Emma, and the Female Choice

September 29, 2014

Emma was published in late-1815, and dedicated, “To His Royal Highness, the Prince Regent,” who would later be crowned King George IV. As in fairy tales, in Austen novels men are always active (they hold virtually all agency) while single women are expected to be passive (acted upon), and once women marry they retire to domesticity in order to produce a male heir. When a woman weds and steps into the role of wife, and she is the agent for intergenerational money and property transfers. Austen’s character Emma is free in her conversations; she appears to be “handsome, clever, and rich (Austen 2011: 3).” Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) anonymously reviewed Emma in the Quarterly Review (October 1815): The faults of these works arise from the minute detail which the author’s plane comprehends. Characters of folly or simplicity, such as those of old Woodhouse and Mrs. Bates, are ridiculous when first presented but if too often brought forward, or too long dwelt on, the prosing is apt to become as tiresome in fiction as in real society (Austen-Leigh 2008: 107-8).”

Carey was the only American firm to publish an Austen novel during her lifetime and that novel was Emma published in 1816. In a sense, protagonist Emma initiates an egalitarian experiment, but she assumes erroneously that her society’s conversation does not apply to her. This theme would be of great interest to American readers (male and female) as a cautionary tale. To publish a novel featuring a British female character of independent means in America at a time when poverty was a visible threat presented an interesting dichotomy.

The female choice in the United States remained that of submission or alienation as described in The Coquette. Families did not have resources to support self-indulgent women – a taste for dissipation could draw a woman’s attention from domestic production including childbearing and free domestic labor. With two wars occurring within a generation, women experienced periods of independence only when they filled male roles during wartime. When the wars ended, men returned home expecting their patriarchic dominance to resume, and women were systematically relegated to submissive roles.

Like Eliza, Emma does not see the necessity of marriage – she does not recognize that in England marriage is connected to inheritance, land distribution, and economic stability. Emma devotes her time to assisting friends to find upward mobility within marriage, and all the while Emma remains clueless. Emma is capable of voicing adulation as a means to manipulate friends to pursue certain paths, and at one point Mr. Knightly calls her on this point, “You will puff her up with such ideas of her own beauty, and of what she has claims to, that, in a little while, nobody within her reach will be good enough for her. Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief (Austen 2011: 61).”

An American essay entitled “Address to Young Misses – By a Lady,” presented a popular emphasis found in contemporary literature that asserted constancy of mind (as opposed to the empty benefits of vanity) created moral strength that does not decay, but rather, increases with use and experience. The author declared, “I listened to the voice of adulation; and her bewitching blandishments allured me to destruction (Boston 1808: n.p.).”

Since Emma’s fickle father Mr. Woodhouse is very rich, until Emma marries a man of good moral character, her future remains very uncertain. Mr. Knightly personifies the model husband for any young woman: he holds a mature and balanced view of the world and has the moral courage to correct the wayward Emma. At one point he states, “I have still the advantage of you by sixteen years experience and by not being a pretty young woman and a spoiled child (Austen 2011: 96).” Emma does not match his sensibility of industry, “She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding… Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family (Austen 2011: 34).” Emma in England, like Eliza in the United States, does not adhere to societal expectations – she needs to marry and produce a highborn heir. Emma is found “to be doing more than she wished, and less than she ought (Austen 2011: 160)!”


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

Austen-Leigh, James Edward, and Katherine Sutherland. A Memoir of Jane Austen and other Family Recollections. Oxford University: Oxford University Press, 2008.

The Boston Primer being an improvement of the New England primer: Containing among many other things suitable for young Children, the Catechism, with a variety of instructive lessons and hymns, suited to the capabilities of children and designed to assist them in learning to read and write. Boston: Printed and sold by Manning and Loring, 1808.