Jane Austen introduces Emma Woodhouse as “handsome, clever, and rich” (3), and these three negative-neutral adjectives inaugurate a host of reader opinions on Emma the novel and Emma the woman: is she headstrong, naïve, and spoiled, or is she youthful, innocent, and amenable to learning? The woman in fiction—as in life—is often subject to the critic’s harsh eye, and sympathy as a reader-response can quickly evaporate under its glare and lead to neglect of the idea altogether. Emma, though, resists such dichotomization of its title character in a narrative that forces the reader to reconsider impulsive judgments and consider, rather, the social complexities governing Emma’s behavior in a world on the brink of socio-economic change. Just as the reader decides with whom to sympathize in the novel, the characters within the novel also determine who among them warrants sympathy and why. The question of whether sympathy emerges from social duty or moral virtue in nineteenth-century literature has been a frequent topic of discussion, but Emma offers readers a study in the origins and locus of sympathy as well as space to consider sympathy in a constellation of morality, virtue, and self-knowledge. Situating the novel in the wider context of nineteenth-century British women writers allows us to hone in on Austen’s particular contributions to the discussion.
This paper will examine sympathy in Emma by comparing Austen’s view of sympathy with that of a writer who knew her work well, Elizabeth Gaskell. Reading Gaskell in the context of Austen is not new; in fact, many scholars, including Deirdre David, Deirdre d’Albertis, and Janine Barchas, have read North and South as an update of Pride and Prejudice, and from this juxtaposition many compelling arguments have arisen regarding the romantic and family relationships in the novel. Few have read Austen in the context of Gaskell, considering North and South (1854) alongside Emma (1816) as a means of engaging broader social questions and exploring the emergence of those questions in Austen’s time. Austen’s study of the internal consideration of sympathy’s place in Emma throws into relief Gaskell’s movement of those sympathetic feelings to the external through deliberate social action in North and South. Essentially, Emma invites readers to contemplate how individuals should and could respond to their changing world, and North and South illuminates the impact of such social transitions on both the individual and wider society.
The first section of the paper discusses the shifts in women’s social roles in the areas of philanthropy and charity that parallel wider economic shifts inaugurated by the industrial revolution. The second section examines North and South, particularly the characterization of Gaskell’s heroine, Margaret Hale, before returning to Emma, the characterization of the heroine, and an analysis of particular situations that facilitate the sociological connection I find between Austen and Gaskell. The concluding section then considers sympathy as an extension of Aristotelian moral virtues that both writers saw as essential to the preservation of the humane in a rapidly mechanizing world.
Before and during the industrial revolution, philanthropic activities in the form of charity work and visitation were the most common sites of sympathetic discourse for women in the nineteenth century. Pamela Corpron Parker notes that by the mid-nineteenth century, “the discourse and practice of philanthropy pervaded nearly every area of Victorian life” (322). Austen lived and wrote on the threshold of a shift away from the understanding of charitable work as the duty-bound obligation of women of higher social status and the natural site of sympathetic energy. Gaskell was writing on the other side of that shift, when charity work was also becoming the moral obligation of Christian women in the middle and even the working classes (Langland 296; Parker 322).1 As noted, writing forty years after Austen, Gaskell is often read as expanding Austen’s world to include the rapidly industrializing north of England. The delightfully timeless themes and tropes so common in Austen’s novels—reconciliation of misunderstandings, the overcoming of divisions caused by class or status, marriage despite the odds (and despite odd mothers-in-law)—also appear in Gaskell’s work, albeit for a different narrative purpose. But just as reading Austen’s work as a depiction of her “small” and “overly narrow” world can lead to what Arnold Kettle calls a “mechanical” view of her novels (94), reading Gaskell as merely an update of Austen (or as a protégé of Dickens) obscures the social platform Gaskell is building in the mid-nineteenth century—a platform for which, I argue, Austen builds a foundation in Emma.
In the opening of her 1854 North and South, Gaskell transplants the heroine, Margaret Hale, from the relative ease of southern country life to Milton, a fictional Manchester rich in cotton mills and black smoke. Such a drastic change in setting as part of the narrative exposition situates the heroine in a place of tension, with all of the accompanying anxieties of transition, anxieties perhaps mimetic of Gaskell’s own about the role of Christians and the role of women in this new, mechanizing world.2 Gaskell’s stories elaborate the social tensions exposed by Jane Fairfax’s economically precarious position, situated between “a small group of leisured women . . . for whom occupations have to be invented” and “a huge group of women condemned to the drudgery of domestic service or to that of the mill or factory or to prostitution” (MacIntyre 239–40). In this way, Gaskell’s novel illuminates the aspect of Austen’s work that addresses the position of an emergent female precariat created as the “women’s work” of spinning and sewing moves out of the home and into the factories, offering another rebuttal to dismissive claims that Austen’s small world demonstrates little concern for those outside of it.
While this new, mechanized world tests the philanthropic response of Gaskell’s society, shifts in vocabulary use and word definitions in Austen’s society mark the beginning of social transitions in the understanding of sympathy. As Theresa Kenney notes, Austen uses the word “compassion” nine times and “sympathy” four times in Emma (71); the word “sympathy” appears in North and South a total of twenty-four times, “compassion” six times, and “benevolence” only once. Indicative of a shift away from the more class-bound uses of “compassion” and “benevolence,” North and South’s Margaret is both deserving of sympathy and sympathetic to others at a time when the meaning of the word was undergoing a kind of democratization. According to the OED, the early uses of the word indicated its primary definition as “a (real or supposed) affinity for certain things.” By the mid-nineteenth century, however, Edmund Burke, Cowper, and Coleridge had already used sympathy to refer to “the quality or state of being affected by the condition of another with a feeling similar or corresponding to that of the other” (“Sympathy”), the definition with which we are most familiar today. Living with an ailing mother and an often incapable, oversensitive father, Margaret cannot but be sympathetic. Gaskell’s sympathy takes a slightly different form than Austen’s, a form that reflects a world in the throes of transition and, as mentioned above, Gaskell’s own worries about how best to alleviate a new kind of suffering caused by industrialization and class conflict. North and South interrogates the relationship between sympathy and morality in the nineteenth-century imagination, a relationship articulated first by Emma.
Women’s roles were changing during the Regency period as well, and, naturally, as a writer concerned with the state of her immediate world, Austen examines that change. When Emma and Harriet leave the home of the family who live “a little way out of Highbury” (89), they claim they “‘do not think the impression will soon be over,’” but it evaporates as soon as the two encounter Mr. Elton (93). We learn very little about the families Emma helps in this scene, but we do learn that she does her job well, with care and efficiency. We are not necessarily obligated to judge Emma (or Austen) for this omission of detail; faith and genuine compassion certainly motivated the philanthropic work of some women. For many middle and upper class women like Emma, however, such participation was both a status symbol and a social imperative (Langland 295). Emma, progressive in her own way, participates in other kinds of social change: she advocates to some extent inter-class marriage and disregards Harriet’s problematic parentage in a way that would astound her father, whose physical condition seems to embody his inability to entertain these kinds of social upheavals.
One of the most marked differences between Austen and Gaskell is the manner in which Gaskell not only humanizes but also develops and characterizes the families with whom Margaret interacts; although not entirely eluding the trap of the stereotype, Gaskell attempts to represent a class of people who often lacked representation. Since she is especially concerned with depicting the working-class poor, she is often grouped with the social problems novelists of her time—Dickens, Disraeli, Kingsley—and not without good reason; she too hoped to inspire social change and, as Parker notes, motivate philanthropic activity in her middle- and upper-class readers (322). Gaskell’s characterization, in resisting flat typecasting, separates her from some of these other social problems novelists. As Parker argues, Gaskell’s “female characters become increasingly significant repositories for the ideological conflicts of her texts” (326). Perhaps no character in Gaskell’s body of work embodies conflict and resolution as well as Margaret Hale, who, although seemingly Emma’s opposite in many ways, is also prefigured by her in her interactions with the wider Highbury community.
Intensified disparities between northern and southern life continually challenge Margaret in ways different from the challenges Highbury offers to Emma. Margaret develops a friendship with a mill worker’s daughter, Bessy Higgins, who in turn shapes Margaret’s ideas about her role in the world and her relationship to others. Bessy is a unique character in Gaskell’s work. Much like Jane Eyre’s school friend Helen Burns, Bessy is very sick—dying, in fact, after too many years of work in the textile mills—and, like Helen, she constantly quotes Scripture (Gaskell 82; 84). While Margaret’s ministrations of sympathy are primarily moral and spiritual, they open Margaret’s eyes to Bessy’s world, and “the crowded narrow streets” became much more interesting to her because of “the simple fact of her having learnt to care for a dweller in them” (91–92).
Margaret’s concern exceeds the bounds of social duty and obligation. Though a country parson’s daughter would not have been seen as Emma Woodhouse’s social equal, Margaret was not a member of the working class either; on the cusp of a newly-defined middle class, she was still considered a lady. Margaret, however, does not remain on the periphery of the lives of those she helps, as ladies like Emma often did. The microcosmic changes in Highbury—the arrival of Mrs. Elton, the secret engagement of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, for instance—reflect the wider socio-economic changes beginning to unfold in England. However, Emma’s challenges are not macrocosmic like Margaret’s; rather, R. E. Hughes notes that Emma offers a superb example of a world in transition (74).
Like Emma, Margaret is a southerner; she carries her southern morality and her southern, traditional ideas of compassionate charity to the north. At first, Margaret’s interactions with members of the working class proceed much as they did in the south: Margaret’s smile, which does not require real work on her part, brightens the days of tired working men, and upon encountering her friend Bessy walking with one of these men, Margaret impulsively thrusts flowers into Bessy’s hands and promises to visit their home (67–69). Though Margaret’s effortless smile could be read as an embodiment of Sarah Ellis’s “true English woman whose peculiar charm is that of diffusing happiness” (Langland 297), interestingly, both David Hume (317) and Adam Smith (11) identify the response to a smile as an indicator of the human capacity for sympathy. Margaret’s giving of the flowers is done both impulsively and sentimentally, not out of a sense of obligation. Certainly flowers do nothing to alleviate the real human suffering Margaret will later encounter, and while this act could be read as a critique of meaningless, empty gestures, the flowers are also a symbol of generosity indicating Margaret’s capacity for sympathy. Her gesture invites further consideration of the source of human sympathy. While Margaret does refer to the obligations of her status, her relationship with the Higginses quickly becomes more than a duty-bound obligation. Initially, their relationship seems to proceed in the standard charity-basket form, until Margaret forgets to visit as she promised. She is then forced to prove she is different “from the rest of them.” The philanthropic model of Emma’s day is no longer appropriate or adequate to meet the changing needs of the population, and Margaret must decide how to adapt to meet those needs.
The fact that Margaret forgets to keep her initial promise forces her to confront herself, her ideas about those in need, and how others in Milton see her. When Margaret later meets Bessy in the road and inquires after her health, her life, her family Bessy replies, “If yo’ ha’ come to our house when yo’ said yo’ would, I could maybe ha’ told you. But father says yo’re just like th’ rest on ‘em; its out o’ sight out o’ mind wi’ yo” (83). Anxious to prove she is not one of “them,” a chastened Margaret follows Bessy home, and in a long conversation with her and her father, becomes more aware of sickness induced by inhaling an excess of cotton fluff while working in the mills, of the perennial struggles facing the working class in a mill town, and of an impending union strike. Margaret “went away very sad and thoughtful,” and in fact, she could not enjoy her family’s conversation at dinner, “so oppressed was she by her visit to the Higginses” (85).
Whereas Austen’s Emma quickly forgets about her cottage visits despite a wish to hold on to their significance, Gaskell’s Margaret experiences more than guilt and regret; she feels oppressed by what she has seen and heard. Notwithstanding the fact that this word choice is potentially problematic in view of what the Higgenses and other mill employees suffer (as England’s industrial capital market became successful only through exploitation of the working class), there is a marked semiotic difference between Margaret’s oppression and Emma’s impression. One word emphasizes the external, the other, the internal. The heroine’s interiority is characteristic of Austen, so her emphasis on Emma’s impressions is not unusual. Theresa Kenney elucidates Emma’s own self-awareness in her discussion of Emma’s knowing smile when the impression evaporates just as she suspected it would (75). As many critics and scholars note, Emma turns on the heroine’s realizations and acquisitions of knowledge, as does North and South; a key difference between the two does not hinge on awareness of self but rather on awareness of others.
Growth through awareness of both the self and others also intersects with each heroine’s faith-governed conception of morality. Margaret’s world is certainly wider, enlarged by her journey to Milton and enhanced by her regular contact with a more varied society. Although, like Emma, Margaret’s charitable visits once required her to travel some distances, Margaret no longer travels far from her home to encounter people living very different lives from her own. Margaret’s faith also takes a form different from Emma’s; Emma’s more orthodox Anglicanism values reason over sentiment while Margaret’s faith, though certainly Anglican, seems to be guided more by sentiment than reason, tinged with her reverend father’s issues of conscience that had cost him his parish. Feelings are an acceptable impetus to moral action, and North and South repeatedly asserts that claim. On the role of religion in North and South, Angus Easson observes,
The varieties of religious experience the novel encompasses are more than we might at first think—Margaret’s vivid but orthodox Anglicanism, her father’s conscientious Unitarianism, Bessy’s overheated visions, Higgins’s fervid atheism, Mrs. Hale’s establishmentarianism, Frederick’s matrimonially convenient Catholicism: not all of them developed or closely examined, yet offering more versions of belief than any other work of Mrs. Gaskell. (39)
Bessy’s overwrought Methodist fervor and Mrs. Hale’s establishmentarianism represent untenable extremes incompatible with the realities of Milton life. Both women die by the middle of the novel, Bessy choking on cotton dust and Mrs. Hale on smoke. Certainly they do not die because of their religion, but, in accordance with Gaskell’s Unitarian aim to bring reconciliation to extreme divisions in England’s north—between rich and poor, master and laborer—extreme ideas, too, cannot survive.
The subtle tensions among the various strains of Christianity present in the text create another subtle distinction between the social worlds of Austen and Gaskell: with Gaskell’s trans-British setting comes a wider range of overlapping and conflicting ideas. Alasdair MacIntyre argues that both Austen and Gaskell elucidate the failure of some in the eighteenth century to locate the moral in the rational alone. MacIntyre goes so far as to claim Austen is “the last great representative of the classical tradition of the virtues” (243). Arising from the Aristotelian virtues of social agreeability and general amiability is a morality that in part dictates social behavior, including the proper treatment of those in need. MacIntyre notes that the virtue of amiability “requires a genuine loving regard for other people as such, and not only the impression of such a regard embodied in manners” (241). Characters in Emma very clearly demonstrate this kind of regard, especially for those with whom they are closest; however, in North and South, the spontaneous or impulsive rise of sympathy also becomes an impetus for action.
Though Margaret and Emma share a religious morality from which sympathy originates in part, Margaret’s actions are also motivated by her emotional connection with Bessy as an individual and as a representative of a wider segment of the English population that subsists without agency. True sympathy develops when Margaret acknowledges that her relationship with Bessy is one of reciprocity and mutual benefit, and although the relationship is never one between social equals, their discourse is markedly different from that between characters of different classes depicted by Gaskell’s contemporaries. In a particularly striking exchange, upon leaving Bessy one day, Margaret says, “You have done me good Bessy. . . . I came here very sad, and rather too apt to think my own cause for grief was the only one in the world. And now I hear how you have had to bear for years, and that makes me stronger.” Margaret’s perspective shifts because she has opened herself to see, feel, hear, and understand Bessy’s situation. Bessy replies, “I thought a’ the good-doing was on the side of gentlefolk. I shall get proud if I think I can do good to yo’” (127). Margaret’s strange response perhaps offers some insight into the locus of sympathy in some mid-nineteenth-century thought: “You won’t do it if you think about it. But you’ll only puzzle yourself if you do, that’s one comfort” (127). Forsaking spontaneous feeling in favor of careful thought may have negative consequences in Margaret’s world.
The condoning of impulsivity in North and South, however, is a perplexing concept, one that truly captures the zeitgeist of the social shifts in the 1850s. That the idea of acting without thinking receives approval in Gaskell marks what seems to be another striking contrast with Austen, whose characters often—but not always!—suffer for their impulsivity. Consider, for example, Darcy’s impulsive proposal offered against “his better judgment” and its subsequent rejection by an indignant Elizabeth, Lydia Bennet’s elopement, Marianne Dashwood’s impulsive trust in Willoughby that results in crushing heartbreak, and Catherine Morland’s countless flawed assumptions about life and love that persist until Henry Tilney corrects her.
Impulsivity certainly tends to hurt the female characters in Emma. Towards the novel’s end, Emma reflects often on the consequences of her hasty decisions and ill-thought-out schemes. Harriet Smith represents the difficulty of (and a certain ambivalence to) dramatic social change in the aristocratic mind; she is quickly welcomed to Hartfield despite her low social status, and Emma elevates her to such a degree that Harriet entertains ideas of a union between herself and Mr. Knightley, exposing for Emma the upper limits of the class boundary line and resulting in Harriet’s temporary banishment from Hartfield. (Once she marries someone more class-appropriate, though, she returns to Hartfield society.) Reflecting upon and judging her own conduct, Emma parenthetically observes, “there would be no need of compassion to the girl who believed herself loved by Mr. Knightley” (444–45). Emma demonstrates great sympathy for the many slights and disappointments Harriet endures; in fact, “There was little sympathy to be spared for any body else” (439), and although Emma berates herself repeatedly for her “blindness,” for her inability to see others in the way that she should, her self-actualization is in part accomplished on the back of Harriet’s disappointments, short-lived though they may be.
Emma’s most egregious violation of the social order governed by the virtues of amiability and social agreeability occurs at the Box Hill picnic when she slights Miss Bates (403). If, as Cronin and McMillan suggest, Miss Bates is the person who holds the community together (lxxiv), the ramifications of Emma’s rudeness extend beyond herself and her own reputation. When Mr. Knightley rebukes Emma for her thoughtlessness, he reasons, “‘Her situation should secure your compassion’” (408). She is not in the same economic position as Mrs. Elton, to whom such an expression might have been overlooked.3 Though Harriet and Mrs. Elton may share a similar social origin, the distinctions of economic class begin to prevail over those of birth. David Medalie keenly observes, “while Mr Knightley may be seen as emphasizing and even entrenching hierarchies of class and money in his suggestion that he would not have reprimanded Emma if Miss Bates had been ‘a woman of fortune’ or her ‘equal in situation,’ he is simultaneously establishing a form of equality between the two women in demanding that Emma enter ‘sympathetically’ into the particularities of Miss Bates’s situation” (7). Medalie’s observation acknowledges that even Mr. Knightley’s ideas are changing. Equally important, this rebuke leads Emma to another point of reflection:
The truth of his representation there was no denying. She felt it at her heart. How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!—How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued! . . . As she reflected more, she seemed to feel it more. She never had been so depressed. (409)
Emma’s behavior is easily contrasted with that of Mr. and Mrs. Elton after they conspire to wound Harriet at the ball and then fail to reflect on their behavior. Crucial to Emma’s reflection, though, is Mr. Knightley’s position as her observer.
The role of the observer is key in both novels; Margaret’s impulsivity may cause temporary misunderstandings, but ultimately, her actions are met with approbation by those who truly know her and thus are able to judge her motives to be pure. In one of the most poignant examples of both her impulsivity and her selflessness, Margaret intercepts a blow intended for John Thornton during a gathering of angry mill workers outside of his home. In an attempt to defuse the tension, Margaret steps in front of Thornton just as a stone is hurled at his head (163). Margaret interprets her actions differently from all the other external observers, including Thornton.
In the debate about the locus of sympathy, the role of the outside observer in determining whose or what actions are morally justifiable—what actions are deserving of sympathy—becomes extremely important. We are again drawn to differences among some of the eighteenth-century philosophers who are in part responsible for this discussion. For Hume and Smith, as Geoffrey Sayre-McCord notes, a motive is virtuous when deemed so by an outside observer, and “sympathy is essential, as [Hume and Smith] see it, to our capacity to approve (or disapprove) of actions, motives, and characters as moral or not and, because of that, to our capacity to judge actions, motives, and characters as moral or not” (2). Hume had argued that duty is separate from sympathy. Kant’s response insisted that our intentions are morally worthy when we act from a sense of duty. Stefan Kalt summarizes Kant to argue that duty, not morality, emerges from reason, and sympathy from emotion (5, 8). By the time of this pivotal incident halfway through the novel, Gaskell has carefully constructed Margaret’s character as kind, caring, sympathetic, and sensitive; to view her actions as motivated by anything other than a natural concern for others would only reveal a lack of knowledge about her true character.
In Emma, the importance of the observer’s role in judging one’s actions is established early through Emma’s resistance to Mr. Knightley’s indictment of Frank Churchill. Emma argues,“‘It is very unfair to judge of any body’s conduct, without an intimate knowledge of their situation. Nobody, who has not been in the interior of a family, can say what the difficulties of any individual of that family may be’” (157). As Mr. Knightley tries to convince Emma that Frank could and should do as he pleases and “‘bend[ ] the little minds’” (159) of the Churchills with “‘right conduct’” (158), especially with regard to the Westons, Emma offers a compelling view of social mobility, or the lack thereof, for people in Frank’s delicate situation as a ward of sorts (much like Fanny in Mansfield Park):
“You are very fond of bending little minds; but where little minds belong to rich people in authority, I think they have a knack of swelling out, till they are quite as unmanageable as great ones. I can imagine, that if you, as you are, Mr. Knightley, were to be transported and placed all at once in Mr. Frank Churchill’s situation, you would be able to say and do just what you have been recommending for him; and it might have a very good effect. . . . He may have as strong a sense of what would be right, as you can have, without being so equal under particular circumstances to act up to it.” (159)
Emma demonstrates a remarkable capacity for sympathy for Frank Churchill’s awkward position; she implores Mr. Knightley to see Frank’s “‘difference of situation and habit’” (159) long before Mr. Knightley rebukes Emma for her behavior toward Miss Bates.
Whereas Emma’s lack of sympathy towards Miss Bates results from an impulse unchecked, Mr. Knightley’s lack of sympathy seems to lie in assumptions based on his own privileged class position (and his status as a bachelor), though, as noted, his assumptions are shifting along with his society. Emma can look beyond her class position while Knightley cannot yet do so at this point in the novel; Knightley may embody the class-bound sense of compassion, but Emma’s sympathy is slowly extending beyond strict class lines. Not every spontaneous action, however, is decried in Austen. Even in Emma, Mr. Knightley impulsively proposes without intending to do so, and his impulses are justified on the basis of their moral rectitude and honesty as recognized by his partial observers.
Gaskell’s observer, however, functions as a variation, and perhaps rejection, of Hume’s idea of the impartial observer. Only those who know Margaret’s character can judge her correctly; those who do not know her, like Mrs. Thornton and her daughter, have no grounds on which to judge her actions. The outside observer is important in Emma as well—but notably not in Emma’s reflections on her charity work. She is talking primarily to herself on the road from the cottage to Highbury; Harriet does not function as an interlocutor. Arnold Kettle argues, “Harriet’s silly responses underline most potently the doubt that Emma herself feels as to the adequacy of her own actions” (103), though whether Emma feels insecurity or discomfort, we cannot know for sure. Austen too ultimately rejects the authority of the impartial observer; Emma’s observers also know her, and in fact, Emma desperately wishes that Mr. Knightley could see her attempts to reconcile with both Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax: “she had the consolation of knowing that her intentions were good, and of being able to say to herself, that could Mr. Knightley have been privy to all her attempts of assisting Jane Fairfax, could he even have seen into her heart, he would not, on this have occasion, have found any thing to reprove” (426). Both George and John Knightley worry about how Emma is perceived, but they are certainly not impartial.
Perception figures frequently throughout Emma, as Theresa Kenney notes in her careful attention to the conversation between Mrs. Weston and Emma after the Coles’ dinner party (76–77). Self-perception, self-knowledge is also essential to Emma’s realizations towards the novel’s end: “Every moment had brought a fresh surprise; and every surprise must be a matter of humiliation to her.—How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practicing on herself, and living under!—The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!” (448). Corrections in perception lead to increased self-knowledge for both heroines. Margaret too has such an awakening of knowledge as she begins to understand her feelings for John Thornton: “I see it now. It is not merely that he knows of my falsehood, but believes that someone else cares for me; and that I—Oh dear!—oh dear! What shall I do? What do I mean? Why do I care what he thinks?” (293). Emma and Margaret share a need for self-awareness before they can find resolution, and the observations not of the outside observer but of the intimate observer matter most.
The emotional life of the heroine is important to both Austen and Gaskell, and ideas of interclass sympathy that begin to unfold in Austen’s Emma become fully developed in Gaskell’s North and South. True sympathy for others —sympathy beyond class-ordered compassion—is integral to that emotional life. Gaskell, through Margaret, rejects the idea that sympathy is purely rational, or the result of careful consideration. Like Austen, though, Gaskell does not reject the power of rational thought or knowledge. Future happiness for Emma and Margaret and narrative resolution for Austen and Gaskell depend on each heroine realizing her feelings and acting on newfound self-knowledge. Encounters with those who need sympathy initiate the transformations that each heroine must undergo, and the interplay among a constellation of sympathy, morality, virtue, faith, self-knowledge, and action is key in both novels. Emma captures a transitory moment of social change in early nineteenth-century England, offering points of reflection on sympathy, compassion, class, duty, and morality that allow for their extension into a larger, wider community. From the recognition of the limits of her sympathetic impulse on the road to Highbury and her admonition of Mr. Knightley for his unjust treatment of Frank Churchill, to the recognition of her own unjust treatment of both Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax and her attempts to make restitution, Emma embarks on a journey toward greater self-awareness that depends on careful introspection and consideration of issues affecting her immediate community.
North and South externalizes Emma’s realizations to Margaret’s wider community. In the same way that Margaret impulsively shoves flowers into Bessy’s hand at their first meeting, Margaret’s sympathy for Bessy, for Higgins, for the Boucher family, for the mill workers, and later for John Thornton, comes unbidden, naturally expanding as her knowledge does. Margaret’s spontaneity is equated with sincerity; for Gaskell, sympathy and its moral accompaniments arise not from calculated thought or reason but from genuine concern born from the heart. It was this attitude that Gaskell hoped would inspire actions to stem the tide of social injustice arising from English industrialization. The argument for externality and the extension of one’s self to others depends, however, on the kind of careful considerations of internality and observation recommended in Emma. Reading Emma in the context of Gaskell illuminates Austen’s acute awareness of the shifting social and economic systems in the nineteenth century.
1Consider, for example, working-class community support for the Boucher family after the death of Mr. Boucher when his children are distributed among other mill families.
3In his comparison of Austen and William Cobbett, MacIntyre finds Austen’s economic concerns so central to her work that he quotes David Daiches, who refers to Austen as a “Marxist before Marx” (239).