By Jane Austen


Love and marriage

All of Jane Austen's 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: Harriet's easily persuadable nature emphasizes how tenuous is romantic love, perhaps even undermining it, while Emma's 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 Harriet's indecisiveness; Jane Fairfax will temper Frank's impulsiveness; Mr Knightley will root Emma's 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 novel's romantic manoeuvres, but this only indicates how important marriage was for the eighteenth-century woman. It is Jane and Harriet's 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 Weston's career is similar to Henry Austen's, 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 Frank Churchill or Mr Knightley. We are asked to consider whether Emma's attitudes have changed all that much in the course of the novel.


Though Emma is only centred on the insular closed circle of Highbury and Donwell, and the characters' lives are dominated by gossip and prying, all that becomes clear as the novel progresses is how little people know of their friends and acquaintances. Emma is intelligent and 'clever' but frequently stumbles in her attempts to interpret the behaviour of others. She wrongly believes Mr Elton and Frank Churchill to be in love with Harriet; when most convinced of her accurate perception, for example, when she thinks Jane Fairfax is involved with Mr Dixon, she is in fact completely deluded. She is ignorant of the true state of all the goings-on in Highbury, not least concerning herself.

Mr Knightley is held up as a model of good sense, and his perception can be trusted: he notices the intimacy between Jane and Frank and is not surprised to learn they were engaged all along. But he is fallible, allowing jealousy to colour his better judgement when he over-reacts and betrays his dislike of the young man. He is unable to see that Emma is in love with him, not Frank. The secret engagement between Frank and Jane highlights the theme of illusion in the novel. The reader's superiority, induced by Austen's irony, is undercut; we are put in the same astonished position as the other characters. Clues may be given throughout, but they are only understood once the secret is out.