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“Small, Trifling Presents”: Giving and Receiving in Emma

SHORTLY AFTER EMMA’S PUBLICATION in 1816, Mrs. Charles (Charlotte) Cage, a member of the Austens’ extended social network in Kent, expressed delight at her “new set of acquaintance” in Highbury, proclaiming, “No one writes such good sense & so very comfortable” (Later Manuscripts 238).  A perceptive reader, Charlotte Cage identified the feeling distinct to the novel:  Emma’s village of Highbury and its environs is a place of plentitude, whose residents possess exactly what they require to live contentedly and admit to enjoying much more than they ever could have expected.  Regardless of whether they deserve their good fortune, the characters in Emma get what they need and even what they desire.  Miss Bates and her widowed mother, existing on the very edge of genteel poverty, receive the apples, pork, and attention that secure their place in the neighborhood; the timely death of his aunt gives Frank Churchill the means to marry his fiancée before she descends to becoming a governess; Emma Woodhouse ends up with the man she loves despite her own disruptive matchmaking; and Mr. Woodhouse’s fears over the pilfering of his henhouse are eased by the acquisition of a protective son-in-law.

What sustains the residents of Highbury, including the most disadvantaged, is a complicated network of gift exchanges whose maintenance rests chiefly upon two people:  Emma, the twenty-one-year-old heiress of Hartfield, and her brother-in-law George Knightley, proprietor of Donwell Abbey, the estate “to which all the rest of Highbury belonged” (147).  Sometimes working at odds with each other and sometimes in concert, Emma and Knightley find themselves responsible for the welfare of their community, and their disbursal of wealth, goods, and social recognition is crucial to its preservation.  Yet while Knightley receives general praise as an enlightened landowner and a good neighbor, Emma is the target of criticism for both meddling and neglect, for “‘always doing more than she wished, and less than she ought’” (177).1  But the novel’s concern with what Emma gives and how she gives it reveals more than the heroine’s moral flaws:  Austen’s focus on Emma’s performance as a donor highlights the importance of the gift in preserving a distinctly “English” way of life and displays the crucial role that women played in upholding an economy apart from the male sphere of commerce.  Emma’s initial failure and eventual success within the cycle of giving and receiving portray her growing sense of what a gift ought to be according to the changing norms of her social world. 

“‘We are quite blessed in our neighbours’”

In his study of the gift, anthropologist Marcel Mauss notes that the act of giving creates the obligation to receive and to reciprocate, and thus serves as “one of the human foundations on which our societies are built”; conversely, “[t]o refuse to give . . . is to reject the bond of alliance and commonality” that keeps the social fabric intact (4, 13).  The daughter of a clergyman of modest means, Austen found herself both a donor and a recipient at different times in her life.  Her charity began close to home:  writing to Cassandra, she recounted her gifts of worsted stockings, shifts, and shawls to poor women in the neighborhood of their Steventon parish at Christmas (24-26 December 1798).  Austen’s will also contained a legacy of £50 to Madame Bigeon, who had attended her deceased sister-in-law Eliza and who may have lost savings deposited in Henry Austen’s failed bank.  Cassandra’s devotion to continuing the legacy to Madame Bigeon and her daughter after Austen’s death suggests the sisters’ shared responsibility for the financial well-being of these women (Tomalin 279-80).  Their commitment to acting as donors might also have arisen from their own experience of living in narrowed circumstances.  After the death of the Rev. George Austen in 1805, Austen’s mother and sister between them possessed only £210 per year, and since Austen had no private income until the publication of her novels, Austen’s brothers collectively provided the “dear trio” with another £250 to make them “full as rich as ever” (Austen-Leigh 233, 235).

Although generous, these contributions were always contingent upon the men’s ability to pay, and their financial support also gave the brothers access to the women’s time and labor, which they freely claimed when their own families needed domestic help.  Austen’s letters reveal her chagrin at feeling “obliged to be an incumbrance” (15-17 June 1808) upon her family, as well as her annoyance with relations who could not understand the restraints of her situation.  “[A] Legacy,” she remarked, “is our sovereign good” (26 June 1808).  In 1806 Austen received an unexpected legacy of £50 from Mrs. Lillingston, a family connection (Le Faye 152-53), and she deeply appreciated the occasional gifts of friends such as Catherine Knatchbull Knight (the benefactor of her brother Edward), who gave her “the usual Fee,& all the usual Kindness” (20-22 June 1808) on a regular basis. 

Austen herself delighted in bestowing gifts from the sales of her fiction, such as a poplin gown to her sister Cassandra (“Remember that it is a present.  Do not refuse me.  I am very rich.” [23-24 September 1813]); she often made presents of the novels as well.2  Less voluntary gifts, however, vexed her, especially when she felt herself a passive party in the exchange; as Austen acidly stated, “I do not chuse to have Generosity dictated to me” (8-9 January 1801).  Her generosity was in fact dictated when James Stanier Clarke, the librarian at Carlton House, invited her to dedicate Emma to the Prince Regent.  Austen responded anxiously, asking “how such a Permission is to be understood”:  as a donor, she feared appearing “presumptuous” in offering her work, and as the honored object of the Regent’s regard, she feared seeming “Ungrateful” if she did not distinguish him (15 November 1815).  Although unhappy about dedicating her novel to a person whose conduct toward women she despised, the demands of power and conventions of politeness left Austen no real choice, and the dedication was duly printed.3 

Austen’s own experiences suggest why nothing in Emma generates as much discussion, emotion, and conflict as gifts, which range from pork and apples to social “polish” and a piano; besides being the “moral cement” (Komter 109) needed for sustaining community life, gifts throughout the narrative create misunderstandings, embarrassment, and even resentment.  This confusion reflects the changing attitudes toward giving apparent in Austen’s culture.  During Austen’s lifetime, traditional forms of paternalism and Christian stewardship faced a challenge from modern concepts of absolute property ownership, including the emphasis on individual self-reliance and the growing distrust of state-supported poor relief.  Thomas Sherlock, Bishop of London—whose sermons Austen preferred “to almost any” (28 September 1814)—insisted that charity should be a “free and voluntary Gift” (3:109) rather than an obligation enjoined by God, and Adam Smith agreed that taking part in the moral economy was entirely discretionary, for “[b]eneficence . . . cannot be extorted by force” (Theory of Moral Sentiments 78).4  Smith also expressed the growing sentiment that engagement in the marketplace, not the gift system, most fully preserves human dignity, since “[n]obody but a beggar chuses to depend chiefly upon the benevolence of his fellow-citizens” (Wealth of Nations 1.2.2). 

For genteel women like Emma, though, generosity was a mandatory virtue. As reformers demanding “alms control” (Innes 156) disputed the claims of the poor upon the propertied classes, conduct literature of Austen’s time stressed the necessity for women’s oversight of the gift economy.  According to Sarah Trimmer, “the female character” formed by domestic life is especially suited to “effecting that mutual good understanding” produced by “reciprocal benevolence and gratitude” (4-5).  Hannah More agreed with Trimmer that gentlewomen could prove themselves patriots by soothing class tensions with displays of fellow-feeling and concern:  “Charity is the calling of a lady; the care of the poor is her profession” (138).  But despite their endorsements of female charity, conduct writers such as William Duff insisted upon limits to these exchanges, reminding women that “the kind offices and benevolent efforts” expected of them should not supplant the “fundamental laws of society . . . which declare, that those who do not work . . . should not eat” (253). 

The problem of the gift lies at the heart of Emma and falls squarely upon its heroine’s shoulders.  Although parish business, including assistance to the poor and infirm, occupies the time of Knightley and Mr. Elton, the resident clergyman, it is Emma, not either of the men, who presides over the face-to-face dispensation of charity.  In a scene that enacts the advice given in The Ladies’ Companion for Visiting the Poor, which recommends “tracing our petitioners to their abodes” (v) and giving them immediate relief, Emma brings some cottagers both material and emotional comfort:  she “entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her assistance with as much intelligence as good-will” (93).  Here the narrative suggests the frequency of Emma’s visits and the exercise of her “personal attention and kindness” (93) as well as the use of her resources.  Men’s attention to these duties, however, is either minimal or absent altogether from the novel.  Mr. Elton becomes a target of irony when he meets Emma returning from the cottage but defers his own visit to the sick and needy family in favor of escorting her back to Hartfield; the appeal of her beauty and her portion of £30,000 obviously outweighs the claims of his indigent parishioners.  In the novel, personal charity belongs to the sphere of women, and Emma’s practiced performance of it suggests her untroubled acceptance of this role. 

The unnamed poor, however, are not the prime objects of the gift in Emma:  although the funds they receive from the parish and Emma’s attendance upon them keep their lives from disintegrating, they remain on the periphery of the Highbury community.  Rather, gift exchanges principally focus on Mrs. and Miss Bates, the widow and middle-aged daughter of Highbury’s former clergyman, who are constrained to live in cramped rented lodgings, which “[were] every thing to them” (166).  Such women generated intense concern in Austen’s time, especially from social reformers trying to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor, or to separate “those who perhaps have seen better days” from those who “by choice . . . enter the walks of mendicity [sic]” (Colquhoun 69).  To Austen’s contemporaries, these marginal groups had to be managed with different kinds of attention and resources, with the respectable being strengthened by inclusion into society and the reprobate being weakened by exclusion. 

In Emma, this kind of social engineering occurs through the gift.  The gypsies camped on the outskirts of Highbury receive no charity:  when Emma’s young protégée Harriet Smith encounters a group of “loud and insolent” children and a “stout woman” demanding money, Frank Churchill comes to her rescue, leaving them with threats instead of alms and turning them away “completely frightened” at the harsh treatment they receive (361).  Set apart from the established community by their race, their wandering habits, and their truculence, the gypsies threaten the stability of the neighborhood, and their expulsion appears justified by their feeling of entitlement:  they want a share of others’ resources without offering anything in exchange. 

By contrast, the gifts that flow to Mrs. and Miss Bates secure their status as neighbors existing safely within the boundaries of community life.  Facing the problem of making “a small income go as far as possible” (20), the Bateses cannot afford to participate in the commerce of Highbury:  they marvel at the village bakers’ politeness to them, since they buy very little bread, and worry about calling upon the local apothecary, Mr. Perry, despite his usual practice of attending the family without charge (“‘He has a wife and family to maintain, and is not to be giving away his time’” [173]).  Yet despite the Bateses’ uneasy position on the margins of a market culture, they live well because their neighbors insulate them from poverty’s worst effects. Mr. Woodhouse laments that “‘small, trifling presents, of any thing uncommon’” (184) are the most that his family can offer, but it is the unique nature of these small gifts—their being exactly suited to the ladies’ tastes—that prevents them from being construed as acts of charity to the poor, like the nondescript broth Emma sends to the unnamed cottagers.  Overriding her father’s gastronomic fears, Emma, “never indifferent to the credit of doing every thing well and attentively” (23), supplies her less affluent neighbors with treats they could not ordinarily enjoy, including “large slices of cake and full glasses of wine” (230) and “‘a delicate fricassee of sweetbread and some asparagus’” (356), an attention that shows she remembers what kind of food Mrs. Bates particularly likes.5  Mrs. Bates and her daughter also receive from Emma a “‘whole hind-quarter’” of pork (184), which elicits a shower of thanks:  “‘If ever there were people who, without having great wealth themselves, had every thing they could wish for, I am sure it is us.  We may well say that ‘our lot is cast in a goodly heritage’’” (186).

While Miss Bates’s remarks may recall traditional concepts of Christian stewardship in which the wealthy share their gifts from God and in turn receive blessings, her “contented and grateful spirit” (20) also serves the practical purpose of securing her place in the community that gift exchange creates.  Anxious to take part in the chain of reciprocity, Miss Bates has no sooner acknowledged Emma’s gift than she plans to pass it along:  Mrs. Goddard, mistress of the village boarding school for girls, will be invited to dinner ‘“when [the Bateses] dress the leg’” (189)—they might find roast loin of pork too delectable to want to share it.  Gift transactions, in fact, sustain the Bateses so well that they avoid the loss of status often suffered by decayed gentlewomen in a culture defined by getting and spending.  Emma explains Miss Bates’s exemption from the fate of other poor old maids as a result of her place within the gift economy; while poverty often forces such women into social isolation, Miss Bates, as Emma explains, has avoided this worrisome pitfall: 

“Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross.  This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates; . . . she is very much to the taste of everybody, though single and though poor.  Poverty certainly has not contracted her mind:  I really believe, if she had only a shilling in the world, she would be very likely to give away sixpence of it.”  (91) 

Despite her circumstances, Miss Bates’s continued liberality and attention to the needs of others keep her and her mother firmly within the social network formed by reciprocity.  Admiring her contentment, Mr. Weston, a successful tradesman-turned-landowner who has thrived by his skill in commerce, remarks that Miss Bates “‘is a standing lesson of how to be happy’” (275):  with the least to give, she has managed to become central to Highbury life, visited by everyone and in attendance at all of the neighborhood events. 

While Miss Bates interprets what is given to her as a gesture of pure good will—“‘We are quite blessed in our neighbours’” (188)—gift relations in fact create an alternative economy that preserves those too blamelessly weak to compete successfully in the marketplace.  Yet despite the bounty they receive, the circumstances of the Bateses remain confined, and Mr. Woodhouse’s lament that “‘it is so little one can venture to do’” for them (184) suggests the limitations of benevolence.  The very nature of the gifts bestowed in Emma shows how the bonds of paternalism have weakened and even fractured.  Understanding that gifts help secure human relationships, Knightley, whose family has inhabited Donwell Abbey for generations, employs his own goods and services to create a safety net for the Bateses, and shows his sense of responsibility by providing “‘the sort of thing[s] that so few men would think of’” (241):  the ladies receive his last supplies of apples, use of his carriage, and his offer to run errands for them in a neighboring town.  For these deeds, Knightley “‘never can bear to be thanked’” (265).  Yet Knightley’s attempt to make light of the small favors that he performs for the widow and daughter of Highbury’s long-serving clergyman reveals not only his embarrassment over Miss Bates’s effusive gratitude but also his awareness that these transactions are inevitably inadequate to halt the family’s economic and social decline. 

As ever-present symbols of the limits of paternalism, the Bateses create discomfort for Knightley—a feeling of unease over a problem that he expects Emma to resolve.  Although underrating the effect of his own contributions, Knightley anxiously monitors Emma’s patterns of giving, relaying to her “many a hint” about her “deficiency” (165) regarding the Bateses.  Knightley is not alone in leveling this criticism, for the “very few who presumed ever to see imperfection in her” (165), such as Mrs. Weston, also express their concerns.  Yet the focus on her relationship with the Bateses has less to do with Emma’s negligence than with the communal anxiety the women generate and the social inequities their poverty exposes.  Despite her obvious knowledge of the goods and attentions that Mrs. and Miss Bates would most appreciate receiving, Emma’s constant contributions to the “stock of their scanty comforts” (165) are always considered insufficient.  What troubles Knightley and Mrs. Weston is not Emma’s failure to give material items, but rather her reluctance to bestow her attention upon the Bateses and display a genuine concern for them.  Emma herself recognizes the limits of her generosity and tries to justify her avoidance of those “tiresome women” by thinking of such visits as a “waste of time” (165).  This apparent callousness on Emma’s part has far-reaching and troubling effects:  Emma’s insistence on her own pleasure and power in giving challenges the social expectations for gentlewomen, whose “profession” of reallocating wealth toward the poor and needy is supposed to ease the hardships created by the marketplace.  Through representing Emma’s resistance to this task, Austen investigates whether gift relations are capable of stabilizing a community in the process of rapid change. 

“‘A very foolish intimacy’” 

While many characters in Emma take part in the gift cycle, women’s role is especially significant.  Without the political and financial responsibilities faced by landowners or members of the merchant and professional classes, women in Austen’s culture had few means of establishing an identity.  Even Emma, “accountable to nobody but her father” (40) and thus the most independent and advantaged woman in the novel, is described in terms of how well she fulfils her duties toward others:  when praising her to Knightley, Mrs. Weston asks, “‘Where shall we see a better daughter, or a kinder sister, or a truer friend?’” (40).  After the marriage and departure of Mrs. Weston, Emma decides that “the something which her home required” (25) was someone to whom she herself could be “useful” (26), and who could repay that debt with deference and affection.  With her uncertain parentage, vague social standing, “grateful disposition,” and good looks, Harriet Smith quickly becomes “a valuable addition” (25) to Emma’s household:  Harriet’s relative ignorance and effusive displays of gratitude allow Emma to experience her superiority and authority in giving Harriet what she lacks. 

Despite his own careful mentoring of his tenant farmer Robert Martin, Knightley attacks the relationship between Emma and Harriet as “‘a very foolish intimacy’” (68):  Emma’s solicitude and Harriet’s subordination expose the enormous social gap between the two women, and their exchanges seem a parody of patronage itself.  Worse yet, Emma believes that her attention to Harriet—the illegitimate daughter of “somebody”—carries enough authority to raise her to genteel status and that the advantages she supplies to Harriet sufficiently overcome her lack of patrimony.  Knightley attempts to set Emma straight about the relative importance of the moral and market economies.  After learning that Harriet, with Emma’s approval, has refused an offer of marriage from Robert Martin, Knightley accuses Emma of being “‘no friend’” (66) to Harriet, of undermining the girl’s chance at economic security; he also correctly predicts that Mr. Elton “‘will act rationally’” (70) and spurn Harriet for a more affluent bride.  The polish that Emma has given to Harriet appears comically inadequate when set against the financial realities of Highbury life.  In marrying Miss Augusta Hawkins, with a fortune of £10,000 “or thereabouts” (195), Mr. Elton makes it clear that he has “not thrown himself away” (195).  Yet despite Emma’s mistaken sense of what her gifts are worth, her real attachment to Harriet prevents her patronage from being nothing more than a socially acceptable form of domination.

Like Emma, Augusta Elton asserts her status as a gentlewoman by acts of benevolence.  She also displays her sexual maturity as a bride and her influence as a clergyman’s wife by latching upon the single and impoverished Jane Fairfax:  “without solicitation, or plea, or privilege, she must be wanting to assist and befriend her” (304).  A poor but genteel orphan facing the decline experienced by the Bateses (her maternal aunt and grandmother), Jane ranks among those women whom Austen’s contemporaries viewed as the proper objects of compassion.  Fueled by a desire for social authority that her trading-class background cannot provide, Mrs. Elton determines to protect Jane, and through calling attention to Jane’s humble circumstances, she celebrates her own conspicuous consumption and even deliberate waste.  By offering favors to Jane, she loudly advertises the profuseness of her dinners (“‘which could not make the addition of Jane Fairfax, at any time, the least inconvenient’” [306]); the idleness of her many male servants in comparison with the Bateses’s single maid (“‘it is a kindness to employ our men’” [320]); and the fact that her household, unlike most others in Highbury, can afford a carriage with spirited horses (“‘I believe we drive faster than anybody’” [348]).  She subordinates Jane through language as well:  by calling her “‘a very sad girl’” (318) and “‘my dear child’” (324), Mrs. Elton familiarizes the dominance that she assumes, implying that her behavior more closely resembles the watchful care of a parent than the annoying encroachment of a neighbor.  Only the complete obliteration of Jane’s autonomy will satisfy her “‘Lady Patroness’” (385), whose solicitude barely masks her assertion of power. 

The concealment of hostility under the guise of service reaches its height in Mrs. Elton’s “triumph” (390) in finding Jane employment as a governess.  After publicly estimating the exchange value of Jane’s abilities—“‘I really believe you might . . . stipulate for what you chose’” (326)—she secures her a position in the household of the ominously-named Mrs. Smallridge, who is desperate to delegate the care and education of her three girls.  Although Jane feels compelled to accept the offer, she also feels “‘as low as possible’” (412) at the prospect of taking it up.  Even the unsuspecting Miss Bates observes that her response, like Jane’s, “‘does not seem much like joy’” (412).  In contrast to Emma’s treatment of Harriet, Mrs. Elton uses the gift to serve rather than challenge the workings of the marketplace:  Mrs. Smallridge’s ability to acquire a good bargain in a governess depends upon the sense of obligation that her “‘indefatigable’” friend Augusta Elton can generate in Jane.  Ironically, Jane’s servitude—her becoming a source of cheap domestic labor—is arranged through acts of patronage.  When Jane fortunately escapes this trap, Mrs. Elton’s “little show of resentment” (496) betrays her disappointing loss of status and influence as a deal-maker whose social power rivals the financial clout of men. 

Although the moral economy in Highbury appears healthy and thriving, Austen portrays women’s acts of benevolence as profoundly troubling.  In Mrs. Elton’s hands, the gift is an assertion of authority meant to humiliate the recipient and force her down the social ladder:  Mrs. Elton’s self-styled protection of Jane involves making sure the young woman’s intelligence, talent, and beauty remain buried in obscurity.  In Emma’s hands, the gift is either somewhat deficient (toward the Bateses) or overly profuse (toward Harriet):  she neglects Jane in favor of the more easily patronized Harriet, tearing her from her intimacy with the Martin family without regard for their “real feeling” (192) and generosity toward the girl.  Austen’s skepticism about the intent and effects of women’s gifts questions the conduct-book view of female benevolence.  As Emma suggests, women’s presents of goods, services, and attention often disrupt the relationships and sense of community they are supposed to strengthen and secure. 

“‘A boyish scheme’” 

Yet women are not the only characters whose gifts reflect their self-image rather than their selflessness.  The debate over “‘what a man should be’” (433) is central to Emma, and gift transactions provide the focus of this dispute.  To Knightley, gifts are primarily community-centered gestures that accompany his standing as the most influential landowner in Highbury.  To Frank Churchill, gifts are private, even secretive exchanges that express intimacy and passion.  These different functions of the gift mirror the different social and sexual roles available for men, and in presenting these contrasts, Emma displays significant cultural disagreement over ideals of manhood. 

Early in the novel, Frank Churchill nearly becomes the subject of a quarrel between Emma and Knightley as they discuss his postponing a congratulatory visit to his father’s new bride.  While they agree that the Churchills, the uncle and aunt who adopted him, must have prevented Frank from visiting, Knightley and Emma offer different opinions about how that delay reflects upon Frank’s character.  To Knightley, Frank’s willingness to bend to the “‘little minds’” of his benefactors shows his deviation from the principle of duty that underlies masculine conduct:  Knightley declares that “‘English delicacy towards the feelings of other people’” (161) is lacking in Frank, since a mature Englishman would reject the encroachments of his patrons, especially if they are female.  Although Emma had earlier insisted that only young women feel completely beholden to their benefactors—“‘one cannot comprehend a young man’s being under such restraint’” (132)—she defends Frank to Knightley, whom she calls “‘the worst judge in the world’” regarding ‘“the difficulties of dependence’” (157).  Emma notes that decades of gifts from the Churchills to Frank strengthen webs of attachment and deference unfamiliar to Knightley, an eldest, unmarried son whose parents are deceased; in confronting the Churchills, Emma observes, a man such as Knightley “‘would have no habits of early obedience and long observance to break through’” (159).  But for Frank, whose adoption has fostered such habits, “‘it might not be so easy to burst forth at once into perfect independence, and set all their claims on his gratitude and regard at nought’” (159).  Imagining Frank Churchill confronting his uncle and aunt (“‘Standing up in the middle of the room . . . and speaking as loud as he could’” [158]), is ludicrous to Emma, for this high-handed behavior requires a degree of autonomy limited to men of Knightley’s social status. 

Knightley’s own willingness to act as a donor emphasizes his masculine independence because he refuses to accept anything—including gratitude—in return (“‘He never can bear to be thanked’” [265]).  Even his idea of romance involves his control over the gift cycle:  he believes the foremost desire of husbands is to encourage thankfulness in their wives (“‘A man would always wish to give a woman a better home than the one he takes her from’” [467]), and half alarmed that his interest in the welfare of Jane Fairfax might end in marriage, Emma comically pictures Miss Bates “‘thanking him all day long for his great kindness in marrying Jane’” (243).  Acting as a donor is so integral to Knightley’s manhood that Frank Churchill, with his history of dependence, appears to him a “‘puppy’” (162) forever consigned to a state of boyhood in both private and public life.  The novel in part endorses this perspective, for Frank’s ultimate assessment of Knightley as a “‘man whom I cannot presume to praise’” (521) implies his own deficiency by comparison.

Another style of manhood, however, emerges through Frank’s use of a gift that mystifies the Highbury community.  Although he becomes engaged to Jane Fairfax shortly after meeting her at Weymouth, Frank’s indebtedness to his Aunt Churchill and fear of her disapproval prevent him from announcing this engagement publicly.  A gift enables him to display his devotion to Jane while simultaneously concealing it from everyone else.  On the pretense of getting a haircut, he ventures from Highbury to London and purchases an expensive Broadwood pianoforte for Jane, which he sends to her anonymously.  When conjectures about the giver begin to circulate, Frank joins Emma in trying to determine the meaning of the present, bolstering her suspicion that it is “‘an offering of love’” (236) from Mr. Dixon—the husband of Miss Campbell, Jane’s intimate friend—who admired Jane’s playing.  Yet the gift’s significance remains exclusive to Frank and Jane:  they use the piano to make love literally under the eyes of the Highbury community, which remains ignorant of their romance.  A visit from Emma, Mrs. Weston, and Harriet to see the instrument interrupts Frank and Jane during an embrace, which Jane’s embarrassed silence, averted face, and steady attention to the instrument conceal.  Recovering his composure by repeatedly observing the high value and thoughtfulness of the gift, Frank declares the giver’s motives emanated “‘from the heart,’” since “‘[t]rue affection only could have prompted it’” (262).  Jane’s “deep blush of consciousness” and “smile of secret delight” (262), which Emma believes betray her illicit desire for Mr. Dixon, actually point to the private understanding she shares with Frank and the covert dialog between them.  Through the gift of the piano, the reserved and demure Jane speaks her passion.  While Frank later admits that Jane’s “‘delicacy of . . . mind’” (479) would not have encouraged his gift, it nonetheless delights her as an acknowledgment of her abilities, an outlet for her voice, and a promise of their future harmony as a couple. 

Predictably, Knightley views the anonymous and cumbersome present as a lapse of the presumably male donor’s “‘better judgment’” (247).  To Knightley, “‘[s]urprizes are foolish things’” (247).  His conception of the gift as a means of openly establishing and cementing social bonds dismisses what is unforeseen as inconvenient, disturbing, and even unwelcome, while for Frank the sense of mystery lends the gift its charm as a private communication between his lover and himself.  Censuring the piano’s appearance as a “‘boyish scheme’” (486), Knightley proclaims that properly masculine gifts should be clear in their meaning and intention:  he offers his apples and carriage to the entire Bates family, and when he asks if they require anything in Kingston, “every syllable of their conversation was as distinctly heard by the others, as if it had passed within the same apartment” (263).  Yet although Frank’s idea of the gift remains incompatible with Knightley’s practices, his courtship of Jane succeeds:  his Aunt Churchill’s death frees him from dependence.  Frank’s excess of good fortune—none of it arising from the young man’s previous behavior—leaves Knighley unsettled and amazed:  “‘Frank Churchill is, indeed, the favourite of fortune.  Every thing turns out for his good. . . . He has used every body ill—and they are all delighted to forgive him.—He is a fortunate man indeed!’” (467).  The “upright justice” (453) that governs Knightley’s actions—his rigorous separation of those who deserve the gift (like the Bateses) and those who do not (like Frank and the gypsies)—leaves him amazed at Frank’s inexplicable surplus of blessings.  Unlike Jane’s happiness, which is tempered by her awareness of her error in entering into a secret engagement (“‘the kindness I am now receiving, is what my conscience tells me ought not to be’” [456]), the benefits that Frank receives go beyond the distribution of justice that Knightley—a village magistrate—advocates:  although acknowledging his many faults toward others, Frank with no hint of repentance declares himself “‘happier than I deserve’” (483). 

Here Emma represents the gift as a deviation from typical circumstances, an “unexpected, unforeseen ‘gesture’” (Godbout 195) that defies strict moral accounting:  instead of facing the predictable outcome of his duplicity, Frank obtains forgiveness and congratulations from the very people whom he repeatedly deceived.  Frank’s good fortune disturbs Knightley’s sense of equity, but order is soon restored, for Austen does not allow the unjustified success of Frank’s courtship to serve as a model for all social relations in Highbury.  The love shared by Frank and Jane, which finds expression in gifts that circulate only between themselves, represents a romantic alternative to the usual customs and norms of Highbury.  Speaking for her community, Emma excuses their secretive behavior, misquoting Romeo and Juliet as she declares, “‘the world is not their’s, nor the world’s law’” (436).  But the novel makes it clear that such exceptions cannot be integrated into the everyday give and take of village life, and the couple departs for the family estate at Enscombe before the concluding scenes. 

“‘In some doubt of a return’” 

Throughout most of the novel, the actual workings of the gift system in Emma cast doubt upon whether it promotes the common good.  While gifts do support the distressed residents of Highbury and cushion them from the severities of the marketplace, they are also vehicles for asserting social power and controlling or manipulating others in the community.  Yet despite this critique of the damage gifts can perform, Austen does not dispense with the moral economy altogether.  Instead, Emma herself learns to distinguish between exchanges grounded in self-interest and those that result in no profit, prestige, or compulsory return.  Through this transformation in Emma’s conduct, the novel ultimately endorses the gift’s value in creating a more comfortable, livable world. 

In the climactic scene at Box Hill, Emma’s belittling treatment of Miss Bates reveals the painful disjunction between the stream of gifts to her from Hartfield and Emma’s conception of the aging, impoverished spinster as a form of human refuse.  What creates this breach is Emma’s lack of regard for her.  Defined by Adam Smith as “the sympathy, complacency, and approbation” (Theory of Moral Sentiments 50) from others that confirm our sense of self-worth, regard proves more valuable to Miss Bates than whole hindquarters of pork:  knowing that “conversation is a gift economy, loaded with cues of acceptance or disdain” (Offer 454), she poignantly asks to be included.  By confessing her lack of wit (“‘I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth’” [403]), and appealing for confirmation of her dullness (“‘Do not you all think I shall?’” [403]), Miss Bates actually begs her audience to proclaim the value of her contribution to the group.  When Emma limits her to “‘only three [dull things] at once,’” Miss Bates blames herself for Emma’s insulting estimate of what she has to offer:  “‘I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend’” (403).  Hoping for acknowledgement of her worth as a neighbor with a long history of exchanges with the Woodhouses, Miss Bates instead receives proof that she has nothing significant to give to her small society. 

Followed ironically by Mr. Weston’s conundrum praising Emma’s perfection, this casual insult to Miss Bates highlights the crucial importance of social recognition:  while mocking Miss Bates certainly injures her feelings, it also threatens to diminish the regard that others bestow upon her, with potentially disastrous consequences for her continued welfare.  Knightley refers to this threat when he reproaches Emma as the party breaks up:  he claims that if Miss Bates were “‘a woman of fortune,’” Emma’s rudeness, although offensive, would be fairly harmless, since it could not damage the well-being of a more affluent person.  But Miss Bates’s status and ability to survive in the environment of Highbury are much less secure:

Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case.  She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. . . . It was badly done, indeed!—You, whom she had known from an infant, whom she had seen grow up from a period when her notice was an honour, to have you now, in thoughtless spirits, and the pride of the moment, laugh at her, humble her—and before her niece, too—and before others, many of whom (certainly some,) would be entirely guided by your treatment of her.”  (408) 

Emma’s jest is “badly done” especially because it gives others the freedom to insult and abuse an already vulnerable member of village society. 

Keenly aware of the value of regard, Knightley points out that in the past the notice of Miss Bates raised Emma’s sense of importance:  Emma’s failure to return this regard, and thus secure Highbury’s continuing care for Miss Bates, constitutes cruelty toward a woman who “‘must probably sink more’” as her income dwindles over time.  Knightley’s admonition brings instant results:  it reminds Emma that her identity and status as “first in consequence” (5) in the neighborhood depend upon her visible usefulness to others and her dominant place in the gift economy.  Her alarm at provoking Knightley’s “ill opinion” (409), perhaps permanently, inspires a wholly new perspective upon her gifts: 

If attention, in future, could do away the past, she might hope to be forgiven.  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.  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.  (410). 

Realizing that she has considered the Bateses as tedious obligations instead of friends, Emma vows to give them something more valuable than pork and cake—that is, the genuine fellow feeling that such long-time neighbors deserve. 

Although Emma’s many presents to the Bateses suggest that she has never shirked her duty to attend to them, her past actions no longer seem sufficient.  As Austen implies, it’s now the thought that counts:  instead of merely fulfilling her social duties, Emma’s act of giving must express her state of mind, her heartfelt and voluntary concern for others.  For the very first time in the novel, she visits the Bateses willingly, showing herself “most sincerely interested” (413) in their lives.  Miss Bates immediately responds to Emma’s real anxiety for Jane’s health.  Upon learning of her visit, Knightley also reacts with his own “glow of regard” (420) for Emma:  he raises her hand for an aborted kiss of reconciliation, performing the only gallant gesture he makes to her throughout the entire narrative. 

As the novel concludes, Emma’s changed attitude toward giving indicates her maturity, for she bestows her time, her attention, and her goods without her former concern for the power or pleasure these gifts provide to herself.  With Miss and Mrs. Bates, who no longer seem tiresome, Emma vows to maintain an “equal, kindly intercourse” (410).  In a dismissal of economic metaphors, the “‘account . . . of the evil and the good’” between Emma and Jane Fairfax is “‘all to be forgotten’” (457) in mutual confidence and trust.  With Harriet, Emma now feels relieved that the effects of her patronage are contained.  When Harriet and Robert Martin finally marry, the narrative insists “it was all as it should be” (526), since he can offer his bride social acceptance and stability beyond the advantages provided by her occasional residence at Hartfield.  As Emma realizes, there are limits to what her gifts can accomplish:  “the duty of woman by woman” (249), whether correctly enacted or not, cannot in the end substitute for the legal and economic protection of men. 

In its celebration of the Donwell Abbey estate, whose “English verdure, English culture, [and] English comfort” (391) offer deep aesthetic and emotional pleasure (“It was just what it ought to be, and it looked what it was” [389]), Emma endorses a national ideal sustained less by Knightley, Donwell’s owner, than by the behavior of Emma herself.  The feeling of comfort, or sense of plentitude, that the novel praises as distinctly English does not arise from commerce or agriculture:  not even Knightley’s good management can produce an “orchard in blossom” (391) in midsummer, and Highbury’s population of poor cottagers and aged laborers in the care of the parish alerts us to the shadows of want hovering at the margins of the village.  Instead, the assurance of well-being arises from the alternative economy of gift exchanges managed by women, whose identity and even survival depend upon their place in this economy.  If Emma is indeed a novel that “functions as a manifesto for correct English behaviour” (Trilling 40), it is because the “‘small, trifling presents’” and displays of regard that Emma bestows have meanings and effects that transcend their face value.


A version of this essay appears in
Women and Gift Exchange in Eighteenth-Century Fiction: Richardson, Burney, Austen (Routledge, 2016).


1Emma has been accused of both disregarding and interfering with the welfare of her friends and neighbors; her critics include Alistair Duckworth, Mary-Elisabeth Fowkes Tobin, Peter Smith, Peter Knox-Shaw, Shinobu Minma, and Anthony Mandal. 

2Distressed at her brother Charles’s having “not a Present!” from her, Austen proposes to send him “all the twelve Copies” of Emma that she received to disperse among her (ironically termed) “near Connections—beginning with the P. R. [Prince Regent] & ending with Countess Morley” (26 November 1815). 

3Commenting on the estrangement between the Regent and his wife, Princess Caroline, Austen declared, “I shall support her as long as I can, because she is a Woman, & because I hate her Husband” (16 February 1813).  Yet the specially bound presentation copy of Emma was duly delivered to the Prince in December 1815, before the novel’s general publication (Le Faye 226). 

4Austen probably read the 1812 edition of Sherlock’s sermons. 

5According to Maggie Lane, “[f]ood is a symbol of goodwill” in Emma, and it is a testament to the strength of Highbury’s community that “[f]ood is always passing hands there” (154).  Austen herself noted the symbolic value of food in maintaining relationships; asking Cassandra about the distribution of wedding cake from the Bigg-Wither family at Manydown, she reveals how such gifts foster good will among country families:  “Mrs Dundas has set her heart upon having a peice from her friend Catherine, & Martha [Lloyd] who knows what importance she attaches to the sort of thing, is anxious for the sake of both, that there shd not be a disappointment” (7-9 October 1808).

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