“Rank is Rank”: Social Mobility and the Landed Class in Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion
By Dulcie Everitt
This paper dissects depictions of social mobility and the landed class in three of Jane Austen’s works: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. Pride and Prejudice presents an early stage of Austen’s critique/fantasy of class relations and social mobility, while Emma and Persuasion provide evidence of her later and, it is often suggested, more “mature” work. In these works, Austen trains her sights—and the reader’s—on the legal infrastructure that prioritizes rank and underpins the rule of the landed class, and challenges the established laws of social class not only through the marriage plot and the heroine’s journey to marriage, but also through the lives and experiences of minor characters. In this way, Austen reveals the often devastating experiences of those who exist outside of the landed class and encourages us to reject the landed class in favor of a system that allows for greater social mobility—a life dedicated to happiness over wealth. While Austen is often studied in relation to her contemporaries, this paper uniquely focuses on Austen’s own development as a writer as she finds new ways to subvert and challenge the legal constitutions of social class in early nineteenth-century England.
Jane Austen’s six published works are most commonly understood as proto-feminist novels that flout expectations of womanhood within the constricted formula of the marriage plot. This they certainly are, but Austen’s works extend well beyond criticisms of patriarchy alone, into criticisms of entitlement within the greater hierarchical social structure of English (indeed, British) society. Throughout the eighteenth century—and indeed long after—the aristocracy and landed class held the most power in British society, and this power was consecrated by a series of laws that forbade any citizen born into a lower class from usurping it. These laws can be traced back centuries to as early as 900 and developed over time to create “legally constituted classes” in which “there were different sorts or estates of men, and the distinction between them was that they held land by a variety of tenures” (Crouch 174). Hence came the phrase “the landed class”—the rung on the social ladder that most of the characters of Austen’s novels sit upon.
One of the most notable of these laws was the law of primogeniture, which was established in the thirteenth century. Primogeniture was a feudal system in which land was entailed (passed on) to the eldest son or the closest male relative in the bloodline (Mingay 20). Within this statute were many assumptions: first, that one is entitled to land based on the luck of being born into a landed family, and second, that men are more deserving of this land than women. In a historically feudal, patriarchal society, neither assumption is surprising. However, whether it is surprising or not, entail laws put the majority of the population—especially the female population—in grave and genuine danger. Although women could and often did own their own land and estates, it was the danger to those women who had not that privilege that Austen deals with most fervently in her novels. Even in her penultimate novel Emma, in which the heroine Emma Woodhouse will receive her father’s property when he dies, the focus is not so much on Emma herself, but on the women around her who do not have that luxury.
During the latter half of the eighteenth century, in the wake of the industrial revolution, the enlightenment, and the publication of Adam Smith’s seminal books The Theory of Moral Sentiments in 1759 and Wealth of Nations in 1776, the concreteness of class started to show the first signs of disintegration. The industrial revolution meant that other sources of wealth besides land became available to people, and for the first time there was a possibility of social mobility (Hughes). Similarly, the enlightenment challenged (educated) people to become more tolerant and open to the ideas of others (Broadie 9), and instead of asking “how can I be good?” people began to ask: “how can I be happy?” (Mokry 33). In other words, the enlightenment marked the rise of individualism and self-determination. As for Adam Smith, his books also constitute a distinct push for heightened morality, individualism, and suggest that self-interest leads to social order (Bohanon and Vachris 9). Such major shifts in thinking put pressure on legal systems like primogeniture because people began to not only recognize a greater desire to move up the social ladder, but they also started to acknowledge that there might be new ways to do so.
Though Austen’s commentaries on class surely reflected a changing tide, as usual, Austen was somewhat ahead of her time. Twenty three years after Austen’s death in 1840, graphic artist George Cruikshank produced a caricature called ‘The British Beehive,’ (see Appendix Figure 1) which divided the layers of English society along the lines of class and occupation, celebrating class division and suggesting that they are natural and unchanging (Hughes). Cruikshank’s image suggests that despite the changes discussed above, social classes were still distinctly divided and remained sacrosanct to many. However, in 1859, Samuel Smiles published his book titled Self Help: With Illustrations of Character and Conduct, which was aimed at “ordinary people” and “combines Victorian morality with sound free market ideas into moral tales showing the benefits of thrift, hard work, education, perseverance, and a sound moral character” (Online Library of Liberty). Smiles’ book contained more of the “self-help” advice that we would be used to seeing today in our modern capitalist society, demonstrating that the reign of the landed class was truly beginning to dwindle. Still, Austen was over forty-two years ahead.
Returning to Jane Austen the woman, we know that her life was in many ways defined by her position as a woman of the “pseudo-gentry” —a term applied to those who “do not themselves possess the power and wealth invested in the ownership of land, but depend upon earned incomes” (Copeland 132). Since Austen never married and was one of eight children, six of whom were men, she never had any rights to her father’s estate, and so never had a permanent home. Luckily, Austen had generous brothers who enabled her to live in relative comfort throughout her life. Having said this, Austen was consistently displaced between residencies, and never had anywhere to truly settle and call home, which was not uncommon for an unmarried woman of relative means at the time. Her semi-permanent residences were between her father George Austen’s estate in Steventon (1775-1801), George Austen’s later home in Bath (1801-1806), and her brother Francis (Frank) Austen’s house in Southampton (1806-1809), before she finally settled at a small cottage down the road from her brother Edward Knight’s Chawton estate from 1809 until her death in 1817. It is notable that Austen’s entire literary career took place while she was at Chawton. Despite having drafted her first three novels before this time, it was there that she refined and perfected them. Her last three novels—Mansfield Park, Emma, and Persuasion—were all written in their entireties at Chawton and are the three that pay the most overt attention to class division of all her works. Undoubtedly, Austen’s own experiences informed many of the references to class that we see throughout her works, but her critiques of social order extend far beyond them.
In this paper I will focus in particular on three of Austen’s works: Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Persuasion. I will proceed through them in chronological order (as listed). Pride and Prejudice will offer Austen’s earlier critique/fantasy of class relations and social mobility, while Emma and Persuasion will offer insight into her later and, it is often suggested, more “mature” works. In these novels, Austen challenges the established laws of social class not only through the marriage plot and the heroine’s journey to marriage, but also through the lives and experiences of minor characters. In this way, Austen draws our attention to the often devastating experiences of those who exist outside of the landed class, and thereby encourages us to reject the landed class in favor of a system that allows for greater social mobility—a life dedicated to happiness over wealth.
Pride and Prejudice
The proverbial opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice is among the best known in English literature: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” (Austen, Pride and Prejudice 1). With this line, Austen introduces her reader into the marriage-centric universe of the novel, depicting marriage as a male-driven, wealth-driven desire. However, the assumption of a man’s motivation to marry in his own right is briskly undercut by the second sentence of the novel, a similarly assured statement that “However little known the feelings or view of such a man may be…this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters” (1). The language of this line redirects the motivating force in marriage from men, to families, and more specifically to their eligible daughters. In eighteenth-century England, women had little to no way of securing a house of their own other than through marriage, so it was indeed of vital importance for a family to ensure that their daughter(s) married a wealthy man with property of his own. As Judith Newton writes, “Men, as the first two sentences suggest, do not need to marry. They may ‘want’ or desire wives as it turns out, but they do not need to want them as women must want husbands” (30). However, even where marriage was undoubtedly vital for young women, it was not necessarily the husband they needed—he was simply a means to securing a property that would allow them shelter and security in later life. Indeed, the use of the word “property” in the context of the second line can refer either to the man himself as an object, or his land, implying that it was more sought after than its inhabitant. Pride and Prejudice is one of three of Austen’s novels that revolves around daughters whose fathers’ estates are entailed to a male relative outside their immediate family, and who therefore face losing their home if they do not marry suitably. It is this dilemma that the action of the novel revolves around.
Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have “five grown up daughters” (Austen, P&P 2), a large number implying that they, without luck, consistently tried to have a son. The danger for the Bennet women is severe: if they do not marry, they will not have a home, and in a family full of daughters, there is no brother to support you. In this way, the marriage plot in this novel is set up to focus not on the state itself, but on the security that it brings the Bennet sisters. In a most irresistible manner, the action of the novel begins with the hope ignited by the arrival of a Mr. Bingley, “‘A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year’” (1). “‘What a fine thing for our girls!’” (1), Mrs. Bennet exclaims, staking her claim on Mr. Bingley as the property of some one or other of her daughters as the opening lines foretold. Mr. Bingley’s desirability lies in his wealth and the property he owns at Netherfield. Mrs. Bennet’s assertion “‘If I can but see one of my daughters happily settled at Netherfield…and all the others equally well married, I shall have nothing to wish for’” (5) mentions nothing about Mr. Bingley or happy unions at all. She only mentions the estate, suggesting that whoever the man might be that lives there is entirely irrelevant. However, while Mr. Bingley’s attractiveness is a product of his great wealth, he does not own Netherfield nor is he a member of the landed gentry class—the upper echelon of society. As the narrator describes Mr. Bingley’s sisters, it is noted that “They were of a respectable family in the north of England; a circumstance more deeply impressed on their memories than that their brother’s fortune and their own had been acquired by trade” (10). The reference to trade marks the Bingleys as members of the wealthy middle class—the new social class that rose along with the industrial revolution. However, their minds “impressed” with their respectability rather than the source of their wealth, the Bingleys do not show any significant difference in rank. The ease with which Mr. Bingley and his sisters blend into the company of the truly landed class is remarkable. Austen makes it look extraordinarily unimportant that Netherfield does not belong to Bingley nor that his money is not “old,” and this is the first sign we find in her writing that the class dynamics in England are beginning to shift from the bottom up, and that landed wealth is becoming less important.
The Longbourn estate is entailed to Mr. Bennet’s cousin, Mr. Collins, who Austen encourages us to vehemently dislike over the course of the novel. When Mr. Bennet receives a letter from Mr. Collins, Mrs. Bennet flies into a despair: “‘I cannot bear to hear that mentioned. Pray do not talk of that odious man. I do think it is the hardest thing in the world, that your estate should be entailed away from your own children; and I am sure if I had been you, I should have tried long ago to do something or other about it’” (46). On the one hand, Mrs. Bennet’s despairing tone appears to be a fit of sensibility that clouds her better judgement. Of course, Mr. Bennet has no power to alter the direction of the entail, and Jane and Elizabeth unsuccessfully try to impress this upon their mother, but she is declared “beyond the reach of reason” (46). However, upon reflection, Mrs. Bennet’s hysteria and unreasonableness is an entirely reasonable reaction. Nothing about entail laws makes sense for families who only have daughters, so how could she happily concede that this is the natural order of things? While Austen depicts Mrs. Bennet as hysterical and naïve, she also makes it clear that of all the characters she most understands the cruelty of this world towards women, encouraging the reader to sympathize with her rather than write her off as irrational and irritating.
Mrs. Bennet’s reaction seems all the more reasonable as we learn more about Mr. Collins. Mr. Collins’ situation in life is the combined result of pandering to others and the sheer luck of being a man. From the outset of his introduction into the novel, he is shown to be extremely preoccupied with rank and social status. Elizabeth notices that Mr. Collins’ letter addressed to Mr. Bennet contains an “extraordinary deference for Lady Catherine,” whose patronage he is under, and she reads “something very pompous in his stile” (48). Lady Catherine lends Mr. Collins an air of authority and self-importance that he does not have on his own, and he emphasizes this relationship as the most powerful and attractive component of his character. Through his excessive reverence to Lady Catherine, Austen reveals that Mr. Collins has little to offer in his own right, which is a central component of her critique of entail law as it relates to class and wealth. The narrator states that Mr. Collins’ “deficiency of nature had been but little assisted by education or society; the greatest part of his life having been spent under the guidance of an illiterate and miserly father; and though he belonged to one of the universities, he had merely kept the necessary terms” (52). His intelligence is undermined here, and this description reinforces the absurdity of entailing an estate to such a man based solely on his gender while thinking nothing of his merit. Furthermore, when Elizabeth asks her father if Mr. Collins could be expected to be a “sensible man,” Mr. Bennet replies in his usual sardonic tone: “‘No, my dear; I think not. I have great hopes of finding him quite the reverse’” (48). To find amusement in the fact that the man to whom your estate will be left after you die in favor of your own daughters is the reverse of sensible is offensive, ignorant, and betrays an air of unaffected male privilege. We are encouraged to find Mr. Bennet’s reaction cruel, and to feel that these ideas—of entail and the importance of keeping wealth within a family regardless of who the family member is—are outdated.
We also find a similarly ridiculous passing on of property at Lady Catherine’s estate. Lady Catherine’s daughter is “the heiress of Rosings” (50), and as such her future is safe in the sense that she will always have a home of her own. Mr. Collins tells the Bennets that Anne De Bourgh: “‘is a most charming young lady indeed…there is that in her features which marks the young woman of distinguished birth…She is unfortunately of a sickly constitution, which has prevented her from making that progress in many accomplishments, which she could not otherwise have failed of…but she is perfectly amiable’” (50-51). Here, Mr. Collins suggests that one can have “features” of good breeding in their appearance, which is ridiculous in itself, but his following statement that she is perpetually unwell and unaccomplished hilariously undermines any notion that Anne De Bourgh has “superior” qualities as opposed to the Bennet sisters, for example. Both Mr. Collins and Miss De Bourgh are to be given the estates of Longbourn and Rosings through no merit of their own—while Mr. Bennet has no choice but to leave the property to Mr. Collins, Lady Catherine is luckily able to choose to secure her daughter’s happiness by leaving her Rosings. While we may initially feel differently about the two situations—the former being unfair and undeserved and the latter being sensible and natural—Austen shows us that in both cases property is passed along lines in accordance with wealth (or patriarchy) above merit, and our sympathies lie firmly with the Bennet sisters who, though deserving, have no such opportunities to secure their futures. In this way we are positioned as readers to feel that individualism—the kind Mr. Bingley’s father pursued through trade—is the most admirable way of acquiring property in this world.
Mr. Collins also emphasizes his connection to Lady Catherine in his proposal to Elizabeth. Mr. Collins’ design in coming to Longbourn—he believes nobly—is to find among the Bennet daughters a wife, assuring that the estate remains within the hands of the family. He settles first on Jane, then on Elizabeth as the object of his desire, and lists his reasons for marriage in a sickeningly logical style: “‘first…I think it a right thing for every clergyman in easy circumstances (like myself) to set the example of matrimony in his parish. Secondly, that I am convinced it will add very greatly to my happiness; and thirdly—which perhaps I ought to have mentioned earlier, that it is the particular advice of the very noble lady whom I have the honour of calling patroness’” (81). Mr. Collins’ emphasis on his “easy circumstances” brings us back to the very first line of the novel: “a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” However, it is Lady Catherine that he makes central to the “power” of his offer, because he views his relationship to a woman of her social rank as its most desirable element. However, Elizabeth has no interest in Lady Catherine’s rank nor being associated with it—her happiness she relies on far more. In reality, a match between Elizabeth and Mr. Collins would be desirable in terms of providing Elizabeth and her sisters with a permanent home. However, Elizabeth’s choices are markedly individualistic, reflecting both the enlightened individual’s quest for happiness over wealth and another clue that wealth and rank hold less sway than they used to.
Not only does Elizabeth reject Mr. Collins despite his connection to Lady Catherine, in an interaction with Lady Catherine herself, Elizabeth stands her ground and undermines the inherited authority Lady Catherine believes herself to have in this world. Suspecting Mr. Darcy’s attachment to Elizabeth towards the end of the novel, Lady Catherine directly approaches Elizabeth to caution her of the implications of this match. She opens the conversation with the condescending statement: “‘You can be at no loss, Miss Bennet, to understand the reason of my journey hither. Your own heart, your own conscience, must tell you why I come’” (269). The mention of Elizabeth’s “conscience” instantly suggests that she should feel guilt for her relationship to Darcy. Furthermore, she expresses her disbelief that this match could be possible in the first place: “‘that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet, would, in all likelihood, be soon afterwards united to my nephew, my own nephew, Mr. Darcy. Though I know it must be a scandalous falsehood; though I would not injure him so much as to suppose the truth of it possible, I instantly resolved on setting off for this place, that I might make my sentiments known to you’” (270). Lady Catherine’s repetitions of “that you, that Miss Elizabeth Bennet” and “my nephew, my own nephew” and “though I know…though I would not” emphasize her outrage, her disbelief, and her deeply held conviction that social mobility is inappropriate and “scandalous.” However, the reader is encouraged to feel differently. Elizabeth responds by “colouring with astonishment and disdain” (270)—she is humiliated by Lady Catherine in a way that invites our sympathy and our solidarity. Lady Catherine’s reproaches are cruel, rude, and above all else mistaken, as Mr. Darcy in fact does love Elizabeth, initially more than she loves him. This episode induces bathos in the reader by entirely undermining both the authority and respectability of the landed upper class.
Elizabeth, who stubbornly refuses to be controlled by the appeal of wealth and rank, is ironically rewarded for her defiance with a loving marriage to Mr. Darcy, the wealthiest of Austen’s bachelors. As Rachel Brownstein puts it, “Conventional himself, he admires her for defying convention” (Brownstein 51), and with each act of rebellion he is more attracted to Elizabeth. Despite accosting Elizabeth’s beauty at the first ball, Mr. Darcy admits to Miss Bingley that he believes Elizabeth to have “fine eyes” (Austen, P&P 19). When Elizabeth arrives at Netherfield with “weary ancles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise” (24), Miss Bingley expects him to rescind this compliment: “‘I am afraid…that this adventure has rather affected your admiration of her fine eyes,” to which he responds: “Not at all…they were brightened by the exercise’” (26). Not only does Mr. Darcy still admire Elizabeth despite her unladylike walking endeavors, the word “brightened” here suggests that it has only raised her in his esteem. Furthermore, after a fast-paced exchange in which both Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy convey to the other their primary character flaw—Darcy’s being “a propensity to hate every body” (43) and Elizabeth’s being “willfully to misunderstand them” (43)—Mr. Darcy “began to feel the danger of paying Elizabeth too much attention” (44). In this passage it is clear that Elizabeth’s “boundless temper of tongue” and her refusal to pander to him affects Mr. Darcy in a profound way. His continuous attraction to Elizabeth’s indifference encourages the reader to feel that reverence to the wealthy—the attention Miss Bingley pays Mr. Darcy and Mr. Collins pays Lady Catherine—is no longer a desirable quality to have, especially for women.
We can further infer from the allusion to “danger” that Mr. Darcy fears that given more interaction with Elizabeth, his opinion of her will continue to grow into love, and the danger for Mr. Darcy if he falls in love with Elizabeth is that to be associated with her family would greatly lower his class status. Indeed, in his first proposal to Elizabeth, Darcy highlights their difference in class and rank. Omitting his exact words, the narration of his proposal continues: “He concluded with representing to her the strength of that attachment which, in spite of all his endeavours, he had found impossible to conquer; and with expressing his hope that it would now be rewarded by her acceptance of his hand” (145). Mr. Darcy’s “endeavours” against loving Elizabeth do not go unnoticed, and Elizabeth takes immediate offence, demanding to know “‘why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?’” (146). Elizabeth unapologetically stands up against the classist sentiment contained within Mr. Darcy’s offer of marriage, holding that her social position is equally as respectable as his. Furthermore, while Mr. Darcy’s wealth induces in him a self-assurance by which “he had no doubt of a favourable answer” (145), Elizabeth’s vehement rejection of him deems such doubt necessary. Elizabeth, ignoring Mr. Darcy’s wealth entirely, speaks only of his character, citing his “arrogance,” “conceit,” and “selfish disdain of the feelings of others” (148) as the grounds for rejection. Elizabeth undermines the value of Mr. Darcy’s wealth as it relates to her happiness, and thus entirely discredits the desirability of a “single man in possession of a good fortune.”
However, as Claudia Johnson states, Pride and Prejudice is shamelessly “wish-fulfilling” (Johnson, “Pride and Prejudice” 73), and throughout the second volume of the novel Elizabeth’s attitude towards Darcy transforms from one of revulsion to one of admiration and love. Elizabeth makes an impromptu trip with the Gardiners to Pemberley, Darcy’s enormous estate in Derbyshire, and their approach describes a gradual ascension that parallels the ascension in rank that Mr. Darcy’s property represents:
They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; — and in front, a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. (Austen, P&P 185)
The “considerable eminence” and “natural importance” of Pemberley mirrors Mr. Darcy’s inherited importance as a wealthy man of the landed class, while the ascension up the hill and the “rising ground” foreshadows the social mobility that Elizabeth will achieve when she marries Darcy at the end of the novel. Elizabeth is not repulsed by Pemberley in the way she has been repulsed by reverence towards rank throughout the novel thus far. In fact, she is “delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste…and at that moment she felt, that to be mistress of Pemberley might be something!” (185). Elizabeth’s reaction seems to reaffirm the “natural” beauty possessed by the landed class, rather than challenge it as we might expect. Furthermore, her revelation that to marry Mr. Darcy and own Pemberley “might be something!” suggests a shift in her attitude towards power, wealth, and rank.
Elizabeth’s delight with Pemberley extends into a deeper feeling of admiration and love for its owner. Jane asks Elizabeth about her relationship to Darcy: “‘Will you tell me how long you have loved him?’” and she replies, “‘It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’” (286). Here, Elizabeth refers to her love for Darcy in terms of his property, not his person, and though we can certainly find moments where Elizabeth explains how her opinion of his character has become so favorable, this moment, shared with her closest sister in private, frames her love as based on a landed estate, security, and rank. In this way, as Johnson notes, “of all of Austen’s novels [P&P] most affirms established social arrangements without damaging their prestige or fundamentally challenging their wisdom or equity” (Johnson, “Pride and Prejudice” 74). Indeed, at the close of the novel, Elizabeth’s upward social mobility is described as having a positive effect on her family. Kitty, who has spent the majority of the novel chasing military men with Lydia, closes the novel with new hope: “to her very material advantage, spent the chief of her time with her two elder sisters. In society so superior to what she had generally known, her improvement was great…she became, by proper attention and management, less irritable, less ignorant, and less insipid” (Austen, P&P 195). Kitty’s improvement as a result of her interaction with the Bingleys and the Darcys—two men of wealth and rank—gives her a newfound hope for the future that again reinforces the commonly held idea that the company of the upper classes is both favorable and desirable, and that their power and authority are both deserved and sacrosanct. However, even if Pride and Prejudice does reinforce the desire to belong to the landed class that her later novels seek to deconstruct, this novel still challenges a traditional view of class structure and long-standing notions about how one is able to move through it. Elizabeth’s social mobility is achieved not by adhering to decorum, but by rebelling against it. Austen’s preservation of the social order itself makes Elizabeth’s rebellion subtler, but it cannot detract from the disruptions of the “normal” social order that occur throughout Pride and Prejudice.
Emma is the only one of Austen’s novels in which the heroine’s future is entirely secure from the moment the novel begins. A member of the landed class, Emma Woodhouse is the wealthiest of Austen’s heroines and as such her concerns are incomparable to those of the Bennet sisters. Emma is described as “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” (5), and she “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her” (5). From this introduction alone it is clear that Emma is not Austen’s typical heroine, and that her rank affords her great privilege in this world. Indeed, Emma’s wealth means that she does not need to marry to be safe like other Austen heroines. Emma demonstrates the advantage of her position in her statement: “‘I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I have never been in love…And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want’” (68). Here, Emma acknowledges that the “usual inducements of women to marry” revolve around material wealth and security, and the repetition of “I do not want” reaffirms the fact that she has everything she needs to be safe and prosper in this world. Like Elizabeth Bennet, Emma has an air of independence and individualism that rejects marriage as a necessary and desirable end goal. However, unlike Elizabeth, Emma has the means that allow her to have such views without putting her future security in jeopardy.
Throughout Emma, Emma’s class privilege influences her interactions with other minor characters, and it is in these interactions that Austen’s critique of class and social mobility lies. Since the plot is not driven by Emma’s need nor desire to marry, the focus of the novel shifts onto minor characters whose situations are more precarious, many of whom are of extremely low social status. The power that results from Emma’s wealth is juxtaposed throughout the novel with the impoverished characters she interacts with. As Jan Fergus notes, “The later novel that most thoroughly considers the plight of marginal women is in fact the most comic one, Emma. There, because her heroine is so secure, nearly as secure as a landed man, Austen is free to explore issues of women’s power and marginality more profoundly than she had in earlier novels” (265). For the first time in Austen’s novels, impoverished, minor characters have names—including laborers such as James the carriage driver. To give characters of the lower class names is to give them newfound respect and recognition—it invites the reader to imagine them as actual human beings with their own lives, rather than as the property of the upper classes. Women of “low birth” are particularly important in this novel “because Austen asks the reader to judge Emma by her attitude toward poor women” (Fowkes 418). In this way, Emma is the first of Austen’s novels to explore class relationships between individuals of significantly different rank.
The first “impoverished gentlewoman” that we encounter in this novel is Harriet Smith. Harriet Smith “was the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard’s school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-border” (Austen, E 19). Harriet’s status as a “natural daughter,” i.e., a daughter begotten out of wedlock, automatically marks her as of “inferior” birth. Furthermore, the repetition of “somebody” serves to reinforce Harriet’s lack of title and consequence, while making it appear as though her lot in life has been determined by acts of generosity made by strangers. Harriet’s powerlessness is a source of attraction for Emma, because it highlights her own superiority of rank. The narrator states:
She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging—not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk—and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement. (19)
Both Emma noticing that Harriet is “not inconveniently shy” and her admiration of Harriet’s “deference” towards her implies that Emma revels in the class-based power dynamic that affords her superiority and gives her a sense of gratification for being in a position to “encourage” Harriet in the proper direction—to follow in her footsteps. Tobin Fowkes similarly remarks that “Emma adopts Harriet as if she were a pet, and Harriet’s grateful and unconsciously fawning manner encourages Emma’s sense of her own superiority” (419). However, in Austen’s lifetime there was in fact a push for women of high status to take on such roles. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Society for Bettering the Conditions of Clapham, Surrey, was created with the aim of ensuring that the poor in urban areas were able to receive the assistance of their wealthy neighbors. They published a book in 1800 enshrining their “Rules and Regulations,” which emphasized that “opulent families” had a duty to establish “the real improvement and permanent happiness of the poor around them,” and “to employ leisure, wealth, talents, knowledge, information, consultation, to the good of their poorer neighbours” (Society for Bettering the Conditions of the Poor 8). It also directs itself towards wealthy women in particular, who ought to seek “The moral improvement of the poor,—their more complete relief in distress,—and their permanent benefit by the encouragement of habits of industry” (8). As a wealthy woman, Emma therefore would have been expected at this time to have shown a certain benevolence and philanthropy towards the poor, and to help them to improve along moral grounds.
However, as Danielle Spratt observes, “Emma exhibits nearly pathological levels of incompetence for philanthropic acts, either by indulging in various leisure activities (often at the physical or emotional expense of those whom they ought to serve), or by botching any halfhearted attempts at charity” (193). Most of Emma’s “philanthropy” towards Harriet in particular revolves around schemes or preventions of marriage. Emma becomes prematurely invested in a developing relationship between Mr. Elton and Harriet, so much so that she must act speedily to prevent a marriage occurring in an opposing direction. In the midst of her enthusiasm for the match, Mr. Elton leaves on a trip to London, which “produced a fresh occasion for Emma’s services towards her friend” (Austen, E 40), with Harriet having just received an offer of marriage from a Mr. Martin, an industrious farmer with whom Harriet is acquainted and Emma has seen once. The word “services” here undercuts the bond of friendship between Emma and Harriet and reduces it to a relationship of power and one-directional exchange—an exchange Emma believes is of benefit to Harriet. Noticing Harriet’s excitement at the proposal, Emma feels “ashamed,” and she is quick to assert that Mr. Martin has an ulterior motive with her suggestion that “‘He will connect himself well if he can’” (40). Of course, Harriet is of no birth, wealth, or rank, and so has no valuable “connection” to offer Mr. Martin other than companionship—in fact he has more to offer her—but Emma is blind to these facts. Initially claiming “‘I will have nothing to do with it’” (42), Emma proceeds to congratulate Harriet when she tentatively concludes that she will refuse: “‘Perfectly, perfectly right, my dearest Harriet; you are doing just what you ought’” (43). The word “ought” is loaded with notions of duty, responsibility, and decorum, and Emma employs it here to acknowledge Harriet’s compliance with Emma’s wishes, and with her notion of Mr. Martin’s inferiority that is in reality completely baseless.
As she continues to plan matches for Harriet that do not come to fruition, throughout the second half of the novel Emma becomes engaged in a process of self-awareness that allows her to realize that her philanthropic endeavors towards Harriet Smith have been poorly handled. Upon hearing of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax’s engagement, Emma is deeply upset: “Mr. Knightley had spoken prophetically, when he once said, ‘Emma, you have been no friend to Harriet Smith.’—She was afraid she had done her nothing but disservice” (316). She laments that her match-making and the use of her influence on Harriet have only caused her pain and heartache. However, these moments of clarity only affect Emma when the situation does not threaten to alter the power dynamic that she so treasures between herself and Harriet. Upon discovering that Harriet’s love is for Mr. Knightley rather than Frank Churchill, Emma’s sympathy is limited at best. Mr. Knightley differs from Frank Churchill in rank and in proximity to Emma, and Harriet’s self-motivated desire to join this rank in turn quickly motivates Emma to become “acquainted with her own heart” (320). She quickly and seamlessly realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley too. She regards Harriet’s interest in him as “a burst of threatening evil” (321), and despite being quite ready for Harriet to marry above her station with Mr. Elton, Emma concludes that if Harriet married Mr Knightley it would be “the most unequal of all connexions” (324-5). Until this point, Emma felt that her attempts to move Harriet up the social ladder through marriage were noble—she saw Harriet’s worth as an individual as opposed to seeing her as a product of natural, low birth. However, as soon as Harriet comes to believe herself worthy of a man such as Mr. Knightley, she panics. Emma fears that Harriet and Knightley’s marriage would raise Harriet above even herself, and this would completely usurp the power relationship between the two women. Tobin Fowkes reads Emma’s failed philanthropy as reflective of societal attitudes to authority: “At the risk of seeming to allegorize Emma, I believe that there is a parallel between Emma’s abuse of power…and what the English middle classes in the early nineteenth century felt was an ‘abdication on the part of governors,’ the failure of the aristocracy and gentry to fulfill their role as caretakers of society” (Fowkes 424). While Austen is certainly demonstrating the failure of the powerful to protect the vulnerable, the crux of Austen’s commentary on upper-class philanthropy as a failed endeavor is the emphasis on the fact that Emma remains genuine only when she can remain comfortably in her higher station, but when there is the first inkling that the entitlement she feels to things like wealthy men is shared by others “below” her station, the façade of good-will shatters.
Another instance in which Emma rejects the potential for social mobility in her society is found in her attitude towards the Coles. The Coles are a neighboring family who have made their money through trade, like Mr. Bingley’s father in Pride and Prejudice. As Handler and Segal note, “success in ‘trade’ has made the Coles increasingly wealthy, and they try to convert their newly won property into peer relations with Highbury’s genteel society” (698). Unlike Mr. Bingley’s, the source of the Coles’ wealth is harped on in the novel and provides Emma with a justification for her disdain for the family. Our introduction to the Coles is as follows:
The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury, and were very good sort of people—friendly, liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. On their first coming into the country, they had lived in proportion to their income, quietly, keeping little company, and that little unexpensively; but the last year or two had brought them a considerable increase of means—the house in town had yielded greater profits, and fortune in general had smiled on them. With their wealth, their views increased; their want of a larger house, their inclination for more company…The regular and best families Emma could hardly suppose they would presume to invite…nothing should tempt her to go, if they did…they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them. (Austen, E 162-163)
In this introduction we find a fascinating juxtaposition between the narrative point of view and Emma’s point of view, which encourages us to feel uncomfortable about Emma’s attitude towards the Coles. The narrator describes them as “very good sort of people—friendly, liberal, and unpretending,” and yet Emma still looks down on them as their “superior.” Furthermore, in this passage alone we find a tracking of the passage of time that demonstrates the movement from the past—an ordered social structure that privileges the landed class—to the fluctuations of the present society, in which a family who has made their money through trade is able to associate with the upper class. In contrast to Pride and Prejudice where such integration was seamlessly achieved, in Emma this is a more pointed observation, and indeed critique, that is a distinguishing factor between Austen’s first three novels and her last three novels.
While the Coles represent the profession of trade and the upward mobility of the middle class, Miss Taylor and Jane Fairfax represent the hostile profession of being a governess. Since the medieval era, governesses have been used in aristocratic circles, but the use of the governess in wealthy families became more popular in the eighteenth century. Employing a governess showed that you belonged to a higher social class as it meant that the members of the family had fewer responsibilities and so achieved the desirable state of “the idle rich.” However, the governess trade could be remarkably cruel to its subjects. Becoming a governess was a matter of urgent necessity rather than desire for a profession, as it provided a home and a means of security for women who would otherwise have no such comforts in their futures. The social class of the ideal governess was also dubiously defined, as a governess had to be “well-bred” and well enough educated to be responsible for the education of upper class children, but she also had to be low enough on the social ladder to need to make her own living. In Emma, we have one governess: Miss Taylor, and one potential governess: Jane Fairfax, who is saved from her fate by her marriage to Frank Churchill. In both cases, we see the dangers of being a governess, and we also gain an insight into Austen’s own perspective on the governess trade.
Miss Taylor—now Mrs. Weston—has been Emma’s governess throughout her upbringing. She was “less…a governess than a friend,” and between herself and Emma was shared “the intimacy of sisters” (5). Despite the fact that Miss Taylor has been a governess throughout the traditional marriage and child-bearing years, she manages to find a husband in Mr. Weston after her duties to the Woodhouses have been performed. Mr. Weston “was a man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune, suitable age and pleasant manners” (6), and he is of a higher social class than Miss Taylor before they marry. Despite some satisfaction felt on Emma’s part because she had “always wished and promoted the match,” Miss Taylor’s marriage is described as a “black morning’s work for her” (6). The common understanding of Emma’s (and Mr. Woodhouse’s) grief over the “black morning” when Miss Taylor becomes Mrs. Weston is that it is due to her absence from their home. On this reading, Emma and Mr. Woodhouse treat their governess as a member of their own family in a way that would have been unusual at the time. However, one might also read this event as another example of social mobility that Emma so detests. If she “always wished and promoted the match” in the same way that she always wished and promoted Harriet Smith marrying Mr. Elton and Frank Churchill yet was repulsed by a potential match between Harriet and Mr. Knightley, then we might presume that the consummation of her wishes in this case was not received as fondly as she had expected. Yet, the fact that the narrative allows Mrs. Weston to get married, though her “marriageable” years have passed, and that she ends the novel pregnant even though she is considered past her childbearing years, suggests that the narrative sympathizes with her position, and subverts the notion that a woman can either be professional (of lower class) or be married (and enter a higher class), but cannot be both.
Similarly, the narrative saves Jane Fairfax from the fate of becoming a governess with her marriage to Frank Churchill. Jane’s situation is extremely precarious from the start. She is an orphan and her guardians become her grandmother and aunt, who made a “plan that she should be brought up for educating others” (128). However, throughout the novel Jane is shown to be a talented, distinguished young woman. She is described as having “decided superiority both in beauty and acquirements. That nature had given it in feature could not be unseen by the young woman, nor could her higher powers of mind be unfelt by the parents” (129). Here, the narrative both marks Jane as “superior” despite her precarious family life and allows “nature” to endow her with her talents in the same way that it is often suggested “nature” grants superiority to the upper class. Jane’s position in society along with the emphasis placed on her merit marks her as “the traditional Austen heroine” (Thaden 55). Indeed, Jane’s situation in life makes the reader sympathize with her far more than we do Emma, and this is made even more marked by Emma’s treatment of Jane. Emma “unfeignedly and unequivocally regret[s] the inferiority of her own playing and singing” in comparison to Jane, and “She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood” (Austen, E 181). Here, the notion of the “idle rich” is invoked with obvious amusement: while it might allow for a comfortable life, it cannot afford the upper class the superiority they guard with such fervor.
Despite her many talents, Jane is still directed towards a life as a governess. She makes direct reference to this potential life in a conversation with Mrs. Elton about the governess trade; a reference which indirectly compares being a governess to being a slave:
“When I am quite determined as to the time, I am not at all afraid of being long unemployed. There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something–Offices for the sale–not quote of human flesh–but of human intellect.”
“Oh! My dear, human flesh! You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition.”
“I did not mean I was not thinking of the slave-trade,” replied Jane; “governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view; widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.” (235)
In this dialogue, the narrative allows Mrs. Elton’s misunderstanding to point to something about the governess trade that Jane Fairfax didn’t intend, but that nonetheless reveals something extremely disturbing about the treatment of both victims. Jane’s assertion “as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies” associates being a governess with the practice of free labor and the abuse of human rights that slavery represents. It also describes the treatment of governesses as sub-human and locates them at the bottom of the social hierarchy in a way that the novel both anticipates and rejects most vehemently. Jane’s escape from this seemingly inevitable future is both approved by the narrative and, unsurprisingly, disapproved by Emma. Unthinkingly and unfeelingly, Emma talks freely to Mrs. Weston about how disgraceful it is for Frank Churchill to marry Jane: “‘Impropriety! Oh! Mrs. Weston—it is too calm a censure. Much, much beyond impropriety! — It has sunk him, I cannot say how it has sunk him in my opinion. So unlike what a man should be…Jane actually on the point of becoming a governess! What could he mean by such horrible indelicacy?’” (312-313). The word “sunk” suggests a degradation of social status and rank that is hideous to Emma, while her inability to reconcile the idea that a governess may be an eligible bachelorette for a man of Frank Churchill’s status marks her once again as vehemently against social mobility in all of its forms. The fact that these words are directed towards Mrs. Weston also ironically displays a far more potent indelicacy, as her words cruelly degrade her interlocutor as well.
Another instance in which Emma’s words become weapons directed towards her lower-class friends is during the episode on Box Hill. Fighting the “downright dullness” (289) of the day, Frank Churchill relays Emma’s wish (though she does not state it in so many words) that “‘she demands from each of you either one thing very clever, be it prose or verse, original or repeated—or two things moderately clever—or three things very dull indeed, and she engages to laugh heartily at all’” (291). Responding in a most endearingly self-deprecating manner, Miss Bates replies to this request by joking with them all. The scene that unravels is heart-breaking. Miss Bates begins,
“Oh! very well…then I need not be uneasy. ‘Three things very dull indeed.’ That will just do for me, you know. I shall be sure to say three dull things as soon as ever I open my mouth, shan’t I?—(looking round with the most good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent)—Do you not think I shall?”
Emma could not resist.
“Ah! Ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me—but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.”
Miss Bates, deceived by the mock ceremony of her manner, did not immediately catch her meaning; but, when it burst on her, it could not anger, though a slight blush showed that it could pain her.
“Ah!—well—to be sure. Yes, I see what she means, (turning to Mr. Knightley,) and I will try to hold my tongue. I must make myself very disagreeable, or she would not have said such a thing to an old friend.” (291)
The pathos that this scene evokes in the reader is of the most painful sort. Miss Bates’ innocent comment followed by Emma’s cruel attack are in sharp contrast with one another and they only reflect poorly on Emma’s character. As Fowkes observes, although Emma is constantly “pushing against the boundaries of socially accepted behavior…with her cruel jest she goes too far, trespassing normal social boundaries and threatening social order. By dropping the veil of chivalrous manners she reveals the true nature of social relations which are based on property and privilege, on wealth and rank” (Fowkes 421). Indeed, Emma abuses the power dynamic between herself and Miss Bates in terms of their difference in social class here—if this joke had been made among equals it would not have been half so cruel. Mr. Knightley recognizes this when he reprimands Emma for her comment:
“were she prosperous, I could allow much for the occasional prevalence of the ridiculous over the good. Were she a woman of fortune, I would leave every harmless absurdity to take its chance, I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in station—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more. Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done, indeed!” (Austen, E 295)
Here, Austen encourages the reader to agree with Mr. Knightley and to further disapprove of Emma’s conduct. His compassion for Miss Bates’ inevitable “sinking” lower on the social ladder is genuine and admirable, while Emma’s privilege is shown to have made her horribly ignorant of these power dynamics.
Fowkes’ argument goes on to suggest that throughout Emma, “Austen clearly supports the old order and enlists her readers’ sympathies in support of the institutions and ideologies of the landed classes” (422-423). However, in this Box Hill scene alone it is most evident that the opposite is the case. Even though Emma is the heroine of the novel, Austen does not defend her behavior. Through Mr. Knightley’s observations and the direction of the narrative, she dismantles this behavior to reveal the ignorance that results from Emma’s wealth and privilege over others in her society. In this way, Austen does not “enlist her readers’ sympathies” towards Emma, but towards characters such as Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. We feel more than we have before in an Austen novel that the “superiority” of the upper classes is a charade and that we must recognize it as such. Austen does not encourage us to “support” the landed class in Emma—she encourages us to reject it.
Persuasion is Austen’s final completed work and was not published until after her death in 1817. As Claudia Johnson suggests, “Persuasion is above all else the last novel, the apparent conclusion that determines the shape of everything that has come before” (Johnson, “Persuasion” 144). While Pride and Prejudice and Emma foreground Austen’s commentary on the changing social structure of late eighteenth, early nineteenth-century England, Persuasion is a culmination of this commentary, and brings the landed class to its fatal dead end. The novel opens with an introduction to Sir Walter Elliot, a man who
for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage; there he found occupation for an idle hour, and consolation in a distressed one; there his faculties were roused into admiration and respect…and there, if every other leaf were powerless, he could read his own history with an interest which never failed—this was the page at which the favourite volume always opened: “ELLIOT OF KELLYNCH-HALL. (Austen, P 9)
The Baronetage is a volume containing the names of titled individuals, making it a “who’s who” of eighteenth-century England. Sir Walter’s vanity is quickly revealed as he indulges in reading his own name over and over again, and the fact that he “never took up any book but the Baronetage,” implies that he is so inwardly-focused that he has no comprehension of the world outside himself and his home. Furthermore, as we find in Emma, the word “idle” is used to describe an individual belonging to the landed class, invoking the notion of the “idle rich” with obvious disdain. Sir Walter has three daughters, Elizabeth, Anne, and Mary, and a still-born son, which in essence brings his family name to an end. The fact that his son was still born also metaphorically suggests that the patriarchal chain of passing on title and rank can literally no longer survive in this world. In both Sir Walter’s reading material and the family structure it lists is a satirical depiction of a dead-end patriarchal landed class, in which the Elliot name, estate, and title is assured only by a worn-out book and a slowly crumbling social structure.
The Elliots’ situation is precarious despite their status as a landed family. Sir Walter has proven to be extremely irresponsible with his wealth and has driven himself into excessive debt and troubling circumstances:
While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness, and from that period he had been constantly exceeding it. It had not been possible for him to spend less; he had done nothing but what Sir Walter Elliot was imperiously called on to do; but blameless as he was, he was not only growing dreadful in debt, but was hearing of it so often, that it became vain to attempt concealing it any longer. (14)
Ironically, Sir Walter’s wife had been the most responsible with money—a subversive plot point that lends both reason and economic proficiency to a woman. There is even greater irony, though, in the suggestion that Sir Walter is “blameless” for the debts that he has racked up; in both Sir Walter’s situation and his attitude towards it, Austen satirizes the notion that the landed class is untouchable and immune from the threat of poverty. In other words, by showing that Sir Walter is undoubtedly responsible for his own misfortune, Austen indicates to the reader that the beginning of a downward mobility in the landed class has been caused by their own hand. As Johnson notes, these “improvident landowners” are “proving themselves unworthy of their station” (Johnson, “Persuasion” 145). Although he is acutely aware of his financial station, Sir Walter Elliot remains firmly in denial of the severity of his losses, and neither he nor his eldest daughter Elizabeth are “able to devise any means of lessening their expenses without compromising their dignity, or relinquishing their comforts” (Austen, P 14). Given their unwillingness to “disgrace” the Elliot name (15), the Elliots decide to let Kellynch-hall, allowing them to save money while still keeping the property intact—which is of utmost importance as Sir Walter holds that “The Kellynch estate should be transmitted whole and entire, as he had received it” (15). This obsession with continuing to pass property through generations is clearly absurd given the family situation and is an attempt to preserve a feudal system that over the course of the novel is slowly replaced by a new kind of order.
Kellynch-hall is entailed to the presumptive heir and nephew of Sir Walter, Mr. Elliot. The relationship between Mr. Elliot and Sir Walter has been strained at best. Sir Walter had attempted to attach Elizabeth to Mr. Elliot in a marriage that would consolidate the family, an incestuous relationship that is yet another example of his dead-end ways. However, despite his frequent invitations for Mr. Elliot to join them at Kellynch-hall, Sir Walter’s plans failed: “he did not come; and the next tidings were that he was married. Instead of pushing his fortune in the line marked out for the heir of the house of Elliot, he had purchased independence by uniting himself to a rich woman of inferior birth. Sir Walter had resented it” (13). Sir Walter’s resentment is both the result of a feeling of personal offense that Mr. Elliot had chosen someone outside of Sir Walter’s immediate family, and his decision to connect himself with a woman of “inferior birth,” who we can assume has either made or inherited her money by means of a profession, making her a member of the middle class. After this occurrence, “all acquaintance between them had ceased” (13), and yet, as we have seen, Sir Walter still holds steadfast that the estate must be “transmitted whole and entire” (15) to its recipient. Later in the novel, we also see that Mr. Elliot does not even want to be associated with the Elliots, let alone own Kellynch. In a letter to his friend Mr. Smith—husband of Anne’s friend Mrs. Smith—Mr. Elliot writes:
Give me joy: I have got rid of Sir Walter and Miss. They are gone back to Kellynch, and almost made me swear to visit them this summer, but my first visit to Kellynch will be with a surveyor, to tell me how to bring it with best advantage to the hammer…I wish I had any name but Elliot. I am sick of it. The name of Walter I can drop, thank God! and I desire you will never insult me with my second W. again. (164)
In this correspondence, we see that Mr. Elliot wants neither Sir Walter’s title nor his estate. He wants the “advantage” of the property in terms of its retail value, but he cares nothing for its value as an inherited property. If the estate is to pass to Mr. Elliot, the feudal passage of property will, once again, come to a dead-end when he sells the estate, which demonstrates more visibly that Sir Walter’s values are outdated.
Persuasion is often referred to as a “Naval Novel,” as Austen uses the Navy as “the model of a system of promotion by merit, to contrast with the old-world system of heredity that Sir Walter Elliot considers sacred” (McMaster 121). Indeed, as Sir Walter consults with Mr. Shephard on letting his estate, Mr. Shepherd indicates that British wealth is changing hands: “‘This peace will be turning all our rich Navy Officers ashore. They will all be wanting a home. Could not be a better time, Sir Walter, for having a choice of tenants, very responsible tenants. Many a noble fortune has been made during the war’” (Austen, P 20). Mr. Shepherd’s choice of the words “responsible” and “noble” to describe the Navy marks a shift in social attitudes that Sir Walter has yet to notice for himself. Sir Walter scorns the profession, replying condescendingly: “‘He would be a very lucky man indeed, Shepherd…that’s all I have to remark. A prize indeed would Kellynch Hall be to him’” (20). Of course, those who make their money in the Navy are not “lucky”—Sir Walter has been the lucky one to have been given money regardless of his incompetency, whereas Naval Officers have earned their money through hard work and skill. Sir Walter goes on, allowing that “‘The profession has its utility, but I should be very sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it’” (22), and he states that “‘it is in two points offensive to me…First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man’s youth and vigour most horribly’” (22). Once again, Sir Walter expresses the misguided notion that the Navy allows men to achieve “undue distinction,” when it is in fact himself who should be charged with such an “offense.”
Kellynch is let to Admiral Croft and his wife, a man “of a gentleman’s family” who “was in the Trafalgar action and has been in the East Indies since” (23, 24). While Sir Walter remains suspicious of the Admiral and his profession, the quiet heroine of the novel, Anne Elliot, is of the opposite opinion:
She had in fact so high an opinion of the Crofts, and considered her father so very fortunate in his tenants, felt the parish to be so sure of a good example, and the poor of the best attention and relief, that however sorry and ashamed for the necessity of the removal, she could not but in conscience feel that they were gone who deserved not to stay, and that Kellynch-hall had passed into better hands than its owners. (102)
Anne is a forward thinking young woman who clearly holds no high opinion of the landed class despite belonging to it herself. She suggests that her own family “deserved not to stay,” and grants Admiral Croft’s deservedness of the property with the line “Kellynch-hall had passed into better hands than its owners.” Anne shows a remarkable sense of who is worthy in this world, and who is not. Her comment demonstrates that even a member of the landed class can see that the values that hold it together are beginning to fray at the edges. David B. Monaghan argues that in comments such as these, Austen does not attempt to show that the landed class is falling apart, but that she unsuccessfully attempts to assert “that it could be revitalized by the introduction of fresh blood from the navy” (74). Monaghan’s argument asks us to believe that Austen wanted to preserve the landed class and the social order of eighteenth century England and just readjust its composition slightly. However, as Austen scholarship has become more acquainted with Austen’s trademark irony and the subversive challenges that it poses, we must reject such a reading in favor of one in which Austen is attempting to show that the landed class is not being joined, but usurped, deservedly, by this “fresh blood from the navy.”
While Elizabeth Bennet does not revere the landed class, she ultimately becomes a part of it, and reaffirms the desirability of belonging to such high station. Anne, on the other hand, a member of the landed class itself, has no desire to belong to it at all. She recognizes the obsequiousness of her family’s attitude to rank and is disgusted by it. Upon arriving in Bath, Sir Walter and Elizabeth attempt to rekindle a lost family connection to the Dalrymples, with Sir Walter stating fervently that “‘Family connexions were always worth preserving, good company always worth seeking’” (Austen, P 121). However, upon meeting the Dalrymples, it is clear that despite their blood-relation and their rank, they have nothing to offer: “Miss Carteret…was so plain and awkward, that she would never have been tolerated in Camden-place but for her birth” (122). While her family choose to remain reverent to their connections, Anne sees past the façade that they project: “Anne was ashamed. Had Lady Dalrymple and her daughter even been very agreeable, she would still have been ashamed of the agitation they created, but they were nothing. There was no superiority of manner, accomplishment, or understanding” (121). As we saw with Lady Catherine, and just as Jane Fairfax is superior in talent to Emma Woodhouse, this is an instance of bathos that undermines the superiority of the landed class. The Dalrymples represent an inferior superior class, who are so comfortable in their entitlement and their expectations of reverence from others that they do nothing to earn it, and as a result of their arrogance, are on the verge of losing it.
Expressing her discontent with the company of her relations to Mr. Elliot, Anne says:
“My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”
“You are mistaken,” said he gently, “that is not good company, that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education, and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice. Birth and good manners are essential; but a little learning is by no means a dangerous thing in good company, on the contrary, it will do very well.” (122)
Where Mr. Elliot, like Sir Walter, values the feudal system of birth-rights and decorum, Anne does not think that either are “essential” at all. Anne’s belief that good company should be based on the intelligence and conversation of the individual in question is subversive, but pitted against Mr. Elliot and Sir Walter’s ridiculous prerequisites for good company, they appear extremely rational and far more desirable. One would certainly rather be in the company of Admiral Croft than Lady Dalrymple, even if she were a near relation. Mr. Elliot continues to advise Anne to adjust her perspective:
“My dear cousin” (sitting down by her), “you have a better right to be fastidious than almost any other woman I know; but will it answer? Will it make you happy? Will it not be wiser to accept the society of these good ladies in Laura-place, and enjoy all the advantages of the connexion as far as possible? You may depend upon it, that they will move in the first set in Bath this winter, and as rank is rank, your being known to be related to them will have its use in fixing your family (our family let me say) in that degree of consideration which we must all wish for.” (122)
Here lies a remarkably concealed, cleverly integrated pun. Mr. Elliot suggests that “as rank is rank,” Anne’s knowing the Dalrymples will afford her the “consideration”—the status—that “we must all wish for.” However, while Mr. Elliot means to assert that rank is power in the sense that it affords one automatic authority, he simultaneously suggests that rank is rank in the sense that it is rotten. When we incorporate this meaning, it is deeply ironic that Mr. Elliot suggests Anne should pay the Dalrymples consideration because their appeal and their power has grown sour. Anne’s observant and compassionate nature makes her able to continuously reject appeals such as this one by Mr. Elliot, and it is this steadfast attitude that we are encouraged to admire in Anne. Joseph Duffy corroborates such a reading when he suggests that “In particular the novel describes the efforts of a young woman to retain personal control when the established society shows signs of fundamental weakness, when blood and friendship are caught in the general decay, when love is repressed, when life fails and death menaces” (Duffy 274).
Demonstrating that her beliefs are consistent with her actions, Anne frequently chooses to visit her impoverished friend Mrs. Smith instead of visiting her wealthy, landed relatives throughout the novel. Unlike Emma in her relationships with impoverished gentlewomen, Anne is completely genuine in her friendship to Mrs. Smith, who represents the roadkill of the patriarchy. Mrs. Smith’s biography is remarkably similar to eighteenth-century poet Charlotte Smith, and of course their last names are the same. Like the poet, following the death of her husband, Mrs. Smith is left in financial ruin, with debts incurred by her husband (under Mr. Elliot’s influence), and a property in the West Indies that belonged to her husband but which she cannot access because she can’t afford a lawyer. Her misfortune has driven her into ill-health and poverty—states that appall Sir Walter and Anne’s sisters. Regarding Anne’s ongoing relationship to the unfortunate Mrs. Smith,
Elizabeth was disdainful, and Sir Walter severe.
“Westgate-buildings!…and who is Miss Anne Elliot visiting in Westgate-buildings?—A Mrs. Smith. A widow Mrs. Smith,—and who was her husband? One of the five thousand Mr. Smiths whose names are to be met with every where. And what is her attraction? That she is old and sickly.—Upon my word, Miss Anne Elliot, you have the most extraordinary taste! Every thing that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations are inviting to you.” (127-128)
The cruelty of Sir Walter’s remarks is reminiscent of Emma’s cruel joke on Box Hill and demonstrates a lack of compassion for those in dire situations for which they are actually blameless. In the same way that the reader is encouraged to judge Emma based on her treatment of those less fortunate, so do we judge Sir Walter in the same harsh light, and Anne in an oppositely positive one.
Anne’s compassionate nature and distaste for the feudal system of inherited wealth are also evident in her relationship to Captain Wentworth. When she was nineteen, Anne was engaged to Captain Wentworth, “a remarkably fine young man, with a great deal of intelligence, spirit, and brilliancy” (26). They fell “rapidly and deeply in love,” but “Troubles soon arose” (27):
Sir Walter, on being applied to, without actually withholding his consent, or saying it should never be, gave it all the negative of great astonishment, great coldness, great silence, and a professed resolution of doing nothing for his daughter. He thought it a very degrading alliance; and Lady Russell, though with more tempered and pardonable pride, received it as a most unfortunate one. (27)
The degradation of the alliance in Sir Walter’s eyes is of a connection to one of low birth and of the professional world—the world he so despises for its ability to raise such men. Similarly, and yet more understandably, Lady Russell’s objection lies in the lack of wealth that Captain Wentworth has, that would clearly cause problems for the couple in their future life. However, when Captain Wentworth re-enters the picture in the present context of the novel, he is “no longer a nobody” (199). After his engagement to Anne was broken, he “got employ; and all that he had told her would follow, had taken place. He had distinguished himself, and early gained the other step in rank — and must now, by successive captures, have made a handsome fortune” (29). His “step in rank” marks a social mobility far different from Elizabeth Bennet’s upward movement in Pride and Prejudice. Here, Captain Wentworth’s social mobility is earned through his profession, not through marriage, and this feels even more possible in Persuasion than it has before in Austen’s novels.
Anne and Captain Wentworth have neither of them stopped loving the other. A series of obstacles prevent their swift re-engagement, but as the novel draws to a close, the hurdles that stood in their way seven years ago begin to collapse. Even the Elliots’ attitude towards Captain Wentworth undergoes a transformation. Swallowing their remaining pride, Sir Walter and Elizabeth decide upon holding a party to which they invite Captain Wentworth: “The truth was, that Elizabeth had been long enough in Bath to understand the importance of a man of such an air and appearance as his. The past was nothing. The present was that Captain Wentworth would move about well in her drawing room” (182). While this is a decidedly positive shift away from feudal values, in this description we still see the servility of Elizabeth, who only invites Captain Wentworth because she realizes that others recognize his newfound “importance.” This is simply another attempt by Sir Walter and Elizabeth to stay at the top of the social ladder, albeit by discarding some of their former values. It is also notable that this change of heart occurs while they are away from Kellynch and in Bath—they have left the reclusive, exclusive confines of their feudal home and entered into a society that they are forced to recognize is shifting its own value systems away from the ones they have clung onto so strongly. As these barriers crumble down, Captain Wentworth reasserts his love to Anne through a heartfelt letter that puts Mr. Darcy to shame. In the wake of his confession of love, he and Anne revisit their past. Anne asserts, “‘If I was wrong in yielding to persuasion once, remember that it was to persuasion exerted on the side of safety, not of risk. When I yielded, I thought it was to duty; but no duty could be called in aid here. In marrying a man indifferent to me, all risk would have been incurred, and all duty violated’” (197). In this confession, Anne redefines the scope of duty and what it means to take risk in this world. While risk in Pride and Prejudice was to deny a marriage that would afford upward mobility and new comforts, risk in Persuasion is attributed to remaining in one’s existing station only to continue a life of indifference. Anne would rather “degrade” herself to become Captain Wentworth’s wife, than remain in the landed class in a loveless marriage. In this way, downward social mobility in Persuasion becomes desirable, which marks a dramatic shift from the tone of Pride and Prejudice, and indeed from Emma. In this, the final completed Jane Austen novel, we receive her most profound message through the mouthpiece of Mr. Elliot: “rank is rank” (122), and the middle class is rising up to replace “those who deserved not to stay” (102) with Austen’s wittiest, most heartfelt blessing.
The three novels that I have dealt with in this paper all contain distinct class commentaries. Pride and Prejudice allows the reader to be swept away in the romantically rebellious social mobility achieved by Elizabeth Bennet that, while undermining the behavior of the landed class, leaves the structure itself intact. Emma gives us for the first time in Austen’s novels a landed, secure heroine, whom we judge based on her interactions with others. Her class privilege affords her authority and power that she misuses throughout the novel in ways that encourage the reader to sympathize more deeply with the characters affected by Emma than with Emma herself. Meanwhile, in Persuasion, Austen portrays a dead-end feudal system in which “rank is rank.” Austen pulls her heroine out of the landed class rather than allowing her to enter into it, marking a radical turn in her writing that rejects the romantic notion of landed wealth in favor of meritocracy and love. In this way, she liberates her previous heroines, including those not mentioned in this paper such as Fanny Price, as well as minor characters like Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith, from the socially imagined confines that limit their lives.
In our cultural consciousness, when we think of class in Jane Austen’s novels, we think of the idealistic vision of social mobility that we find in Pride and Prejudice. However, upon closer inspection, Austen gives us so much more than that. Throughout her writing career, Austen continues to find new ways to challenge and subvert the legal constitutions of social class in eighteenth-century England. She recognizes that the industrial revolution brings new opportunities that do not fit the mold of the feudal order, and she approves of them wholeheartedly. Austen subtly undermines the appeal of the existing social structure by making it look either cruel, absurd, or outdated, and while her novels by no means caused a revolution on a grand scale, they certainly pushed the tides that were slowly changing social attitudes towards wealth and entitlement. Growing up in a world where the class and family you are born into determine the course of your entire life, Austen stood in defense of those whom the system does not serve. Her genius is that she did so right under the noses of the protectors of that system, as the landed class would have made up a large portion of her readership at the time.
Today, we must continue to foster a greater appreciation for Austen’s work in deconstructing class norms, remembering that this aspect of her writing has been just as influential as her proto-feminism. She reminds us, even now, that wealth and entitlement are both everything and nothing—that our society constructs ways of understanding social relationships that serve some while condemning others, and that these constructs must not be allowed to persevere while so many people suffer by their standards. We would do well to read Austen with a class-oriented focus as we move forward in the twenty-first century; continue to grapple with the relationship between wealth, power, and corruption; and attempt to break down the systemic barriers that still prevent members of our society from achieving the social mobility that they deserve. ■
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Figure 1. “The British Beehive.” A caricature drawn by graphic artist George Cruikshank in 1840.