Jane Austen’s Focus On The Small World Of Highbury Also Includes Broader Observations About Social Hierarchies
Social hierarchy is an important factor within Jane Austen’s novel ‘Emma’; she achieves this by showing how the characters are very much concerned with their social status. The novel reflects both Jane Austen’s and society’s perception of the social hierarchical system in 1815. Often a person is ascribed status, either at birth or by marriage; within Highbury this is often the case. Many members of Highbury’s society are ‘old money’ and have been ascribed their social class. Jane Austen uses Mrs Elton to represent people who have recently become members of the higher-class society. Emma’s views on Mrs Elton show how members of the upper class feel towards ‘new money’ they are shown less respect and admiration. ‘Insufferable woman’ it is clear that Emma feels superior to people of Mrs Elton’s status. Although Emma feels this way she continues to attempt to teach Miss Harriet Smith the mannerisms of the upper class, in the hope that she will be considered commendable as a gentleman’s wife.
Jane Austen is interested in convention this is shown by the way in which she chose to socialise the individuals within Highbury. Miss Bates is the main character that defies convention in the novel. Miss Bates converse with Emma and people of Emma’s status, even though she is subordinate to them. Miss Bates is shown respect by people of higher status than her ‘how could you be so unfeeling to Miss Bates’ Mr Knightley forces Emma to acknowledge how rude and inconsiderate she was to Miss Bates, this shows how Jane Austen defies convention by allowing the characters to have a high regard for Miss Bates. Social status would have been just one factor of the conventions of the time; marriage between different social statuses would have also been unconventional.
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Highbury allows the reader to become aware of the social change, since 1815. The reader is able to grasp an initial idea of the importance of social status from the novel, it is clear that Jane Austen intended to have social status play a major part in ‘Emma’ as to allow the novel to reflect the time in which it was written. Jane Austen has also allowed readers to become aware of the social groupings and the way in which people socialised. Highbury shows the reader how the social change affects small communities; all characters within the novel are concerned with all aspects of social status. Many characters in ‘Emma’ are of the same social standing this allows the reader see that a person would be judged on their position within the social hierarchy.
Jane Austen is concerned with a code of right social and moral conduct, and most of her characters violated this code in one way or another. There are characters within the book that do not appear to be bound by an idea of what is acceptable. Emma Woodhouse, Frank Churchill, and Jane Fairfax all make significant errors in judgement, but they are active characters that learn from their mistakes. Jane Austen’s characters within ‘Emma’ are simple and never change, the characters are lightly criticised for their mistakes and stupidities; they include, Mr Woodhouse, John Knightley, Harriet Smith, Miss Bates and particularly Mrs Elton. The only character that is not criticised within the novel is Mr Knightley who behaves in a wise and noble manner, becoming Jane Austen’s voice of reason.
It is apparent that Frank Churchill is portrayed as deceitful and uncaring. Franks actions are unacceptable, he promises a secret engagement to Jane Fairfax. In a selfish effort to hide the engagement from his families Frank flirts with Emma. Emma is fooled into believing that Frank cares for her and Jane is hurt by the attention Frank pays to Emma. Frank Churchill acts in a totally unacceptable way dismissing the feelings of others.
Emma Woodhouse behaves in unacceptable ways but throughout the novel she learns by her mistakes and undergoes a significant change. Emma make many errors of judgment, these include; convincing Harriet smith that Robert Martian is not acceptable as a husband as he is of a lower status, and involving her with Mr Elton. Emma does not think about the consequences of her actions, she does not have any concern for Robert Martian, or for the way in which Mr Elton feels about Miss Smith. In the beginning of the novel Emma appears to be intellectually vain and believes she can manage the relationships of others. Emma’s meddling almost destroys Harriet Smith as Mr Elton Frank Churchill and Mr Knightley reject her within a few months. Emma is portrayed as young and inexperienced it is clear she does not have a strong moral code.
The mood of the novel is predominantly light, leading to the comic ending where there is a happy resolution for everyone. During the course of the novel, Jane Austen clearly highlights the errors and illusions of Emma, which can sometimes seem almost humorous, adding to the light mood.