syllabus hotspot syllabus hotspot syllabus hotspot austen hotspot austen hotspot austen hotspot austen hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot novel page hotspot


Women's Lot
Jane Fairfax
Discussion of Emma


Austen, in all her novels, is concerned about what happens to single women who are either financially dependent or socially insecure. In Emma, Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, and Harriet Smith all faced uncertain fates because of financial or social vulnerability.

Miss Bates, middle-aged, unattractive, and poor, faced a grim future as a decayed gentlewoman (as her contemporaries might have called her). Mr. Knightley referred to her bleak prospects in rebuking Emma, "She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to, and if she live to old age, must probably sink more" (p. 324). The occupations open to a lady who wished to retain some semblance of status were few, very few, the primary one being a governess or a teacher.


Jane Fairfax was horrified by the inevitaility of becoming a governess and thought life as a governess would not be worth living, "With the fortitude of a devoted novitiate, she had resolved at one-and-twenty to complete the sacrifice and retire from all the pleasures of life, of rational intercourse, equal society, peace, and hope, to penance and mortification forever" (p. 156). The metaphor of becoming a nun and renouncing life changed to a slavery metaphor in a conversation with Mrs. Elton. Jane bitterly asserted, "There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something–offices for the sale not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect" (p. 264). She was not sure whether governesses or slaves were more miserable.

On hearing that Jane had accepted a governess position, Emma reflected, "The contrast between Mrs. Churchill's importance in the world and Jane Fairfax's struck her; one was everything, the other nothing" (p. 331). Jane's situation so moved Emma's pity that it nearly justified, for her, Jane's secret engagement. Though neither Emma nor Mrs. Weston condoned the secrecy and consequent deceptions practiced by Frank, and Jane, they agreed that Jane's situation mitigated her behavior. Mrs. Weston acknowledged Jane had deviated

"from the strict rule of right. And how much may be said, in her situation, for even that error!"
        "Much, indeed!" cried Emma, feelingly. "If a woman can ever be excused for thinking only of herself, it is in a situation like Jane Fairfax's. Of such, one may also say that 'The world is not theirs, nor the world's law.'" (p. 345)
Their response indicated the hardships governesses faced. Though Mrs. Weston, as Miss Taylor, had been a governess, her position was exceptionally advantageous and not at all what Jane was likely to encounter; Miss Taylor had become part of the Woodhouse family, was treated with courtesy and consideration by Mr. Woodhouse, and became Emma's surrogate mother and friend.


Marriage or having her own fortune were a woman's best options. Emma was fortunate in being an heiress whose lack of paternal control or direction had given her control over her life (or did she have only apparent control?). For Emma, marriage was a question of love, not financial pressures. In explaining to Harriet why she would not marry, Emma enumerated the advantages of her life—her freedom, her active life, her fortune, her status, and her father's love. She repudiated the idea that she would be an old maid, like Miss Bates:
it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman with a very narrow income must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman of good fortune is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else. (p. 93)
Is there irony in this passage, in the phrases "a generous public" or "the proper sport of boys and girls" and in Emma's acceptance of the public's abusive treatment of a poor unmarried woman? If so, is the irony directed at Emma, society, or both? and whose is the irony, Emma's or the narrator's or both?

Whatever the reader may think of the irony in this passage, Emma's underlying view of marriage as financially and socially advantageous for women was confirmed by Mr. Knightley. He saw Miss Taylor's marriage as a "question of dependence or independence!" (p. 31), and her social status obviously rose with her marriage. The same considerations entered into Emma's thoughts on Harriet's marriage to Mr. Martin:

Emma had no doubt of Harriet's happiness with any good-tempered man; but with him, and in the home he offered, there would be the hope of more–of security, stability, and improvement. She would be placed in the midst of those who loved her and who had better sense than herself; retired enough for safety and occupied enough for cheerfulness. She would be never led into temptation nor left for it to find her out. She would be respectable and happy. (p. 410-11)
Additionally, marriage offered Harriet protection against dangers, and living with people more sensible than she was would improve her.

Does the idea of marriage to someone more sensible improving an individual apply to Emma? Has she been improved in any way by her impending marriage to Mr. Knightley? Is there any reason to think that marriage to Mr. Knightley will change her for the better? Does this possibility of marriage apply to Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill? Will marriage improve Jane, who is emotionally and morally superior to Frank? Is Frank likely to change, and is marriage to an unchanged Frank likely to produce a happy marriage in the long run?


Day 1
Austen, Emma, pp. 7-102
  Austen Overview
  Point of View and The Narrator
Day 2
Emma, pp. 103-209
  Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton
Day 3
Emma, pp. 209-317
Day 4
Emma, pp. 317-412
  Mr. Knightley
  Women's Lot
  The Ending
  Other Issues
Web paper due (1-2 pages)

January 26,, 2009