Emma and The Female Choice, concluded

September 30, 2014

Wages in America stayed low in large segments of the population, and jobs remained seasonable and precarious even before a financial crisis arose in 1819. In England, an industrious woman of any rank was treated with equivalent respect to a gentleman of high rank, but even Americans of high rank stayed middling in comparison to their British counterparts. If the ‘Republic of Columbia” was to be more than an experiment in democracy, then dissipation, wonton self-indulgence, scattered, wasteful use of resources, would not be tolerated. Industry, characterized by hard work, steadiness, and diligence, combined with meekness, was the feminine ideal for women in the new America.

The American exemplum, “The Female Choice,” published shortly after Austen’s death introduced young Americans to two characters – Dissipation and Industry (Picket 1818: 51-3). In the story, young girl named Melissa sits down in a pleasant wooded area, where she falls asleep. In Melissa’s dream, two women approach. The first woman dressed in a gown of shear pink fabric, green trimmings, and a sash of silver gauze, advances saying, “My dearest Mel’s, I have watched you from your birth. See what I have brought you.” Her fair hair fell in ringlets down her neck, adorned with a headdress of artificial flowers interwoven with feathers. She offers Melissa a ticket to a fancy ball and a gown fashioned with spangles and knots of ribbons, “This dress and this ticket will give you free access to all the delights of my palace. With me you will pass your days in a perpetual round of ever-varying amusements.” She informs Melissa that her sole obligation in return would be to “flutter from flower to flower, and spread your charms before admiring spectators.” She introduces herself as Dissipation, and promises “No restraints, no toil, no dull tasks, are to be found within my happy domains.”

Although simplistic in its nature, Austen would have recognized the seminal choice at hand. Melissa is inclined to follow the fashionable woman when the second lady approached clothed in a simple habit of brown fabric relieved with white. Her smooth hair is pinned under a plain cap and her domineer is serious but satisfied and she is sedate and composed. She holds a distaff for spinning in one hand; a workbasket hangs on her other arm; and the girdle around her waist contains scissors, knitting needles, reels and implements of female work – along with a bunch of keys hanging at her side. This woman states, “Melissa, I have been the friend and companion of your mother; and now I offer you my protection. I have no allurements to tempt you.” She explains, “Instead of spending all of your time in amusements, if you enter yourself in my train, you must rise early, and pass the long day in a variety of employments, some of them difficult, some laborious, and all requiring exertion of body or of mind. You must dress plainly; live mostly at home; and aim to be useful rather than shining.” She clarifies, “But in return, I will ensure you content, even spirits, self-approbation, and the esteem of all who thoroughly know you.” She warns Melissa that Dissipation, “has promised much more than she can ever make good. Perpetual pleasures are no more in the power of dissipation, than of vice or folly to bestow.” She concludes, “My name, it is Industry. I shall never seem to you less amiable than I now do; but, on the contrary, you will like me better and better.” Then she states, “It is time for you to choose whom you will follow, and upon that choice all your happiness depends.”

As in an Austen novel, Melissa is given the opportunity to re-search the situation: overawed by Industry’s guileless manner, she turns again to take another glance at Dissipation who still offers enchanting gifts. Tempted, the girl is unable to resist. By a lucky accident, Dissipation’s true face is unmasked. Her once smiling features of youth and cheerfulness, are transfigured to reveal a countenance wan and ghastly with sickness, and soured by fretfulness. Melissa turns away in horror, and readily offers her hand to Industry.

Austen’s work instilled the sensibility of didactic fairy tales that asserted if a young woman maintained her moral standing she could expect respect in any circumstance. American novelists Foster and Rowson supported the rhetoric that virtue would cement the foundation in the new America. This was not necessarily a sensibility that American women wanted to remember or celebrate once frontier challenged to civilized living diminished. Emma was unique among the Austen heroines because she had no awareness of insecurity; she delineated a character study of dissipation, and was “about the relatively new phenomenon of class consciousness (Duckworth 1971: 152).” Emma presented nuances of male and female dynamics with the character of Frank Churchill. When Churchill appears, “Emma is no longer the puppet-mistress of Highbury but instead becomes a marionette in Churchill’s more subtle show (Duckworth 1971: 163). Churchill is a double-dealer in an Emma-Churchill-Jane triangle – similar to a triangle that unfolded in The Coquette. Emma sees indications of his character, “Emma’s very good opinion of Frank Churchill was a little shaken the following day, by hearing that he was gone off to London merely to have his hair cut (Austen 2011: 199).” She justifies it, “Wickedness is always wickedness but folly is not always folly. – It depends upon those who handle it (Austen 2011: 206).”

In Austen’s world of shared assumptions, every situation has an appropriate and expected public response and individuals communicate by means of a common vocabulary of words and gestures dictated by prescriptive literature. Austen creates dramatic tension in her novels when characters thought to be of high rank fail to “act predictably (Duckworth 1971: 166).” This is the conversation where the fairy tale ending occurs – Emma’s happily-ever-after arrives when she easily steps into the proper role that English society as marked for her by marrying Mr. Knightly.


Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: HarperPerennial Classics, 2011.

Duckworth, Alistair M. The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1971.

Picket, Albert. The Juvenile Mentor; Being the third part of the Juvenile spelling book containing progressive reading lessons in prose and verse, adapted to the comprehension of youth: calculated to improve them in reading and speaking with elegance and propriety, and to imbue their minds with sentiments of virtue, morality, and religion. New York: Daniel D. Smith, 1818.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: