Love and marriage
All of Jane Austens novels are centred on the issues of love and marriage. The main focus of Emma is on the courtships of Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, Harriet Smith and Robert Martin and Emma and Mr Knightley. The perpetual shift in pairings shows the difficulty in finding lasting happiness: Harriets easily persuadable nature emphasizes how tenuous is romantic love, perhaps even undermining it, while Emmas blindness to her true feelings show that honesty and love go hand in hand. We are led to reflect on what makes a good marriage; these couples complement each other, characteristics in each balancing out. Robert Martin will steady Harriets indecisiveness; Jane Fairfax will temper Franks impulsiveness; Mr Knightley will root Emmas wandering fancies in practicality.
The happy ending may be seen as an ideal, but the roundabout course by which Emma learns the right moral attitudes suggests that perseverance will reconcile the conflict in a relationship. Self-knowledge is always rewarded.
Courtship is not pleasant; only when the couples are finally engaged is peace attained. Turbulent emotions dictate the novels romantic manoeuvres, but this only indicates how important marriage was for the eighteenth-century woman. It is Jane and Harriets only escape from financial hardship. Although the example of Miss Taylor proves that it is possible for a single woman to earn her living and be happy, her greater happiness as a married woman is continually stressed only Mr Woodhouse, a man far removed from everyday life and therefore in no position to comment, believes that Miss Taylor was more content than Mrs Weston could ever be.
Jane Austen was living at a time of considerable social change. The rigid class structure was breaking down and this gave individuals mobility and opportunity to better themselves. The ascent of Frank Churchill may be modelled on her own brother, Edward, who moved up in society with the aid of patronage from relatives who adopted him. Other links can be made between her family and her fiction: Mr Westons career is similar to Henry Austens, and her naval brothers rose trough the ranks like Captain Wentworth and Admiral Croft in Persuasion, benefiting from the bounty gained when ships were captured from the French in the Napoleonic wars. The circulation of new money precipitated social change, greater status being a consequence of greater wealth.
Emma depicts resistance to such change. Mr Woodhouse is concerned to maintain the status quo because he benefits from it - Mrs Bates and Mrs Goddard comply with his wishes, pacifying him. The Cole family is representative of new wealth, but is concerned to support the old structure. They are keen not to offend the Woodhouses, who are at the top of the traditional class structure of Highbury, and issue invitations in line with these dictates important families come to dinner while others join them after the meal. On the other hand, Mrs Elton is a social climber, keen to mimic her betters in everything.
However the portrayal of Mr Knightley presents an alternative to this model. He has a democratic view of society, valuing the opinion of Robert Martin in agricultural matters, and shown to enjoy the company of his employee William Larkin as much as those of higher rank. The inferiority of the Bates only causes him to be all the more concerned with their welfare. But other characters are democratic. Mr Weston invites all the residents of the district, regardless of their social position. Frank proposes to the penniless Jane Fairfax, who is effectively classless. Significantly, when Emma wants to teach the Coles a lesson for getting ideas above their station, "she had little hope of Mr Knightley, none of Mr Weston". Her marriage to Mr Knightley is in some way recognition that her snobbery was wrong. Social status is no indication of worth; gentility comes from within.
Yet Emma is at heart a conservative novel. Our heroine learns how to deserve her social position, learns how to become a lady as Mr Knightley is a gentleman. Her behaviour may be questioned, but never her rank. Social boundaries are kept firmly intact: there is never any chance of Harriet marrying
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