It is debatable whether the society that Austen depicts
Highbury is a realistic portrait of the society which she
lived in or whether it is an idealized portrait of society
as it should or perhaps could be. What is undeniable is
that Highbury society seems real; Austen has convincingly
created a sense of its actuality. Austen shows the characters'
relationships and interactions in the context of society,
whose values give their behavior and activities meaning. One anonymous
reviewer commented that Austen sees man "not as a solitary being
completed in himself, but only as completed in society" (The North
British Review, 1870).
The class structure is basic in Emma, as it is
in all Austen's novels. The responsibilities and behavior of each
class are generally known and accepted . Some social mobility
is possible, as is illustrated by the Coles, who "were of
low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel" (p. 190).
(Whose point of view is being expressed in the quotation,
Emma's and/or the narrator's?) With the increase of their
income, the Coles changed their life style to imitate the
classes above them; they employed more servants, enlarged
their house, and gave dinner parties to which they invited the "regular
and best families" (p. 190). Only Emma regarded their social movement
as presumptuous; the Westons and Mr. Knightley were willing to dine
with the Coles and to accept their
The Coles, be it said, displayed proper attitudes and
neither pretentious nor self-promoting; Mrs. Coles confessed
that no one in her family could play their new grand pianoforte.
Moreover, the Coles showed delicacy and consideration in
sending to London for a folding-screen "which they hoped
might keep Mr. Woodhouse from any draught of air and therefore
induce him the more readily to give them the honour of his
company" (p. 191). Contrast their behavior and attitudes
with the ill-bred impertinence and pretentious bragging
of Mrs. Elton, whose father, like Mr. Cole, made his money
In a small community where there are only a few genteel
families, there may also be more tolerance at some mixing of the
classes than in London or a more populous town. The Highbury whist
club, for example, is made up of "gentlemen and half-gentlemen"
(p. 182). What is Austen's tone
in the word "half-gentlemen"?
RESPONSIBILITY OF THE
In return for their many privileges, the upper classes
a responsibility toward the poor and the unfortunate. Emma
not only fulfilled her social duties with charitable visits
to the poor family, but also took effective measures to alleviate
their distresses out of a genuine kindness:
Emma was very compassionate: and the
of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and
her counsel and her patience, as from her purse. She understood their
could allow for their ignorance and their temptations, had no romantic
of extraordinary virtue from those for whom education had done so
entered into their troubles with ready sympathy, and always gave her
with as much intelligence as goodwill. (p. 94)
With this display of right behavior and right feeling,
reveals to the reader her sound moral nature and good judgment.
They contrast both with Harriet's inadequate response and
with her own scheming, fancy-driven behavior upon encountering
Mr. Elton. As a clergyman, Mr. Elton naturally received
appeals for help; John Abdy turned to him for help in caring
for his bedridden father (p. 330). Because John Abdy had
been her father's clerk and was so ill, Miss Bates meant to visit him
the same day she heard of his condition.
What help can properly be given to a lady or a gentleman
who has fallen in status, as has the Bates family, is severely
circumscribed. To give them significant help or to offer
money would be to strip them of what status and dignity
they might still be clinging to by reducing them to objects
of charity. For this reason, Emma and her father sent an
occasional gift like the quarter of pork and Mr. Knightley gave them
Does an upper class commitment to benevolence protect
vulnerable, powerless people like Miss Bates and Harriet? Does it
prevent the lower classes from demanding meaningful social changes
by providing some relief for terrible conditions? or prevent
their taking actions which would force social changes?
Harmony is a primary value and goal in this society.
Achieving harmony involves openness in dealing with others,
consideration for their feelings, a desire to please, and a general
politeness. It is not necessary for individuals to have a mutual
understanding of one another in order to achieve harmony; the loving
relationship of Emma and her father makes this principle clear.
In planning the ball at the Crown, Mrs. Weston wished
knew "which arrangement our guests in general would like
best. To do what would be most generally pleasing must be
our object–if one could but tell what that would be" (pp.
227-28). Her desire was successfully implemented in the
ball: "Everybody seemed happy; and the praise of being a
delightful ball, which is seldom betstowed till after a
ball has ceased to be, was repeatedly given in the very
beginning of the existence of this" (p. 284).
To do what would be most generally pleasing was a
principle, one which Emma all too often ignored. It applied
even to business matters; Mr. Knightley wanted to move a
path which cut through a meadow; however, he told his brother,
"I would not attempt it if it were to be the means of inconvenience
to the Highbury people" (p. 110).
Both Emma, the insider, and Frank, the outsider,
the harmony and the stability of society with their manipulations and
their hidden motivations and goals.
Today most of us think of manners only as etiquette, a
of rules which govern behavior and dress. In fact, the word
has many more meanings. Samuel Johnson, in his Dictionary
(1755), included these definitions: (1) Ceremonious behavior;
studious civility, (2) Character of mind, and (3) General
way of life; morals, habit. The Oxford English Dictionary
lists "A person's habitual behaviour or conduct; moral character,
morals" and "Conduct in its moral aspect" as meanings in
use in 1794. Manners are important in Emma, in all
of these senses, and two or more of them may be intended
in a particular situation or usage.
A code of manners also controls feelings by prescribing
formalized behavior and speech. Martin Price explains, "Such
a code provides a way of formalizing conduct and of distancing
feeling; we do not feel the less for giving that feeling
an accepted form, which allows us to control its expression
in shared rituals." There are times when feelings must be
controlled or passed over. To smooth over Mr. Knightley's
anger at Harriet's refusing Mr. Martin's proposal, Emma
tried to talk of the weather, a safe topic and a staple of polite
Some readers are turned off by Austen's
emphasis on manners; they prefer a spontaneous expression of emotions
and find Austen and her characters unfeeling. But does following
a code of manners necessarily indicate less feeling? Is
there a difference between feeling an emotion and expressing
it? Is a code of manners desirable in inhibiting aggressive
and hostile emotions and actions, in facilitating social interactions,
and in providing a safe environment?
January 26, 2009