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<---More Recent 62. Female authority in Emma 61. Mansfield Park/Emma Earlier Answers––>

Name:Clay Grube
Question 63 Can you give me examples of Feminism in Emma? As many as possible would be appreciated.
Reply Dear Clay,

With respect to Emma and feminism, and feminism in Emma, you’ve set me thinking. Of course it isn’t that feminism is a modern invention from the point of view of your modernity—Mary Wollstonecraft was one among a number of feminist thinkers in my time--a time of the assertion of rights, and of Revolutions, though my position as a daughter of an Oxford-educated country parson wasn’t conducive to ‘radicalism’. It has been pointed out that following Mary Wollstonecraft point by point would have meant my repudiating my family—the bedrock of my existence. And again, Mary Wollstonecraft’s posthumous reputation was a scandalous one. But I made a few Wollstonecraftian points directly in Persuasion, especially about considering women as ‘rational creatures’, though of course some of the ladies in the novel don’t seem to embody rationality, thanks in part to social arrangements unfavourable to them, no doubt.

In the case of Emma, this novel seems particularly clearly to underline the point that I didn’t have to ‘supply’ feminism (and indeed my type of novel was associated with a determined conservatism). What is more plausible is that the reader of your day can find the motive to, or for, feminism in work like mine, which seeks to entertain artistically rather than suggest a programme. In fact Emma’s uncertainties and sense of social exposure in the novel impel her to a conservative vision of the greatness of Knightley’s country seat, Donwell, and the awesomeness of its ancient foundation (originally a religious one appropriated in the time of Henry VIII). She embraces patriarchy as a sort of idea, and in the form of Knightley in person, patriarchy in its benignest form, as it were.

Despite her wit and brilliance, Emma is socially exposed through her very femininity, through Mr Woodhouse’s weakness and infirmity (there’s no ‘real man about “the place”’ [Hartfield]), and her ‘female’ upbringing, which precipitates an ‘overdetermined’ snobbery, an insecure overemphasis on rank: ironically straightening Emma out here is high-ranking but pragmatic Mr Knightley (his pragmatism is the fruit of a male vision of ‘how society works, or should be made to work’ based on his practical experience as a farmer and a local magistrate, unlike Emma’s romantic fantasies of gentility--which will humiliate Harriet, enrage Elton, and earn Knightley’s rebuke to her at Box Hill, adumbrating the fact that her relation to him will be one of (happy) dependency. Again, Mrs Elton is a vulgar arriviste who is very side on to feminist notions, but she has is her pushy, vulgar self partly as her status as a woman induces her to work hard to have what authority she manages to muster; she is a spoilt daughter not brought up to any practical calling or profession.

Dispossessed and impoverished ladies like Miss Bates and her mother in the small house in Highbury show directly how social arrangements do not favour women—they suffered loss of status, including financial, with the death of old Mrs Bates’s clergyman husband, and in a subtler way this sense of ‘disempowerment’ has happened to Emma on the death of her intelligent and well-judging mother. Emma’s sister’s doting, wifely attitude to hot-tempered John Knightley shows a differently inflected female ‘distortion’, perhaps—perhaps she should love him less blindly, less deferentially, uncritically perhaps—but officially she is hailed as the model of ‘right feminine happiness’ in the novel, presumably unironically, in a novel full of ironies. We have to tread warily here, and be sensible of what social arrangements were like in my time, in order to be sensible. Jane Fairfax’s case shows how gender is imbricated with other categories. The penury she will suffer after her place as a companion to Mrs Dixon née Campbell has gone makes her extremely vulnerable in the light of the whims of Frank, the spoilt heir of the Churchills. Governessing looms, a singularly feminine fate, and a depressing one, if her analysis is anything to go by. We are finding a sort of motive to feminism, but Emma is not the easiest place in my work to find it. Perhaps this will give some sort of aid to your thinking, however. What do you think, my dear?

With best wishes.

Jane Austen.

August 30, 2004 21:11:16 (GMT Time)

Name:Christopher Evers                     Top
Question 62 I have an assignment with the following title:- "Claudia Johnson says of Jane Austen's Emma that 'with the exception of Knightley, all the people in control are women'. Does the novel present a positive model of female authority?"
Reply Sorry about the delay. Curiously, even I get away for summer hols. But I am sorry I kept you waiting. The point from the critic raised seems arguable, but in interesting ways. For example, Jane Fairfax is formally at Frank Churchill’s command. As he is a (somewhat harassed but still rather spoilt) heir and she is a penniless orphan, he calls the shots, it seems. Yet the power of his love for Jane draws him to Highbury when nothing else will, and it is she who temporarily dissolves the engagement. Jane will have her bread to earn as a governess, as dreaded, should he reneague on the secret engagement. On the other hand Frank himself seems to act partly on the whims of the powerful Mrs Churchill. Mr Woodhouse seems powerless in the face of the lively Emma, and others; on the other hand in his way he rules her life, as even her marital arrangements suggest. (Knightley has to come and live with them at Hartfield despite ‘whacking great’ Donwell abbey just round the corner—from which, one gathers, he will be very much missed thanks to the loyalty he inspires.) It is true that Mrs Elton seems stronger, more strident, socially imposing than Mr Elton, and the poor man was put rather majestically in his place by Emma on the journey home from Randalls.

On the other hand it can hardly be claimed that Isabella née Woodhouse ‘rules’ irascible John Knightley, the rising lawyer of London. And Mr Knightley’s ‘What does Weston say: shall we have rain?’ to Mrs Weston, suggests ‘patriarchal’ attitudes, though partly a mere change of subject. And Mr Weston does have a good deal of influence, a good deal to say, and his power to act socially seems disastrously decisive—the ‘socially inclusive’ outing to Box Hill is very much his idea, and Emma seems unable to qualify or contradict what he suggests. But even Mr Knightley seems barely capable of keeping Mrs Elton under control. The central case of Emma herself seems to show a heroine with a good deal of ostensible power who is marginalised or disempowered in various ways. What do you find/think? Presumably, as is usually the case in such matters, you needn’t actually agree with the proposition advanced in the quotation in framing your own answer.

With best wishes.

Jane Austen.

August 15, 2004 20:18:01 (GMT Time)

Name:Natasha Kaur                     Top
Question 61 Hello I was Wondering what are the main comparisons for Mansfield Park and Emma e.g. themes?
Reply Dear Natasha,

Sorry about the delay. Summer hols, even for me, posthumously. I do hope this didn’t spoil anything. MP and Emma look like novels with very different agendas. In Emma the heroine is a rather spoilt, outwardly confident, ostensibly social privileged character, although my prediction that she was someone whom would not be much liked turned out to apply much more to the Fanny of Mansfield Park I thought everyone would love. Fanny née Price is all Emma is not--shy, retiring, socially the outsider or parvenue, the lower-class intruder. Fanny will end as the supreme insider, valued and promoted to glory by Sir Thomas, Lady Bertram, Edmund, while the lively and spirited Mary Crawford, Fanny’s enemy as the rival for the hand of Edmund, will be banished. By contrast, Emma’s privileged position comes to seem something of an illusion. In chess terms, she has lost ‘the queen’--her sensible, intelligent mother, and is forced to look after her father, witless, cranky Mr Woodhouse. This leaves Emma herself vulnerable to attack, especially by the vulgar pushy arriviste she hates but somewhat resembles, Mrs Elton, who becomes Emma’s tormentor as Mrs Norris does Fanny’s. Emma’s privileged position is explored for weaknesses, unprivileged Fanny’s position becomes one of strength as her serious and sober approach to life begins to ‘bite’!

Both novels examine ‘Country house culture’. Mansfield Park exposes weaknesses here, while Emma is more sentimental and recuperative about old gentry culture. Emma on Mr Knightley’s long-established Donwell is idealising about both the estate and its owner. Mansfield Park uncovers weaknesses in the arrogance and imaginative crassness which haunt the society of the Bertrams. One problem here the novels share is of communication. Politeness entails that Mrs Elton cannot be told of her faults, even though even Frank Churchill speaks of his ‘hatred’ of Mrs Elton’s officiousness towards the beautiful and talented Jane Fairfax he loves and has to watch being patronised. In a similarly keynote point in Mansfield Park, Fanny finds she cannot tell Sir Thomas that Henry Crawford, now pursuing her rather than Sir Thomas’s daughters, lacks principles or scruples. Another comparison is with those who pursue the pleasure-principle at the expense of the ethical. Frank’s affair with Jane Fairfax, a young man’s love, is what causes him to turn up at Highbury (not his dutifulness as a young man paying respects to Mr Weston’s second wife, as Highbury supposes—only the perceptive Mr Knightley suspects ‘something is up’), but one feels that this ‘evil’ is very much under control, and rectifiable, unlike the threats posed to order, and to Fanny, in MP: the Crawfords, who help fill Mansfield Park with unseemly acting and cause emotional mayhem. Now—that’s enough; your turn, dear.

With best wishes

Jane Austen.

August 14, 2004 23:14:51 (GMT Time)