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Emma’s “Serious Spirit”: How Miss Woodhouse Faces the Issues Raised in Mansfield Park and Becomes Jane Austen’s Most Complex Heroine

WHY DOES EMMA’S SERIOUS SPIRIT MATTER?  Jane Austen made Emma a novel about self-knowledge and reform.  Of all her novels, Emma contains the most in-depth study of these ideas, but in order to understand the genius behind Austen’s creation of Emma’s serious spirit, we must also talk about Mansfield Park.  In Mansfield Park and Emma, Austen explores self-knowledge and reform through her choice of characters and construction of plot, making the two novels connect with each other in a unique way.  It seems that Evangelicalism and Jane Austen’s personal religious beliefs greatly influenced her use of self-knowledge and reform.  In Mansfield Park the characters are split between those who either possess or grow in knowledge and those who are deficient in that quality.  In Emma Austen’s technique progresses as she combines both categories (self-possession and deficiency) in the one character of Emma Woodhouse, Austen’s most complex heroine.

The timing of Emma Woodhouse’s creation is crucial to understanding her complexity.  Marilyn Butler points out that while Austen was writing her last three novels, she would have been affected by “the wartime religious reform movement spearheaded by the Evangelicals.  Austen’s last three novels are profounder than the first three . . . because they are caught up in a national mood of self-assessment and regeneration” (207).  Was Austen was influenced by the Evangelical movement, or did it simply accord with her own beliefs?  She wrote to her niece Fanny Knight, “I am by no means convinced that we ought not all to be Evangelicals” (18-20 November 1814), and all of her novels are about heroines who learn or teach self-knowledge and reform.  As A. Walton Litz says of Emma, “the problem of self-recognition occupies the entire course” of the novel, as it does in a more didactic style in Mansfield Park.  For Austen, who belonged to the Church of England, self-knowledge and personal reform that begin in the mind and heart were essential parts of her religion.  Part of the litany in The Book of Common Prayer asks, “That it may please thee to give us true repentance; to forgive us all our sins, negligences, and ignorances; and to endue us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, to amend our lives according to thy holy Word” (26).  One of the three prayers believed to be written by Austen speaks earnestly about the importance of self-knowledge:  “Teach us to understand the sinfulness of our own Hearts, and bring to our knowledge every fault of Temper and every evil Habit in which we have indulged to the discomfort of our fellow-creatures” (MW 453).  She asks to know when she has been indulging evil habits that cause discomfort to others, because she believes it is only after acquiring this knowledge that a person can begin the process of reformation.  It is exactly this knowledge that Emma gains throughout the novel. 

Mansfield Park lays the foundation for Emma as Austen chooses to divide self-knowledge and reform among various characters.  It portrays a sharp contrast between those who gain such knowledge by listening to their consciences and those who do not, and the consequences to each.  In the second chapter, Austen introduces Maria and Julia Bertram as characters who, “with all their promising talents and early information” were “entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self-knowledge, generosity, and humility” (19).  Both the sisters and the Crawfords are blinded by pride and vanity, and every action is motivated by self-gratification, thus destroying their chances for lasting happiness.  This condition is similar to Emma’s when the novel begins.  Austen tells us that the evils of Emma’s situation are the power of having her own way and a disposition to think too well of herself, but that the dangers of these conditions are unperceived by Emma (5-6). 

What makes Emma more complex than the Crawfords and the Bertram sisters is that she has the potential to perceive her faults because Austen gives her a conscience that she cannot ignore.  Mansfield has its conscience embodied in the person of Fanny Price, who is positioned as a test of self-knowledge in the other characters.  Emma experiences both reward and punishment, but instead of having her self-knowledge tested by an outside agent, she assesses herself.  She has “a consciousness . . . always at work in her, a sense of what she ought to be and do” (Trilling 197).  We can see Emma’s conscience at work when she reacts to her own blunders, such as her realization of her unkindness to Miss Bates on Box Hill, which “awakens part of herself, and comes as the voice of her own conscience” (Litz 141).  Unlike the Crawfords, who never truly learn to listen to Fanny (the voice of conscience) because they cannot see beyond their own vanity, it is possible for Emma to have a happy ending because she can learn to understand herself and to obey her conscience by sacrificing her opinion of herself to what she knows is right. 

In other words, Emma doesn’t have two warring sets of characters, where one set embodies vanity (the Crawfords) and the other conscience (Fanny), because Emma Woodhouse is alone a complex blend of both types of characters.  As complex as the interaction among the residents of Mansfield may be, Austen rises to a whole new level in the one character that is Emma Woodhouse.  Emma possesses both the potential to be as vain the Crawfords and Fanny’s ability to reflect on her own actions and be self-sacrificing.  Perhaps this is why Jane Austen named the novel after the heroine, for she is a novel unto herself.

Because of this internalization of this argument between vanity and conscience, Emma is the ultimate novel of personal reform.  The views and actions of the protagonist make up the bulk of the story, and she has the primary voice and point of view.  These features give Austen an ideal opportunity to present a compelling illustration both for the importance of self-knowledge and reform, and for the struggles between vanity and conscience.  At first Emma seems to be a meddlesome and conceited young woman who uses her natural cleverness to amuse her own active imagination, allowing, as Tony Tanner says, “her conceptions to interfere with her vision.”  At first “she is in fact ‘blind and ignorant’” to any harmful consequences of using her gifts, and it takes her “some time to realise this” (197).  The process she undergoes reveals Emma Woodhouse to be a creature of surprising depth, who offers us as much insight as any of Austen’s serious characters (Jenkyns 170).  When the novel begins, she can hear her conscience—her “‘serious spirit’” (330)—but her vanity blinds her to the consequences of disobeying it until she has made a mistake.  Yet it is never silent, and Austen puts Emma through a number of mortifying and painful situations so that she can learn the importance of listening to that serious spirit to gain self-knowledge and to be reformed into a conscientious young woman.  Austen gives us Emma’s “unavoidable and significant encounter with the reality principle—or, things as they are” (Tanner 188), and Emma learns from it, growing into a heroine whom readers can admire. 

The two main areas where Emma’s vanity and conscience come into play are in the temptation to meddle and neglect, centering on Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax.  Alistair Duckworth attributes these acts to an “egoism that goes beyond a social or moral selfishness to suggest a consciousness unaware of the real existence of others” (156).  Her imagination controls her behavior towards both, causing her to meddle too much with Harriet and to neglect Jane.  Until she realizes her error, she will “remain a danger to the social community in which she plays such a prominent part” (Duckworth 156).  Emma’s transformation by the end of the novel is worked out in her growing awareness of herself and her perception of others:  of Harriet she laments, “Had she left her where she ought . . . all would have been safe” (413-14); and, concerning Jane, she realizes that “the person, whom she had been so many months neglecting, was now the very one on whom she would have lavished every distinction of regard or sympathy” (389).  In Richard Jenkyns’s words, “what she discovers is essentially the autonomy of other people” (166). 

Austen’s use of the word conscience helps us to track Emma’s growth in that important area of consideration for others.  The word itself appears in the novel in relation to Emma only when she is thinking of Jane Fairfax or Miss Bates: 

Why she did not like Jane Fairfax might be a difficult question to answer; Mr. Knightley had once told her it was because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself; and though the accusation had been eagerly refuted at the time, there were moments of self-examination in which her conscience could not quite acquit her.  (166) 

Since her last conversation with Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, she was more conscience-stricken about Jane Fairfax than she had often been.  (291) 

She had been often remiss, her conscience told her so. . . . (377) 

These three moments reveal Emma’s growth in her responsiveness to her conscience, as in the first situation she grudgingly listens to what her conscience is saying and only obeys it out of guilt, as the word “acquit” implies.  In the second case, however, she yields to it willingly after initially trying to defend herself in her conversation with Mr. Knightley.  By the last instance, she has almost completely reformed, and she is more than willing to obey her conscience in showing attention to Miss Bates, coming to the decision to visit the Bateses on her own.  Emma, Harriet Smith, and Jane Fairfax are placed perfectly, and yet believably, in their social positions—two of them in fairly helpless situations and one in the position to help them both—so it is impossible not to see Emma’s interactions with and attitudes towards them as Austen’s way of providing opportunities for her heroine to display her faults and learn from her mistakes.  Austen achieves this development in a subtle and yet compelling way, placing Emma in ordinary rather than extraordinary situations so that she must learn to listen to her conscience in the everyday affairs of life.

Emma’s first mistake of meddling where she shouldn’t is in her matchmaking between Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton.  Mr. Knightley tries to caution her by presenting the facts about Robert Martin and Mr. Elton and by pointing out the dangers that could befall Harriet, but Emma is sure she knows better and that she is helping Harriet (65-66).  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.  It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking” (23-24).  But the outcome proves otherwise because Harriet’s mental and social qualities are “not so much the property of Harriet as of Emma’s perception of Harriet” (Duckworth 157).  Austen constructs events so that Emma is forced to listen to her conscience correct her perceptions through the unexpected proposal of Mr. Elton (130)—as Tanner says, to encounter things as they are—and while she mulls over those events, the consequences of her vanity begin to dawn on Emma: 

Such a blow for Harriet!—That was the worst of all.  Every part of it brought pain and humiliation, of some sort or other; but, compared with the evil to Harriet, all was light; and she would gladly have submitted to feel yet more mistaken—more in error—more disgraced by mis-judgment, than she actually was, could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself.  (134)

Emma acknowledges that she has been mistaken, but Austen goes deeper.  Emma is beginning to understand that her actions affect others, which, for Austen, is the most important knowledge Emma will acquire.  Her thoughts in this passage make clear that she knows Harriet’s suffering is the worst effect of her mistake, and even though the lesson has not yet, in Andrew Wright’s words, “penetrated Emma very deeply,” she has begun the growth process so that she will now, as the novel continues, “be more careful and (as she herself does not yet know) more personally involved” with and aware of others (145). 

Emma can admit to herself that she was wrong about Harriet and Mr. Elton, as her musings after Mr. Elton’s proposal show, but Mr. Knightley doesn’t know this.  During their conversation at the ball he decides to assess her discernment, as well as her willingness to admit her mistakes, asking, “‘why is it that they are your enemies? . . . [C]onfess, Emma, that you did want him to marry Harriet’” (330).  We see how far she has progressed in self-knowledge as she immediately confesses to him, “‘I did,’” and further concedes that he was right and that she was wrong:  “‘I do own myself to have been completely mistaken in Mr. Elton.  There is a littleness about him which you discovered, and which I did not’” (330).  This conversation with Mr. Knightley at the ball gives us valuable insight into Emma’s progress, because, as always, he is the voice of truth.  Just as Mr. Knightley holds the position of readers’ “objective point of reference within the novel” (Duckworth 160), he stands as a yardstick against which we can obtain the true measure of Emma’s reform.  After she admits to being mistaken about Mr. Elton, he reassures her: 

“I shall not scold you.  I leave you to your own reflections.”

“Can you trust me with such flatterers?—Does my vain spirit ever tell me I am wrong?”

“Not your vain spirit, but your serious spirit.—If one leads you wrong, I am sure the other tells you of it.”  (330) 

He knows Emma has a conscience, and he believes she can learn to listen to it.  Emma’s relationship to Mr. Knightley is always connected to the progress of her growth in self-knowledge; her reactions to his opinions of her actions help us gauge where she is in the process.  At the beginning of the novel, she listens to his advice but dismisses it if it contradicts her wishes.  However, “in her ‘serious spirit’—as opposed to her ‘vain’ one—she also knows that Knightley is the true gentleman” (Tanner 201).  At the end of the novel, as she comes to a thorough knowledge of herself, Emma is able to fully “realize the values and importance” of his exemplary moral behavior—an indication that she is capable of reforming on her own (Duckworth 156). 

It has been argued that Emma could not have reformed without Mr. Knightley’s guidance, that, in Litz’s words, he has the “power to control Emma’s penchant for manipulating life” (134), but although it would be right to say that Mr. Knightley is a part of Emma’s journey to self-knowledge and reform, he by no means causes or controls it.  As John Wiltshire points out, theirs is a “relationship of equals” (72), their disagreements provide opportunities for Emma to examine her own points of view and to accept or reject Mr. Knightley’s, as in her ability to see him clearly after their discussion of Frank Churchill:  “To take a dislike to a young man, only because he appeared to be of a different disposition from himself, was unworthy the real liberality of mind which she was always used to acknowledge in him” (150-51).  This recognition shows her to be perceptive, and nearly all of her revelations of her vanity occur in her own mind while she is alone, with her harshest criticisms coming from herself.  For instance, she pronounces an unequivocal judgment on how she had meddled with Harriet:  “With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of everybody’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange everybody’s destiny.  She was proved to have been universally mistaken” (412-13).  Mr. Knightley’s admonishment of “‘badly done’” (375) comes across as a mild reproof compared to her own assessment of her faults. 

The difference between Emma and Mansfield Park is at least partly the difference between Emma’s conscience and Henry Crawford’s.  Both Mr. Crawford and Emma are inclined to think that their abilities exempt them from advice, and that they are clever enough to direct any situation.  Like Emma, Henry Crawford faces opportunities to reform.  He can accept Fanny’s advice to him to listen to the ‘“guide in ourselves”’ (412), or to reject it and stay in London to see Maria (440).  But unlike Emma, who understands that she possesses within herself both a vain and a serious spirit between which she must learn to discern, Mr. Crawford sees Fanny as his sole moral compass.  If he had followed her advice to listen to his conscience, the guide in himself, and done what “he knew he ought,” he would have avoided catastrophe (467).  By contrast Emma’s conscience begins moving her closer to self-knowledge after she and Mr. Knightley disagree.  She recognizes that she possesses her own conscience.  We can see this awareness when she admits to herself that she does have a “habitual respect” for his judgment and dislikes having it “so loudly against her”—that she is not “entirely convinced that her opinions were right and her adversary’s wrong” (65, 67).

As Tanner puts it, Emma’s “capacity to learn and see her own mistakes and erroneous conceptions and preconceptions,” while at the same time knowing “when she is pretending not to know” (199), is what makes her such a complex heroine; in possessing both, she internalizes the conflict between the best and the worst characters of Mansfield Park.  Henry is too vain and Fanny is already too conscientious to be able to reach this level of complexity.  Only a character such as Emma can provide Austen with occasions for exploring how a heroine goes from being blinded by vanity to understanding her faults and reforming herself.  In her narrative construction Austen repeatedly allows Emma the freedom and control to choose between listening to her vanity or to her conscience. 

One of the most important choices comes at the Box Hill picnic.  Emma’s jab at Miss Bates is the result not of her usual liveliness but the disappointment of her high expectations of pleasure from the event, or, as Mr. Knightley later describes it, ‘“thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment”’ (375).  Austen’s description of Emma’s reaction confirms this: “Emma recollected, blushed, was sorry, but tried to laugh it off” (374).  She does not remember saying it until he reminds her.  This incident reveals to Emma how easily she has allowed herself to think less of another person and that her carelessness in understanding herself and how she thinks has been uncovered.  Mr. Knightley makes her face the facts, refocusing her attention from her own irritation with Miss Bates to how Miss Bates is affected by Emma’s treatment:  “‘Her situation should secure your compassion’” (375).  To Emma’s credit, when she does face the truth, she accepts it without excuse.  The most significant moment in this scene is Emma’s reaction to her behavior toward Miss Bates as we are given another glimpse into how she has grown since the novel’s beginning.  Her feelings at this moment are “anger against herself, mortification, and deep concern” (375-76).  She is so struck with the consequences of her actions that she cannot speak:  “Never had she felt so agitated, mortified, grieved, at any circumstance in her life.  She was most forcibly struck.  The truth of his representation there was no denying.  She felt it at her heart” (376). 

Emma is learning to see things as they truly are.  She has always considered her observational powers so superior to everyone else’s that everything she sees she bends to her view, including her opinion that Miss Bates is a blend of the good and the ridiculous (375).  But she now understands how that vanity has blinded her, as she reflects that she “had been often remiss, her conscience told her so; remiss, perhaps more in thought than fact; scornful, ungracious.  But it should be so no more” (377).  These new thoughts lead her toward self-reform by prompting her to take action.  They are an important point in Austen’s construction of Emma:  now her heroine is beginning to assume the role of a responsible and beneficial member of society.  Emma begins an earnest “exorcism of her pride and power together with the growing realization that she must become tangled in the skein of relationships in which she finds herself:  she must not simply direct, she must participate” (Wright 140).  Her first step is her decision to call on Miss Bates the next day:  “In the warmth of true contrition, she would call upon her the very next morning, and it should be the beginning, on her side, of a regular, equal, kindly intercourse” (377).  She makes the visit, and the language representing her thoughts about the family is more compassionate than it has been as she endeavors to understand them.  When Miss Bates comes into the room, she says, ‘“Very happy and obliged,”’ but “Emma’s conscience told her that there was not the same cheerful volubility as before” (378).  As Jenkyns says, she can now see beyond herself to the autonomy of other people.  Emma’s growth in this scene is really quite beautiful.  She has gone from saying that Mr. Knightley’s finding fault with her is “‘a joke’” (10) to not being “ashamed of the appearance of the penitence, so justly and truly hers” (377-78). 

Emma has never been in the habit of questioning her own judgment.  But now she has learned to subject her vanity to the scrutiny necessary for true self-knowledge and reform.  She undergoes the most revolutionary lesson when it suddenly becomes blindingly clear that through her meddling she may lose Mr. Knightley forever.  In none of her previous schemes has so much been at stake.  Everything becomes clear now because the consequences are so personal, and we know that she has really begun to reform when we see her reaction: 

It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself! 

Her own conduct, as well as her own heart, was before her in the same few minutes.  She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before.  How improperly had she been acting by Harriet!  How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling had been her conduct!  What blindness, what madness had led her on!  It struck her with dreadful force, and she was ready to give it every bad name in the world.  (408) 

For nearly two chapters, Emma’s attention is on how improperly she has been acting by everyone, recognizing that if she had done what she knew at the time was right, she would have avoided this entire mess.  By this point she does not need anyone to tell her that fact.  She acknowledges that Mr. Knightley and others had warned her, but it is the voice of her own serious spirit that tells her they were right.  She can now see how blinded by vanity she has been.  The words blindness, blinded and blind are used repeatedly throughout the book, but Emma’s use of them increases in these last few chapters.  She berates “[t]he blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart” (411), knows that she can “not flatter herself with any idea of blindness in [Mr. Knightley’s] attachment to her” (415), and tells Mr. Knightley that “‘I seem to have been doomed to blindness’” (425) and that “‘[m]y blindness to what was going on, led me to act by them in a way that I must always be ashamed of’” (426). 

Emma finally knows herself and can accurately see others.  In the process of acquiring that knowledge, she has reformed.  She has acquired “that capacity for penetration to the truth which is the real hallmark of Jane Austen’s admired characters” (Butler 260).  She does marry Mr. Knightley, but her greatest reward is that self-knowledge because it transforms her into a person who can bring greater comfort to her fellow creatures.  She doesn’t need a Fanny Price or a Mr. Knightley to be her conscience.  She now appreciates her own serious spirit.  That is the genius of Emma.  Austen’s prayer (cited earlier) expresses what she believes is the goal of self-knowledge and reform:  the good of others.  Emma is Austen’s study of what every person can and must do for the good of everyone, and Emma’s progress is the story of how it can be done.

The distance between two passages from the first and the penultimate chapters offers the final proof of how drastically Emma has reformed.  At the beginning, Austen paints Emma as a young woman ready to make mistakes because she is blind to the dangers of vanity: 

The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments.  The danger, however, was at present so unperceived, that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her.  (5-6) 

But because Austen brings her heroines to a position where they can be a beneficial force in the world around them, by the novel’s end Emma faces the future as a handsome, clever, rich and more conscientious Emma Woodhouse—able to articulate a personal knowledge of her mistakes engaged in the process of reform: 

What had she to wish for?  Nothing, but to grow more worthy of him, whose intentions and judgment had been ever so superior to her own.  Nothing, but that the lessons of her past folly might teach her humility and circumspection in future.  (475)

Works Cited
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  • _____.  The Works of Jane Austen.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933-1969.
  • The Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments, and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church, according to the Use of the Church of England.  Oxford, 1770.
  • Butler, Marilyn.  “History, Politics, and Religion.”  The Jane Austen Companion.  Ed. J. David Grey, A.  Walton Litz, and Brian Southam.  New York: Macmillan, 1986.  190-208.
  • _____.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1975.
  • Duckworth, Alistair M.  The Improvement of the Estate.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1994.
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  • Litz, A. Walton.  Jane Austen: A Study of Her Artistic Development.  New York: OUP, 1965.
  • Tanner, Tony.  Jane Austen.  Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986
  • Trilling, Lionel.  From “Emma and the Legend of Jane Austen.”  1957.  A Truth Universally Acknowledged: 33 Great Writers on Why We Read Jane Austen.  Ed. Susannah Carson.  New York: Random House, 2009.  188-99.
  • Wiltshire, John.  “Mansfield Park, Emma, Persuasion.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster.  Cambridge: CUP, 1997.  58-83.
  • Wright, Andrew H.  Jane Austen’s Novels.  Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964.
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