Emma's World (Jane Austen)

Topics: Emma, Jane Austen, George Knightley Pages: 7 (2973 words) Published: October 1, 2008
Emma - Understanding Jane Austen's World

Pamela Whalan has been a member of the Study Day Committee of JASA since 1999 and has been involved in the successful presentation of study days on Emma, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey. She has directed successful seasons of I Have Five Daughters (an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) and an adaptation for the stage of Emma. She has written a stage adaptation of Mansfield Park and directed this play for the Genesian Theatre Company Inc. in Sydney.

…but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family – and that the Eltons were nobody. (I, Ch.16, p.112) This is the kind of statement that shows us the difference between accepted standards in the early 19th century and accepted standards today. Understanding the way society operated at the time when Jane Austen was writing will help us to appreciate the novel, Emma.  Wealth and breeding were both very important considerations when contemplating marriage at the beginning of the 19th century and of the two, breeding was the more important, even though it was becoming easier for wealthy people to buy their way into society. Mr Knightley gave a sensible summary of Harriet Smith’s marriage prospects early in the novel and you will notice that good breeding is the basis of his assessment: Miss Harriet Smith may not find offers of marriage flow in so fast, though she is a very pretty girl. Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wives. Men of  family would  not be fond of connecting themselves with a girl of such obscurity – and most prudent men would be afraid of the inconvenience and disgrace they might be involved in, when the mystery of her parentage came to be revealed. (I, Ch.8, p..57) Mr Knightley had good sense and knowledge of how the world of his time operated. He was aware that marriage may have an element of romance but it was also a business matter. Good families “connected” themselves to other acceptable families. One’s breeding was even more important than one’s wealth, although both must be considered when planning a marriage. You can get an idea of how important being connected to respectable families was by the position of Mrs and Miss Bates. They were very poor but because they were of respectable birth they were socially acceptable. The Coles family, on the other hand were quite wealthy but not nearly so socially acceptable because they had no connection with gently bred families. So what constituted being “gently bred”? To be considered of good birth your family’s main income needed to come from landed property, not from trade. The usual way of owning land was through inheritance and it was normally the eldest son who inherited. Sometimes there was a smaller property that could be willed to a younger son or something came on the market and was bought for a younger son but property, sufficient to provide a good income through its rents, rarely came on the market, so inheritance was the usual method of becoming “landed gentry”. This meant that belonging to the right family was important. At Mr Woodhouse’s death  Hartfield would most likely be inherited by his elder daughter’s eldest son, so family connections ensured Little Henry his position in society.  It was generally expected that the younger sons of the gentry would take up a profession and the only jobs classed as gentlemanly professions were those of the army, the law and the church. Doctors were only just emerging as a respectable group of people and were seen more as high- class tradesmen than as social equals. Mr Perry, for instance, is not seen at social events at Donwell or Randalls and is only seen at Hartfield in a professional capacity. The army was the most favoured way of keeping younger sons occupied. You needed to have...

References: are to: Jane Austen, Emma, The Folio Society, London, 1975
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