Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ is a novel of courtship. Like all Austen’s novels, the plot is centred around marriage: who will marry who? For what reasons will they marry: love, practicality or necessity? The novel is also strongly themed through the notions of social hierarchy, a permanent, virtually impermeable and quintessentially English theme, alluded to throughout the plot.
Emma’s society was governed by strict rules of adherence to rank and place with an emphasis on proper etiquette and social graces. At the centre of the story is Emma Woodhouse, an heiress living with her widowed father at their estate, Hartfield. We are introduced to Emma as “handsome, clever, and rich” – which sets the tone for the rest of the novel. But these three adjectives used to depict Emma imply Jane Austen’s bitterness towards the decadent upper classes.
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The hierarchical structure within ‘Emma’ is very clear; there is the upper class, privileged, landed heirs who need not do anything to support themselves, the middle-class working men and then the lower-class farmers. The families that represent the lower class are the Martins and the Bateses and also Harriet Smith. The Eltons and Westons make up the middle class and the Woodhouses and the Knightleys are the very upper class.
The two lower-class families are treated very differently by the higher classes in Highbury. Miss Bates and her niece Jane Fairfax are accepted as part of society and are often invited to social engagements and balls because they are women and are deemed worthy of acceptable company. This is somewhat surprising as they are not particularly liked. The narrator describes them as, “a waste of time – tiresome women – … falling in with the second-rate and third-rate of Highbury.” It appears that they are invited out so as to not upset the delicate balance of social class within Highbury as the upper class do not want to be seen to reject them as they feel the poor, destitute orphaned and widowed ladies, deserve their compassion.
Jane Fairfax is equal to Emma in all respects (beauty, education, talents), except status (provided by birth and finance). Miss Bates however is the complete opposite of her niece; plain, boring and not particularly intelligent. Miss Bates is always very obliging towards the upper classes and comes across as very sycophantic. When she is in the company of the upper class she repeatedly says, “Thank you, you are so kind!” or, “so obliging of you”. Even when Emma insults her on an outing to Box Hill she is still pleasant towards Emma, this is because that is her place in society and she knows to adhere to it. Jane Austen deliberately uses anaphora through Miss Bates to constantly repeat these phrases as it puts emphasis on how they are lower class citizens and have to respect the upper-class characters.
The other lower-class family are the Martins; generally represented by Robert Martin who is a tenant farmer. Although the Bateses are accepted into society, Emma has a very low opinion of “the Robert Martins of this world”, so much so that she makes her new friend Harriet (a lower class citizen herself) refuse his acceptable hand in marriage – “Those soft blue eyes…should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connections.” As we see the story mostly through Emma’s eyes, the reader automatically sees Robert Martin as of lower, inferior class. This is not helped as Emma describes him as, “so very clownish, so totally without air.” and a “very inferior creature.” As Emma is constantly putting Robert down this evokes sympathy from the reader for the lower classes and also highlights how Emma and the upper class deem themselves to be superior to and above the Martins.
Next up on the social ladder is the middle class, which is represented ironically by Reverend Philip and Augusta Elton. Before Mr. Elton was married, he professed his adoration for Emma. Mr. Elton obviously intended to move up in society and was primarily interested in marrying Emma for her social position, family status and wealth. However, when he returns to Highbury with his new wife Augusta, who is a vapid name-dropper, who compares everything to the supposedly grand lifestyles of her relatives, they both see themselves as far superior to Highbury’s other inhabitants, even though they are merely middle-class citizens.
Augusta continually places herself above others and boasts about her horses being faster than others, “our coachmen and horses are so expeditious! I believe we drive faster than anybody…” Her dresses are always made of far superior fabric and she wears the best jewellery, “I see very few pearls in the room except mine.” She is also incredibly vain, “upon such an occasion as this when everybody’s eyes are so much upon me.” Jane Austen uses language to make Augusta Elton seem a very self-important person who is striving to be better then everyone else, however she comes across as ignorant and rude. Augusta also addresses her new peers in Highbury with a startling lack of formality, especially noticeable as she calls Mr. Knightley the abbreviated “Mr. K”. Emma particularly finds it extremely rude that Augusta would address someone of a higher class in this manner and immediately dislikes her. Again this shows the strict hierarchical structure within ‘Emma’ and anyone choosing to disrupt it is immediately frowned upon and seen as an upstart: a person with despicable pretentions and grandeur beyond their designated role.
Finally, the finest social class of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ is the elite upper class. The upper class consists of Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Emma Woodhouse and Mr. George Knightley who resides in Donwell Abbey. The Woodhouses are far superior to other Highbury citizens because of their social engagements and family wealth. They are continually throwing balls and inviting others over to play cards and socialize. The Bateses nor the Eltons plan such social engagements as they have neither the means nor the circumstances; they are merely attendees.
Therefore the upper class has nearly complete control over the social life of Highbury. It is not surprising that the middle class, especially Augusta Elton, are desperate to get as close to the upper class as they can. Jane Austen uses other characters in the story to convey the immense wealth and status of the upper classes. This is most clearly seen through the friendship of Emma and Harriet. As Emma is of a much higher class, Harriet frequently comes out with statements such as – “you are so kind to me, Miss Woodhouse.” Harriet generally refers to Emma as “Miss Woodhouse” whereas Emma refers to Harriet as “Harriet”; this reminds the reader that Emma is superior.
However, the friendship does little good for either of them. Harriet indulges Emma’s worst qualities, giving her the opportunity to meddle and serving only to flatter her. Emma in turn fills Harriet Smith with grand pretensions that do not suit her low situation in society. Mr, George Knightley, another upper-class citizen and friend of the Woodhouses, and is the epitome of an English gentleman. He is greatly admired and looked up to, especially by Emma – “You might not see one in a hundred with gentlemen so plainly written as in Mr. Knightley.” – As Emma respect and then loves him, so, therefore, does the reader,
Jane Austen’s portrayal of England’s class structure in 1816 through ‘Emma’ presents the idea that there are three distinct social classes: the poor or lower class; the working or middle class; and the elite or upper class. Even though there are three dissimilar social classes that are embedded into a strict hierarchy, all three join together in harmony to create the essence of Highbury. The elite arranges social engagements, the middle class attend them and the lower class provide the much-needed contrast, all of which combine to create and capture the society that Austen inhabited.
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