Jane Austen deliberately confined herself to the realistic portrayal of a segment of contemporary English life-upper middle-class society. The heroine, Emma Woodhouse, lives on her father's estate at Hartfield which is in effect an adjunct of the village of Highbury 'in spite of its separate lawns and shrubberies'. Mr. Weston's estate of Randals is in the parish of Highbury, and Mr. Knightley's Donwell Abbey is situated in the neighbouring parish, within comfortable walking distance. Here life is concentrated within itself and separated from London which although only sixteen miles away was 'much beyond...daily reach'. Significantly, Emma has never visited London, never been to the seaside, never visited Box Hill (all of seven miles away!)
The outside world of early 19th century England does not impinge on this essentially self-sufficient society, of which Emma Woodhouse is the central figure. Here is no mention of contemporary historical events such as the Napoleonic Wars; the war between Britain and America; the assassination of the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, the Industrial Revolution. The only historical allusion is a fleeting reference to the slave trade (centred on Bristol) in an exchange between Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton. Otherwise the real world of the early 19th century is totally ignored. Jane Austen deliberately selected and limited herself, even declining the Prince Regent's request to write an historical novel.
The humdrum nature of daily life in the village of Highbury is captured in the scene where Emma stands at the door of Ford's shop, seeking amusement while she waits for the dithering Harriet to make her purchase.
'Much could not be hoped 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 tiny old woman travelling homewards from the shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread, she knew she had no reason to complain, and was amused enough; quite enough still to stand at the door'.
In such a narrow society gossip helps to relieve the tedium. This gossip may be harmless - Mr. Frank Churchill's coming to visit his father and stepmother; speculation about Mr. Elton's fiancee, Miss Augusta Hawkins of Bristol; excited accounts (becoming more and more exaggerated with each telling) of Harriet's gallant rescue from the gypsies by Frank Churchill. However, gossip can also be malicious, as we shall see when Emma confides in Frank Churchill her unfounded suspicion that Jane Fairfax's pianoforte is a gift from a secret admirer, Mr. Dixon, husband of Jane's dearest friend Miss Campbell.
Highbury society can also be unbearably claustrophobic. This is symbolically highlighted when Emma is trapped alone with Mr. Elton in her carriage on the journey home from the Christmas Eve dinner-party at Randals. After she has rejected the vicar's proposal of marriage out of hand, they have no choice but to continue the remainder of the three-quarter mile journey in silence - neither can escape the company of the other and in this state of swelling resentment, and mutually deep mortification, they had to continue together a few minutes longer'. In the days following Emma is rescued by the weather from the embarrassment of meeting Mr. Elton the sight of a great deal of snow on the ground did her further service, for anything was welcome that might justify their all three being quite asunder at present. The weather was most favourable for her; though Christmas day, she could not go to church every morning beginning in rain or snow, and every evening setting in to freeze, she was for many days a most honourable prisoner no church for her on Sunday any more than on Christmas day; and no need to find excuses for Mr. Elton's absenting himself'.
Emma is then 'most agreeably surprised' when the resentful Elton contrives to absent himself at Bath for several weeks, allowing even more time for their mutual embarrassment at meeting to subside further. However, she accepts that the evil day for herself and for Harriet, cannot be postponed indefinitely.
'Their being 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 effecting any material change of society. They must encounter each other, and make the best of it'
Boredom is relieved by the prospect of a new arrival in Highbury. Hence Emma's disappointment when she learns that Frank Churchill is, after all, not to visit. She speaks to Knightley of
'the advantage of such an addition to their confined society in Surrey; the pleasure of looking at somebody new; the gala-day to Highbury entire, which the sight of him would have made'.
The eventual arrival of Churchill significantly expands the social horizon of Highbury and leads to great, increased social interaction. But Mr. Weston's son also functions as a catalyst, triggering off feelings of jealousy in Knightley and making him aware for the first time of the real nature of his feelings for Emma. She too will be deceived into believing Churchill is attracted and will for a time imagine that she also has feelings for him. The arrival of a new permanent of a new addition to Highbury society in the person of Mrs. Elton will result in further additional social interaction. Wedding-visits are paid and returned; dinner parties are given in her honour. However, the vicar's wife also has a significant role to play as a moral barometer in measuring Emma's development.
Social rituals are a salient feature of Highbury society. There are regular morning visits (to Hartfields,to Randals, to the Bates apartment); evening-parties (at Hartfield); dinner-parties (at Randals, at the Coles, at Hartfield). There are also unusual and exceptional social events - the wedding-visits on the occasion of Elton's marriage; the ball at the Crown Inn; the strawberry-picking expedition to Donwell Abbey; the ill-fated excursion to Box Hill. These events bring the main characters together and enable the author, through a series of dramatic set-pieces, to develop plot, characters and themes. It is profoundly ironic that the valetudinarian, essentially anti-social Mr. Woodhouse should exercise such a controlling influence over Highbury's social rituals.
'Mr. Woodhouse was fond of society in his own way. He liked very much to have his friends come and see him; and from various united causes, from his long residence at Hartfield, and his good nature, from his fortune, his house and his daughter, he could command the visits of his own little circle, in a great measure as he liked. He had not much intercourse with any families beyond that circle; his horror of late hours and large dinner-parties made him unfit for any acquaintance, but such as would visit him on his own terms. Fortunately for him, Highbury, including Randalls in the same parish, and Donwell Abbey in the parish adjoining, the seat of Mr. Knightly, comprehended many such. Not unfrequently, through Emma's persuasion, he had some of the chosen and the best to dine with him, but evening-parties were what he preferred, and, unless he fancied himself at any time unequal to company, there was scarcely an evening in the week in which Emma could not make up a card-table for him".
Social decorum is a significant core-value of Highbury society. Mrs. Elton's repeated breaches of this code (twice at Hartfield; at the Crown Ball; upon being invited to Donwell by Knightley to pick strawberries; in the Bates' apartment when she deliberately attempts to exclude Emma by monopolising Jane Fairfax) expose her for the vulgar, social upstart that she is. Mr. Weston is also guilty of a breach in decorum when he fails to respect Mr. Churchill's wish that Frank's engagement not be made public so soon after Mrs. Churchill's death. By contrast Knightley always behaves like a gentleman (when he rescues Harriet at the Crown Ball; when he politely, but firmly, puts Mrs. Elton in her place; when he graciously accedes to Mr. Weston's insistence that Frank Churchill, whom Knightley dislikes intensely, be invited to the Donwell gathering). Emma also observes social decorum when she pays the expected wedding-visit to the Eltons; when she restrains herself on the occasion of Mrs. Elton's returning the wedding-visit, despite the letter's repeated rudeness; when she hosts a dinner-party at Hartfield for the Eltons and is deliberately ignored by the vicar's wife. However, on two occasions the heroine is guilty of serious breaches in social correctness - when she confides in Frank Churchill her suspicions regarding the source of Jane Fairfax's mysterious gift; and when she publicly insults and offends the harmless socially vulnerable Miss Bates at Box Hall.
Noblesse oblige (the notion that privilege and wealth bring with them responsibilities) is also a significant element in Highbury society. Knightley is fully aware of his duty and discharges it fully. He advises his tenant Farmer Robert Martin on the advisability of marrying Harriet Smith; he looks out for the Bates family (including Jane Fairfax) - he sends his carriage to fetch Miss Bates and Jane to the Coles' dinner party; he sends them an annual gift of a bag of cooking apples; he tries (unsuccessfully for a long time) to make Emma aware of her social obligations towards those less fortunate. However, while Emma does invite the three women to Hartfield (more for her father's convenience), she seldom visits their apartment because she finds their company tiresome and has no wish to mix with the second and third rate of Highbury society. Emma's failure in her duty towards Jane Fairfax is more complex - it is partly due to jealousy, partly due to her reserve, and partly a stubborn resistance to Knightley's moral pressure. By the end of the novel Emma's moral maturity can be seen in her acceptance of her social responsibilities towards Robert Martin, Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax.
Poverty in Highbury society is an issue which is not adequately dealt with by Jane Austen. Emma's visit to the cottage of an impoverished and sick family on the outskirts of Highbury (significantly down Vicarage-lane) is contrived to show the heroine in a favourable light rather than as a serious attempt by the author to address a very real contemporary social problem. It is also extraordinary that the heroine should feel such compassion for the poor, yet should look down upon the hard-working, successful yeoman-farmer, Robert Martin. The gypsies are also used as mere props. Within the Highbury social circle the problem of Mrs. and Miss Bates' poverty is not satisfactorily resolved. The author tells us that Mrs. Bates, the widow of a former vicar of Highbury, lives with her middle-aged spinster daughter in a modest apartment over a business premises. We are told that they live "in a very small way, under ......... untoward circumstances", trying to "make a small income go as far as possible". Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley send small gifts (a hindquarter of pork, a bag of cooking apples). However, while each of them deplores the straitened circumstances of the two women
"It is a great pity that their circumstances should be so confined! a great pity indeed! and I have often wished - but it is so little one can venture to do-
She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to an old age, must probably sink more."
It is not clear why neither of these affluent gentlemen feels able to intervene in a meaningful way and relieve the two helpless, impoverished women. Moreover, the author does not address the failure of the Church of England to make adequate financial provision for the widow and daughter of a deceased vicar. Jane Fairfax is given a fairytale ending when her Prince Charming rescues her from the prospect of becoming a governess and makes her financially secure. And while we rejoice that the fairytale is extended to include her admirable grandmother and aunt, it is not a satisfactory solution to the problem of their impoverishment.
The Anglican Church in Highbury is officially represented by the Reverend Philip Elton (and later by his wife, the former Miss Augusta Hawkins). However, Mr. Elton is not a good vicar. He is a very worldly man, determined, in Emma's words, to "aggrandize and enrich himself" by marrying the daughter of Mr. Woodhouse and her fortune of £30,000. When he is rejected by her, he departs for Bath, abandoning his flock for several weeks in the depths of winter. There within four weeks he snares Miss Augusta Hawkins of Bristol and her fortune of £10,000. In addition he secures a useful social connection through his wife's sister, Selina "who was very well married to a gentleman in a great way". As Knightley had earlier predicted, Elton did not "mean to throw himself away" by an "imprudent match". Mr. Elton's attitude to Harriet Smith's illegitimacy is most unchristian
"I think seriously of Miss Smith! Miss Smith is a very good sort of girl; and I should be happy to see her respectably settled. I wish her extremely well: and, no doubt, there are men who might not object to .... Every body has their level: but as for myself, I am not, I think, quite so much at a loss. I need not totally despair of an equal alliance, as to be Addressing Miss Smith!"
However, this biased unsympathetic attitude to illegitimacy is shared by Knightly and Emma and so it is a reflection on society in general as much as on Elton in particular.
"What are Harriet Smith's claims, either of birth, nature or education, to any connection higher than Robert Martin? She is the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations.
Harriet's parentage became known. She proved to be the daughter of a tradesman, rich enough to afford her the comfortable maintenance which had never been her's and decent enough to have always wished for concealment. Such was the blood of gentility which Emma had formerly been so ready to vouch for! It was likely to be as untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman: but what a connection had she been preparing for Mr. Knightley - or for the Churchills - or even for Mr. Elton! - The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed".
Mrs Elton is also a poor representative of the Church. Like her husband, she is worldly. But she is also nasty and vindictive, egging on her husband to humiliate Harriet publicly at the Crown Ball, and holding a grudge against Emma for rejecting her social overtures. The chief concern of the vicar's wife is with socialising and being the centre of attention. Her comment about her husband's duties is significant.
"I do believe this is the most troublesome parish thatever was."
It is left to the "good" Miss Bates to represent and uphold true Christian values in Highbury. The former vicar's daughter thinks well of everybody, is contented with the situation in life, is a devoted daughter and aunt. And when Emma penitently visits her on the morning of the Box Hill incident, she displays a spirit of true Christian forgiveness.
Highbury society is rigidly hierarchical: Donwell..............Hartfield...........Randals......Mrs and Miss Bates .......... the Coles.......... the Perrys............Mrs Goddard...........The Martin family ............Harriet Smith.
In the course of the novel there is no radical dismantling of the social order. At the end the social status quo still prevails and Jane Austen herself comments approvingly on class division as "what ought to be and must be."
In "Emma" marriage is the only means of breaking through the class-barriers of society and experiencing upward social mobility. Mr Elton is determined to improve himself by marrying Emma Woodhouse, his social (and financial) superior. However, he fails and settles instead for Miss Augusta Hawkins, the daughter of a Bristol merchant, with a fortune of £10,000 and a useful social connection. For her the marriage represents a significant step up the social ladder. Through marriage to Robert Martin, a respectable yeoman farmer, Harriet Smith rises from relative poverty and illegitimacy to find a comfortable niche in society. Miss Taylor and Jane Fairfax are elevated through marriage from being governesses (actual and intended) to becoming wives of prosperous, propertied gentlemen.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R.W Chapman. Rev. Mary Lascelles. 3d ed. Vol. 4 of The Novels of Jane Austen. 6 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966.