and Shakespeare’s apothecary: poverty pushes them both to compromise their values; both are subject to the whims of impetuous men who have never faced economic want.  Romeo taunts the apothecary by saying that the law fails to help him because Romeo needs him to break the law and sell him poison.  By invoking the Rambler version, however, Austen has Emma take Jane Fairfax’s side against the broad issue of exploited poor women and “sold” flesh, whether through slavery, prostitution, or the governess trade (McGraw 222).  Emma’s sympathy with Johnson’s reading—seeing impoverished and seduced women as friendless and exploited—affirms her empathy for Jane Fairfax as a victim who is not responsible for the deceit and complications of the secret engagement. 

Jane Fairfax views her destiny as a governess through several negative metaphors. Austen takes the reader into her head to compare it to becoming a nun, “to complete the sacrifice, and retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace and hope, to penance and mortification for ever” (176).  Emma reattaches this metaphor to Jane Fairfax when she wonders at her return to Highbury rather than the pleasure of being with the Campbells in Ireland:  “‘Here, she must be leading a life of privation and penance’” (234-35), a thought that underscores Emma’s gossipy suspicion of a moral lapse on the part of Jane.  In encouraging such speculation while knowing the truth of Jane’s situation and the reason she is so circumspect, Frank Churchill is worse than Emma.  He commits verbal assault on his secret fiancée, the effects of which remain hidden until the end of the novel.  He also sees Jane being moved toward life as a governess, and he does nothing to interrupt that apparent plan. 

If the privations of the Bates’s humble home and a destiny in service were not enough, Jane Fairfax is also subject to the control of Mrs. Elton.  The rhetoric of sexual assault does not depend upon a man to speak it, and Mrs. Elton seems to play the role of Pamela’s Mrs. Jewkes, Clarissa’s feigning fine ladies, and the farmhouse women who assist Sir Hargrave’s assault of Harriet Byron in Grandison.  Although Jane Fairfax replies that she “‘cannot by any means consent’” to Mrs. Elton’s sending a servant to the post office for her (320), Mrs. Elton tries to take control away from her, calling Jane a “‘sad girl’” (318), who must be taken care of:  “‘she shall not do such a thing again. . . . We will not allow her to do such a thing again’” (319).  Mrs. Elton’s insistence that Jane immediately pursue her leads to secure a position as a governess echoes the controlling rhetoric of a sexual aggressor, refusing to take “no” for an answer.  Jane says “no” in every polite way she can:  she wants to spend more time with the Campbells; she is capable of soliciting positions on her own; she prefers that Mrs. Elton not speak on her behalf.  When Mrs. Elton repeatedly rejects her rejection, Jane draws her analogy between the “‘slave-trade’” and the “‘governess-trade’” and the shared “‘misery of the victims’” of each (325).  Mrs. Elton misses Jane’s point, cites her “‘inexperience’” (324), and insists that regardless of Jane’s preferences, she would do all that she could to procure Jane a position in a wealthy family.  In his discussion of the failure of many eighteenth-century rape prosecutions, Antony Simpson notes that the law required proof of force, not just rejection of verbal resistance:  “it was not enough for a victim to claim that she had been cowed into submission.  In the case of one woman who explained that she failed to resist because she was ‘paralyzed with fear,’ (‘I had no power’), the court ruled that the circumstance of force, or threat of force, had not been proven” (133).  Mrs. Elton wears Jane Fairfax down, but Jane technically bends to Mrs. Elton’s designs for her life voluntarily.  She has, of course, also been bent by Frank Churchill’s unwillingness to own their engagement publicly.


Illustration for Clarissa,
by Daniel Nikolaus Chodowiecki
(Germany, 1785).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

When Mrs. Elton succeeds, Jane Fairfax exhibits the depressive symptoms of a woman who has been victimized but silenced by her trauma.  “‘She is as low as possible,’” Miss Bates notes to Emma.  “‘To look at her, nobody would think how delighted and happy she is to have secured such a situation’” (412).  Although she has always been physically weak, her illness has no obvious physical cause:  “Her health seemed for the moment completely deranged—appetite quite gone—and though there were no absolutely alarming symptoms, nothing touching the pulmonary complaint, which was the standing apprehension of the family, Mr. Perry was uneasy about her. . . . Her spirits seemed overcome” (424). 

Pulled out of context, this description of Jane Fairfax could be mistaken for Clarissa Harlowe, who never recovers from her assault.  But Jane Austen has re-written the assault narrative.  Emma is not a story of titillation, but it is also not a feminist fantasy in which silenced women suddenly find their voices.  Rather, in echoing the language of sexual assault, Austen expands the context of power relations.  In Richardson’s novels and the quasi-pornography of the eighteenth century, sexual aggression is physical.  In Austen’s novels its rhetorical force plays out in the oppression of women’s minds and spirits as well as their bodies.  The “encouragement” Mr. Elton believes he received was a construct of his desire, but it nevertheless empowered him to grab at Emma, dominate her in the carriage, refuse her rejection, and, ultimately, hold her in contempt.  The domination Mrs. Elton exhibits over Jane Fairfax ignores her refusals of consent and contributes to her psychological trauma.  No one is physically raped in Emma, but by invoking the language of sexual assault, Jane Austen’s novel points to the interior effects on women whose assertions are disbelieved and refusals rejected, expanding the very notion of assault from sexual crime to cultural dominance.



1Catherine Bristow makes a similar observation of Austen’s break with eighteenth-century “victimhood” in her essay on the parallels between Sense and Sensibility and Pope’s The Rape of the Lock.  Bristow notes that despite many characters predicting that, guilty-of-excessive-passion Marianne will suffer a Clarissa-like death, “Marianne does not die.  She lives to illustrate, in her post-recovery speeches, what Austen advises rather than death or complete submission to societal expectations” (35). 

2Thus Mrs. Morland in Northanger Abbey, despite her fondness for Richardson’s The History of Sir Charles Grandison, forgets to caution Catherine “against the violence of such noblemen and baronets as delight in forcing young ladies away to some remote farm–house” (10). 

3Clark notes that even though women faced assaults in public as well as private spaces in the eighteenth-century, they were not told to avoid “dangerous” areas or dark streets.  The construction of rape as a “warning” in the nineteenth century declared “streets unsafe for respectable women” and discouraged their leaving home after dark (117). 

4Early in the novel, considerably before she meets the heroic Sir Charles Grandison, Harriet Byron rejects the interests of Sir Hargrave Pollexfen, characterizing him as predatory and immoral.  She expresses gratitude for her uncle’s and guardian’s protection:  “O my Lucy, to what evils, but for that protection, might not I, a sole, an independent young woman, have been exposed?  Since men, many men, are to be looked upon as savages, as wild beasts of the desert; and a single and independent woman they hunt after as their proper prey” (89). 

5Valuing modesty above wealth was a standard rhetorical position in fiction as well as the courts.  Sarah Woodcock testified at Lord Baltimore’s trial for raping her (1768) that “if Lord Baltimore would settle all his estate on me I would not comply.”  Harriet Byron rejects Sir Hargrave even before he assaults her:  “But, my Lucy, were Sir Hargrave king of one half of the globe, I would not go to the altar with him” (88). 

6Simpson cites the fallacy of this argument, noting that when awards were granted in civil suits they were extremely small, barely covering legal expenses; most women sought a public apology and acknowledgement that they had been wronged (126). 

7Cronin and McMillan note that Austen was writing Emma during a period in which “there were occasional, alarming reports . . . of attacks by gypsies on young women,” including the robbery and stabbing of Elizabeth Collier (Emma 584).  Few concerns about “gypsies” and sexual assault have been reported, but one famous eighteenth-century case follows both the literary line of Fanny Hill and the historical silencing of women.  Elizabeth Canning claimed to have been abducted by a “gypsy” (Mother Wells) with the intent of turning her into a prostitute.  The court initially ruled for Canning, but the conviction was overturned upon appeal, Canning was convicted of perjury, and she was transported to America.  The unresolved facts are discussed by Bevis Hiller.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane.  The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen.  Gen. Ed. Janet Todd.  Cambridge: CUP, 2005-2008.
  • Baltimore, Frederick Calvert (defendant).  The trial of Frederick Calvert, Esq; Baron of Baltimore, in the Kingdom of Ireland, for a rape on the body of Sarah Woodcock; and of El. Griffinburg, & A. Harvey, otherwise Darby, as accessaries before the fact.  For procuring, aiding and abetting him in committing the said rape. : At the assizes held at Kingston for the couuty [sic] of Surry, on Saturday, the 26th of March, 1768. Before the Hon. Sir Sydney Stafford Smythe, Knt. One of the Barons of His Majesty's Court of Exchequer. : Published by permission of the judge. / Taken in short-hand by Joseph Gurney.  London, 1768.  http://name.umdl.umich.edu/N08537.0001.001
  • Bristow, Catherine.  “Unlocking the Rape: An Analysis of Austen’s Use of Pope’s Symbolism in Sense and Sensibility.”  Persuasions 20 (1998): 31-37.
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  • Durston, Gregory.  “Rape in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis: Part 1.”  Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 28.2 (2005): 167-79.
  • _____.  “Rape in the Eighteenth-Century Metropolis: Part 2.”  Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 29.1 (2006): 15-31.
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  • Hiller, Bevis.  “The Mysterious Case of Elizabeth Canning.”  History Today 53.3 (2003). http://www.historytoday.com/bevis-hiller/mysterious-case-elizabeth-canning
  • McGraw, Patrick.  “‘The World is Not Their’s’: The Plight of Jane Fairfax in Emma.”  Persuasions 37 (2016): 218-25.
  • Newgate Calendar.  “The Revered Benjamin Russen: Executed for rape, 12th December, 1777.”  http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng450.htm
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  • Richardson, Samuel.  Clarissa; or, the History of a Young Lady.  New York: Dent, 1932.
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  • _____.  Pamela.  New York: Norton, 1958.
  • Simpson, Antony E.  “The ‘Blackmail Myth’ and the Prosecution of Rape and its Attempt in 18th Century London: The Creation of a Legal Tradition.”  The Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology 77.1 (1986): 101-50.
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