The following is excerpted from my study of Jane Austen’s novels, Miniatures and Morals.
Pride and Prejudice begins with two young, handsome, wealthy men moving into the neighborhood, intent, or so Mrs. Bennet believes, on finding pretty wives. New faces in Hertfordshire mean new possibilities of change in the social landscape, and these hopes are realized in the course of the novel, as both Jane and Elizabeth Bennet marry above the status of their immediate family and move into more sumptuous dwellings. Lydia Bennet marries Wickham, who comes from outside, and Charlotte moves away to marry Collins. There are no local marriages, and in the end everyone has scattered.
In Emma, by contrast, few new faces are to be seen in Highbury, and virtually no one marries outside his station or even outside his home town. The vicar, Mr. Elton, travels to Bath to find a fashionable wife, but then he is not from Highbury himself. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax both come from outside town, and they end up married. But all the locals marry locals. Emma marries Mr. Knightley, who has known her from childhood; Miss Taylor, Emma’s governess, becomes Mrs. Weston, wife to a well-liked native; Harriet Smith, Emma’s protegee, marries Robert Martin, a local farmer.
The other main characters — particularly the Bateses — are likewise lifelong residents. By the end of the novel, the Woodhouses are linked by two marriages: Knightley is married to Emma, and his brother John to Emma’s sister, Isabella.
Nor are there any cross-class marriages in Emma. Elton marries a rich woman, but within his class; Harriet ends up, as she should, with Robert Martin; Emma marries the only man in her life that is of her class. Class structure stays completely in place. It had been threatened in various ways in the course of the novel, but is reinforced with a vengeance at the end.
Even physical mobility is limited, particularly for Emma. Emma has lived in Highbury all her life, but has never made the seven-mile trip to Box Hill before. Even at the end of the story, when she has married, she and Knightley agree to remain at Hartfield, Emma’s home. As one critic has put it, the social world of Highbury is “claustrophobic.”
Perhaps the most Christian novel Austen wrote, Emma is concerned with the relation of charity and truth; it is about “speaking the truth in love,” or, more precisely, about truth-speaking as the path to love. This is at the heart of the romantic plot of Emma and Mr. Knightley. Everyone else around Emma flatters her, admires her, regards her as a perfect specimen of womanhood. Only Mr. Knightley sees her as the flawed young woman she really is, and only he tells her so, often in very blunt terms. Mr. Knightley is the right man for Emma precisely because he speaks truth.
By placing the romance of Knightley and Emma in the context of this closely knit and unchanging community, Austen raises questions about truth and charity in social life. One evening is described as “everything was relapsing into its usual state. Former provocations reappeared. The aunt was as tiresome as ever.”
Tanner points out that “as ever” is a perfect description of Highbury, and in a town whose chief characteristic is sameness, old provocations will constantly reappear — unless they are dealt with by truth and love.
The reference to “former provocations” deserves further comment. Though apparently closely knit, Highbury has its share of division and strife; rather, because Highbury is close-knit, it has its share of strife. Americans of the early twenty-first century may be naively nostalgic for small-town life, but Austen was not. She knew all about the pettiness, the gossip, the boredom, and the inanity of life in a small community.
The most dramatic example of this in Emma occurs after Emma’s attempt to match Mr. Elton with Harriet ends in disastrous confusion. The painfulness and embarrassment of the situation is made worse by the fact that none of the characters can avoid seeing each other: “Their being so fixed, so absolutely fixed, in the same place, was bad for each, for all three. Not one of them had the power of removal, or of affecting any material change of society. They must encounter each other, and make the best of it.”
The Box Hill incident exposes these divisions even more dramatically. G. K. Chesterton once commented on the importance of the fact that God commanded us to love our neighbors. We can choose our friends, and they are easy to love because we have chosen them. Our neighbors, however, are simply given, simply there, and that challenges our love. The residents of Highbury are neighbors, unavoidable to one another.
“Much could not be hoped for from the traffic of even the busiest part of Highbury: — Mr. Perry walking hastily by; Mr. William Cox letting himself in at the office-door; Mr. Cole’s carriage horses returning from exercise; or a stray letter-boy on an obstinate mule, were the liveliest objects she could presume to expect; and when her eyes fell only on the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman traveling homewards from shop with a full basket, two curs quarreling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker’s little bow-window eyeing the ginger bread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough to still to stand at the door. A mind lively and at ease can do with seeing nothing, and can see nothing that does not answer.”
Emma’s mind is nothing if not lively, and if she finds nothing to amuse her, she will create her own amusements. It is no accident that the main thing that occupies Emma’s time is “play,” for she has no serious business to attend to.
The main thing that disrupts what Tanner calls the “as-ever-ness” of Highbury is marriage, as Mr. Woodhouse is constantly pointing out. Even though the marriages take place within a small circle of acquaintances, they cannot avoid changing things. Miss Taylor’s name changes to Mrs. Weston (though Mr. Woodhouse continues to use her maiden name), and she moves out of Hartfield. Harriet Smith’s marriage to Robert Martin means that her relationship with Emma changes, and Emma’s life will change even though she is willing to live at home until Mr. Woodhouse’s death.
Despise this emphasis on marriage and the disruption it causes, by the end of the story the same set is back together again “as ever.” Austen slyly indicates that even Mrs. Elton, an outsider throughout the novel, was not even present at Emma’s wedding, though that does not keep her from criticizing it: “Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own.”
Jane and Frank are gone by the end of the novel as well. We are back with the “small band of true friends” that started the novel, but the difficulties of their relationships have left us wondering how the band can keep together.
With all the strains on relationships, and with marriage introduced as a disruptive event, how can these “true friends” continue in fellowship? Are there marriages that do not break up the family circle, and the wider circle of the community? Essentially, the answer of the novel is that the neighbors can only remain a “band of true friends” by a continual exercise of charity, and by continual devotion to truth.
If the constrained and confining social situation is important background, the foreground is occupied by the issue of moral guidance. Guidance is essential if the “small band of true friends” is going to remain “as ever” in true charity.
In particular, Emma needs guidance if she is not going to cause continual catastrophe. Her story is largely the story of a search for the right guide, for someone who will speak the truth in love and teach her to do the same. Knightley, Knightley, is the guide here, the savior who delivers Emma from her own folly, and at the same time ensures the survival of the community of neighbors in Highbury.
From this perspective, Emma is a Pygmalion story, the story of a craftsman (Knightley) who fashions a woman and then falls in love with her. It is a Taming of the Shrew with a mild-mannered shrew. We see Austen’s insight that the moral life can be lived, or moral character formed, in isolation. It is worked out in community and relationship. We need guides, but only certain sorts of guides will do. Some guides are blind, and lead us into the ditch.