Compare and Contrast how Jane Austen Represents Social Class In Emma and Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Emma’, share many obvious traits. Both are classed under the genre ‘comedy of manners’, both centre around life and love in regency England, and both can teach us a great deal about the complex class structure of the time. Although Austen had neither the great wealth and status of Emma Woodhouse, nor the need to marry for financial security of Elizabeth Bennet, I believe it is safe to say here interpretation of life in her novels could be pretty close to actuality.
It is this I am going to investigate further in this essay, how Austen represent the class structure of her day in her writing and how these two novels in particular compare in regards to this theme. Central to each novel is it’s heroine’s position in society. Of Emma, We learn that their village, Highbury ‘afforded her no equals. The Woodhouses were first in consequence there. All looked up to them’. (chapter1, page 9) From her we see life through the eyes of the most privileged.
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She doesn’t need to marry herself so take’s great pleasure in match making her friends. On the other hand, we are made aware of the necessity of marriage to Elizabeth, and the other Bennet sisters, straight away, through conversation between Mr and Mrs Bennet, which serves as the opening chapter of ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Of the arrival of Mr Bingley to the village Mrs Bennet declares: ‘A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls! (1,6) This set’s a precedent for the character of Mrs Bennet, of whom we are told: ‘The business of her life was to get her daughters married’ (1, 6). Mrs Bennet’s obsession is not entirely without reason however, we learn later that: ‘Mr Bennet’s property consisted almost entirely in an estate of two thousand a year, which, unfortunately for his daughters was entitled in default of heirs male, on a distant relation’ (7,29). Without securing a suitable husband the girls will have to work to support themselves.
Austen show’s us how undesirable this would be through Jane Fairfax’s situation in ‘Emma’, Jane seems to liken being a governess to the slave trade when she says, ‘There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something- Offices for the sale-not quite of human flesh-but of human intellect’ (35,279) This difference in situation between Elizabeth and Emma results in the reader getting a view of regency life from two very different vantage points.
In chapter 56, of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Elizabeth is forced to defend herself and her family to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who visits the Bennet’s with the sole intention of persuading Elizabeth not to marry Darcy, saying in one of the novels most obvious displays of class prejudice that ‘honour, decorum, prudence, nay, interest forbid it’ (56,336), to lady Catherine’s outburst, Elizabeth retaliates ‘in marrying your nephew, I should not consider myself as quitting that sphere. He is a gentleman; I am a gentleman’s daughter; so far we are equal. To which Lady Catherine responds: ‘True. You are a gentleman’s daughter. But who was your mother? Who are your uncles and aunts? Do not imagine me ignorant of their condition. ‘ (56,337). Elizabeth’s notions of social equality are obviously very different from Lady Catherine’s. Even when Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth he belittles her because of her status: ‘His sense of her inferiority-of it’s being a degradation- of the family obstacles which had always opposed to inclination were dwelt on’ (34. 185)
Emma on the other hand, faces no such prejudice, in fact we often see her looking down on others because of their social status. For example, of Mr Martin she say’s ‘He is very plain, undoubtedly-remarkably plain:-but that is nothing, compared with his entire want of gentility. I had no right to expect much, and I did not expect much; but I had no idea he could be so very clownish’ (4,32). Even her friend Harriet is not exempt, when Emma learns her true origin she says ‘Such was the blood of gentility which Emma had formally been so ready to vouch for! It was likely to be as untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman: but what a connexion 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’ (55. 451). This demonstrates how deep-rooted class prejudices were in those days’s, even the heroine of ‘Emma’ who the reader has grown to like, is guilty. Is Austen showing us that these class prejudices were not merely the preserve of an overly snobbish minority, but engrained in the minds of all the gentry of the time?
Both ‘Emma’ and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ are dialogue driven novels, and this dialogue helps the reader distinguish further differences between the social statuses of the characters. There are too many examples to mention them all; in my opinion the voice of every Austen character is faithful to its background. For instance Emma’s manner of speaking is precise and elegant, she has long, intelligent conversations, particularly with Knightley, and often makes a witty remarks. Harriet on the other hand, in keeping with her inferior status in comparison to Emma uses much simpler language, and shorter, more hesitant sentences.
In ‘Pride and Prejudice’ Elizabeth’s voice shows her to be as intelligent and witty as Emma, but, in-keeping with her social position, is slightly less formal and considered than Emma’s. Austen’s use of caricature has two main objectives, to inject comedy and to satirically represent stereotypical characteristics of the class extremes. Lady Catherine in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the typical snobbish aristocrat, the numerous references to her making those around her feel inferior, from the narrator: ‘Her air was not conciliating, nor was her manner of receiving them, such as to make visitors forget their inferior rank’ (29,159), from Mr.
Collins: ‘Lady Catherine will not think the worse of you for being simply dressed. She likes to have the distinction of rank preserved’ (29,158), and from her own dialect: ‘Our instrument is a capital one, probably superior to….. You shall try it some day’ ( 29,161), are so overt it becomes humorous. Even her name, the ‘de Bourgh’ seems to, conjure up the impression of someone who haughty and pompous. Augusta Elton in ‘Emma’ represents the vulgar, newly rich. Everything about her is clichi??d.
She’s materialistic ‘Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business’ (55. 453), always bragging about her rich brother and his possessions, ‘They will have to bring their barouche-Landau of course’ (32. 254). We are encouraged to share Emma’s view that she is ‘A little upstart, vulgar being, with her Mr E. , and her cara sposo, and her resources, and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery’ (32. 259). Mr Collin’s is self important, obsequious to those of a higher social class, talks in long-winded, overly elaborate sentences.
He is a Clergyman but displays shockingly unchristian values, particularly when advising Mr Bennet ‘to throw off his unworthy child from his affection forever, and leave her to reap the fruits of her own heinous offence’ (48. 282). Marriage is obviously a key theme in both novels, the numerous marriages in each tell us a great deal about how marriage was viewed in those days and how far social status could influence choice of partner. If we take the marriage of Charlotte and Mr. Collins in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, we have a perfect example of a marriage of convenience. Mr.
Collins is obviously an insufferable character and we get hints that Charlotte thinks so too, ‘Mr. Collins, to be sure, was neither sensible nor agreeable; his society was irksome, and his attachment to her must be imaginary. But still he would be her husband’. (22. 120), but for Charlotte like I suppose many women of the day, a unhappy marriage was the lesser of two evils: ‘it was the only honourable provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasant preservative from want’ (22. 120). A very short time before Mr.
Collins married Charlotte, he proposed to Elizabeth, who turned him down. A similar situation occurs in ‘Emma’; Mr. Elton professes his love for Emma, who turn’s him down, he then goes off and quickly marries Augusta Hawkins. This serves to show the reader that marriage was less about love than convenience; both these men claim to be very much in love yet on being rebuked have no problem turning their attentions elsewhere. Harriet in ‘Emma’ finally ends up with Mr. Martin, a man who loves her and can offer her a comfortable life, if not great wealth, and who she seemed to love back until Emma gave her ideas above her stations.
Mr. Elton was offended when Emma supposed him attracted to Harriet: ‘Everybody 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 myself to Miss Smith’ (15. 125), he is incredulous at the thought of being paired with someone of such low social standing. Once again showing us the importance class played, if Harriet would of followed her heart and stuck with Mr. Martin, who is more her social equal she would of saved herself a lot of heartache brought on by class prejudice.
Finally what of our heroines, they both go on to marry men they truly love; however the journey to their final partners couldn’t of been more different. Emma and Knightley seem such an obvious match from the beginning. Austen gives us numerous clues through out the book. They both hold the highest positions in their community, they obviously get on very well and are very open and honest with each other, and notice how Knightley reacts when Emma suggests they are like brother and sister ‘Brother and sister!
No, indeed. ‘ (38. 310), the use of exclamation mark gives us a clue to how shocked he is by this thought. Their partnership seems inevitable through out the whole book, as does Harriet and Mr. Martin’s; they maintain the social norms of the time. The marriage of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcey in ‘Pride and Prejudice’ however, defies social norms, it would be most unlikely in the real world for a woman in Elizabeth’s position, with her family and lack of money to marry someone of Darcey’s social standing.
However we see love conquering class prejudice here. Why such a fairytale ending to a book that has so full of realistic class prejudice? We must remember Austen’s original audience might have been girls just like Elizabeth herself, facing similar prejudices and worries for their own futures, offering them a degree of escapism, and maybe even hope of a happy ending for themselves could only have made her books more popular. In terms of the realistic social commentary Austen was so credited for ‘Emma’ is perhaps the best example.