There is a strong sense of class consciousness in “Emma”. What is Emma’s attitude towards social position? How do the Martins and the Cole’s reflect changes in the class structure of 19th century England? How willing is Emma to accept these changes? Compare and contrast Emma and Mr Knightley’s attitudes towards Robert Martin.
“Emma” was written at the beginning of the Nineteenth century when dramatic change was going on in social structures. Up until then society was governed by a rigid class system and mixing of classes was very rare, however the ‘middle class’, the land owners and work-force owners were beginning to carve their own place in society. Increases in international trading and the start of the Industrial Revolution were key factors in the rise of the ‘middle class’. Emma as the daughter of a substantial landowner and at the top of society resists these changes with immense social snobbery although she is aware the change is imminent.
“Emma conceives of her society in terms of rigid inequalities; Miss Woodhouse cannot visit Mrs Martin, the Coles will not presume to invite the Weston’s, Mr. Elton may not aspire to the heiress of Hartfield” writes Helen Dry, “Syntax and the Point of View in Jane Austen’s Emma”, (1977), 87-99. Emma clings to ancient established ideas of social hierarchy: but only when it suits her. She ignores Harriet’s illegitimacy purely for her own fancy and sees no problem in a match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, or Harriet and Frank Churchill; however the idea of an unequal match between Harriet and Mr. Knightley shocks her, “Such an elevation on her side, such a debasement on his!” She is also feels extremely insulted when Mr. Elton proposes to her:
Should suppose himself her equal in connection or in mind! Look down upon her friend, so well understanding the gradations of rank below him, and be blind to what rose above, as to fancy himself shewing no presumption in addressing her!-it was most provoking.
Emma objects highly to Mrs Elton, partly due to her self-inflated ideas of social status: “She brought no name, no blood, no alliance. Miss Hawkins was the youngest of two daughters of a Bristol merchant”, “The idea of being indebted to Mrs. Elton…The dignity of Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield, was sunk indeed!” Mrs Elton shows a great deal of snobbery herself; she is harsh, brash and arrogant, she boasts on numerous occasions about “Maple Grove”, and the “barouche-landau” belonging to her brother-in-law. She constantly compares everything and everybody to his circle: the only good society she knows.
Mr. Weston marries a “portionless governess”, yet Emma does not oppose this because Mrs Weston happens to have been her governess. And Emma angrily defends Mrs Weston when Mrs Elton expresses her surprise at her ladylikeness. “I was rather astonished to find her so very lady-like! But she really is quite the gentlewoman”.
Emma’s inherent snobbery is demonstrated when the Coles host a party in Highbury. “The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them. This lesson, she very much feared, they would receive only from herself; she had little hope of Mr. Knightley, none of Mr. Weston”. Emma feels the Coles are attempting to rise above their station; however she recognizes that neither Mr. Knightley nor Mr. Weston will agree or support her here because as Robert Miles writes, “they have better judgement…Knightley’s flexibility absorbs the threat, whereas Emma’s stiffness augurs friction” (Jane Austen [Northcote House, 2003], p.105)
Emma’s dislike of the Coles stems from their recently acquired wealth: “They…by this time were, in fortune and style of living, second only to the family at Hartfield.” High rank in society was dictated more by family history than current wealth. Hereditary wealth was perceived as infinitely superior to recently earned ‘new money’. However, change was imminent with the increase in trade wealth and the upper class had to accept this, some even embraced it, Emma however refuses to accept these changes and adapt to this new way of thinking.
The Martins are an honest, respectable family and Emma’s attitude towards them shows the extent of her snobbery, conceit and class consciousness: “amused by such a picture of another set of beings and enjoying the youthful simplicity which could speak with so much exultation of Mrs Martin’s having ‘two parlours”. Here Emma laughs at the idea of less fortunate people than herself and is exceedingly patronising towards Harriet; however Emma is not perceived as cruel because she doesn’t know any different and has not experienced life outside of Highbury and the unchanged community she was born into.
“A young farmer…is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity” She discourages Harriet’s attachment to the family and in particular Robert Martin, “I did not expect much; but I had no idea that he could be so very clownish, so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two nearer gentility” Emma warns her that the accident of her birth obliges her to dissociate herself from any connections which would lower her social status further; Harriet is probably of the same class as the Martins, but Emma feels that the association with herself has raised Harriet far above an association with a farming family. This demonstrates the arrogant, hypocritical and interfering characteristics which flaw Emma’s character.
When Mr. Martin proposes to Harriet, Emma is surprised by the quality of his letter, “She read, and was surprised. The style of the letter was much above her expectation”, this reveals the extent of her superiority and condescension. “You banished to Abbey-Mill Farm!-You confined to the society of the illiterate and vulgar all your life! I wonder how the young man could have the assurance to ask it. He must have a pretty good opinion of himself.” This shows humour and irony because what Emma says is very spiteful and untrue (although she does not mean it to be so), but also hypocritical because she has an extremely high opinion of herself.
Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, has a high regard for Mr. Martin and his family; “I never hear better sense from any one than Robert Martin. He is an excellent young man both as son and brother.” Mr. Knightley is outraged when he learns of Harriet’s refusal. He is a realistic, sensible man and knows Martin is a good, respectable match for Miss Smith. “Robert Martin’s manners have sense, sincerity and good-humour to recommend them; and his mind has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could understand.”
Emma, although aware changes in social position are happening and being accepted, is reluctant to change, and as the first lady of Highbury does not welcome the break-down of the rigid class structure. The Martins and the Coles represent these changes and we see them accepted warmly by nearly everyone except Emma. Characters such as Mr. Knightley and Mr. Weston are much more realistic, with a wider understanding of social issues than Emma, who has never left Highbury.