Occasional Papers, NO.3 (Fall 1999)
Emma and the Servants

Lisa Hopkins (email: is a Senior Lecturer in English at Sheffield Hallam University. She works mainly on Renaissance drama but has also published on Emma and on the BBC/A&E adaptation of Pride and Prejudice.

In her two eldest nieces, Jane Anna Elizabeth Austen (b.15 April 1793) and Fanny Catherine Knight (b. 23 January 1793), Jane Austen found the names, or a near approximation of the names, of the heroines of four out of her last five books: Elizabeth Bennet, Fanny Price, Ann[e] Elliott, and Catherine Morland (Catherine replaced Susan as the name of the heroine of Northanger Abbey in a late revision). The conspicuous omission of Emma Woodhouse from this list is of a piece with Austen’s own view that Emma was an exception amongst her heroines, a character whom no-one but herself would much like. Emma’s differences from other Austen heroines are also apparent in other ways. She is far, far richer than any of the others, and is thus the only one of the number who need give no thought at all to the financial position of prospective suitors. She is the only one whose beauty is consistently remarked on, and she is the only one who never travels: Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot go to Bath, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood to London, Elizabeth Bennet to Kent and Derbyshire, and Fanny Price to Portsmouth, but Emma never even goes to London, although it is only sixteen miles distant and she has a sister living there. She is the only one whose thoughts are not fixed on matrimony virtually from the outset of the novel (Fanny Price is a child at the beginning of Mansfield Park, but is in love with Edmund before she is out of her teens). In all these ways, moreover, as well as in her name, she is the only one who does not resemble the young female members of the Austen family, as we see them in Jane’s and their own letters. In this essay, I want to focus on the way in which the two recent film adaptations of the novel, together with Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, have dealt with the question of Emma’s relationship with those around her, particularly in the light of their representation of servants (see also Forde 16-17 and Greenfield).

One of the clearest markers of Emma’s class and status difference is the sense that a number of those who surround her are her social inferiors. This is most obviously true in the case of Harriet Smith, but it also applies, in different ways and with different degrees of emphasis, in the cases of the Eltons, the Bateses, the Westons, the Coleses, Jane Fairfax, Mr. Perry, and, of course, the Martins. Only Mr. Knightley and, potentially, Frank Churchill are of a rank and fortune equal to hers, and the latter is, for most of the novel, only very precariously so. Moreover, we are also intermittently aware of the presence of the Woodhouse servants, not to mention the all-important William Larkins, as well as of the gypsies and poultry-thieves who beset the margins of Highbury’s wealth and ease.

In the recent spate of adaptations of Emma—distinguished even in the Jane Austen canon for the number of times it has been translated to the screen—markedly varying attention has been paid to the registering of these differences. To some extent, it is hard to convey the smaller distinctions and nuances of social standing within the confines of a film, where there is no omniscient narrator to fill in background information; thus in the ITV version, though we will presumably see that Donwell Abbey is significantly larger and more magnificent than Hartfield, especially given that Harriet observes that she would never have believed that one man could own so much, we may well not observe any real distinction between Hartfield and Randalls, so that we are unlikely to deduce that Mr. Weston’s social station was ever any less than that of Mr. Woodhouse. Moreover, since Emma’s remark on the smallness of Mr. Elton’s house is visually undercut by the camera panning across its not inconsiderable frontage, our sense of the relative size of houses and of their reliability as indicators of class has already been destabilised. A similar irony plays around Emma’s answer to Harriet’s enquiry about whether the very sparrows belong to Mr. Knightley: "Perhaps not, but the woodcock and the pheasants certainly do," which is subtly underlined by the adaptation’s revelation of the ways in which these characters perceive themselves and their position as divinely authorised: Emma is first drawn to Harriet when a sunbeam picks her out in church, Elton calls his journey with Emma in the coach a "God-given opportunity," while the strains of "God rest ye merry" play ironically over the whole scene, and Emma calls Frank Churchill’s rescue of Harriet "providential."

Most of all, it is difficult for any film that is aimed at audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to convey class by means of that favourite British indicator, accent. In Ang Lee’s film of Sense and Sensibility, there are, unusually for a major movie, no American actors at all. Emma Thompson, the scriptwriter and star, is thus enabled to avoid the experiences of her former husband Kenneth Branagh, whose otherwise acclaimed film of Much Ado About Nothing was generally felt to have been marred by the presence of Keanu Reeves as Don John and Michael Keaton as a virtually incoherent Dogberry; both class positions and indeed character can be indicated by intonation, with Harriet Walter’s Fanny Dashwood, for instance, speaking in noticeably more cut-glass tones than the unaffected standard English of her brother and her sisters-in-law. Similarly, in the ITV version of Emma, Mrs. Elton has a giveaway West Country accent which significantly undermines her pretensions to gentility, while Miss Bates’s extremely upper-class pronunciation, coupled with the preservation of Mr. Knightley’s comment that her notice was once an honor, reminds us of the perilously fragile and contingent nature of class position. In Amy Heckerling’s Clueless, a free adaptation of Emma, an analogous effect can be achieved, but only by the inclusion of a character who is very much more obviously different: the Hispanic maid’s accent and diction clearly mark her status. (The same effect is created in Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, where the Hispanic nurse always speaks of "Huliet.")

The Douglas McGrath film, however, which stars Gwyneth Paltrow, is a very different proposition. That accents were felt to be a sensitive issue is clearly evidenced by the immaculate English tones carefully studied and adopted by Paltrow; but these function primarily to indicate Englishness per se, rather than any particular inflection of it. Though, as with Meryl Streep, one cannot but marvel at Paltrow’s ability so to disguise her natural pronunciation, and though the effect is infinitely preferable to the discordance created by Keaton and Reeves in Much Ado, it is, nevertheless, a thinner one than that provided by the rich texture of subtly different Englishes being played against each other that we hear in Sense and Sensibility.

In other ways, too, the McGrath film fails to engage so directly with issues of class as does Andrew Davies’s or even Amy Heckerling’s adaptations. In Heckerling’s Clueless, Cher, the Emma-figure, is asked by her friend Elton, "Don’t you even know who my father is?" This obviously functions as a neat joke about the issues of authorship and parentage, which are central concerns of this text—itself an adaptation that never openly acknowledges its own parentage (although we may notice that when Cher, now realising that she is in love with Josh, watches a news item about Bosnia, the unmistakable tones of a BBC announcer point fairly clearly to the other side of the Atlantic) and in which Cher even acts as her own narrator. Indebtedness to other texts—Some Like it Hot, Spartacus (in which the film self-referentially shows us Tony Curtis offering to "teach your children the classics"), even the cartoon series Ren & Stimpy—is everywhere. Cher correctly attributes a quotation from Hamlet (itself a play fixated on parents) because "I think that I remember Mel Gibson accurately," just as Murray’s description of Christian as an "Oscar-Wilde-reading friend of Dorothy" marks him as firmly aware of the histories and genealogies of the cultural construction of homosexuality. We also note the widespread absence of parental influence amongst the teenagers on whom the novel centers: Christian (Frank Churchill) is a tug-of-love child; Josh hides from his multiply-divorced mother; Cher’s brusque, widowed father is openly dismissive of his own parents.

Equally, however, Elton’s snobbishness draws attention to the film’s awareness of the extent to which class position is crucial to the whole conception of Emma, and, more particularly, to the novel’s profound interest in the concept of service, which is manifested most directly in the representation of literal servants. Despite the extent to which, in the world of Clueless, domestic labor has been replaced by technology such as the computer and the fire which lights by remote control, actual servants are still in evidence. The first we hear of Cher’s father is that he is a litigator, a type of lawyer so scary that even the maid is frightened of him—whereupon we promptly hear her give a little scream. In many ways, Cher is considerate to Lucy—she thanks her for serving the dinner and informs her stepbrother Josh, Heckerling’s Mr. Knightley, that "I have donated many expensive Italian outfits to Lucy." But it is also Lucy who functions as the film’s Miss Bates, when Cher gravely offends her sensibilities by calling her Mexican when, as Josh points out, she is actually from El Salvador. (Cher’s name, with its homage to a singer of native American descent, and the blackness of Dionne, a character with no precedent in the original, also point to a sensitivity to race, as is indeed appropriate in an adaptation of the novel that is so openly aware of the slave trade). Moreover, to some extent Cher uses Josh as her servant: since she has not yet passed her driving test (and later proves unable to do so), he has to chauffeur her. Indeed, in this film as in the novel, where giving food, offering transport, and making music are all proper actions for the gentry to perform, what Cher learns from Josh is essentially the idea of service: wishing to reform her soul, she co-ordinates emergency aid for disaster victims.

The McGrath film has no such emphasis; its Jane Fairfax is never even threatened with governessing. It is an altogether prettier, glossier affair than the ITV version, with romantic touches like Mr. Knightley actually kissing Emma’s hand (in both the novel and the ITV film, he merely contemplates doing so). Mr. Knightley also says to Emma, "I see you’ve been hard at work - making Mr. Elton comfortable;" the Mr. Knightley of the ITV film would, one feels, have a far clearer grasp of the fact that this is not real work. Here, though, real work is in general invisible: although we do just see a servant moving at the wedding, and hear a male voice announcing "Dinner is served" after the arrival of the John Knightleys, during the archery scene, Emma simply remarks, "Ah, I see the tea is ready," without there being any indication of who got it ready. There is no reference to James’s daughter at Randalls, and on many occasions, presumably for reasons of dramatic economy and clarity of focus, there are several scenes where servants are dimly visible in the background, but in which the gentry themselves perform actions which would in fact have been carried out by servants: Mrs. Weston pours the tea, Emma drives a carriage and sorts the post, and Frank seems to imply that Mrs. Elton herself has made the sandwiches when he compliments her on them. Class distinctions are made even more invisible when, after acting with notable compassion to the sick Mrs. Clark, Emma refers to her as "that poor lady," a term that it would have been quite impossible for her to have used of a cottager.

In the ITV film, though, even greater attention is paid to the representation of servants (see also Brownstein 18; Dole 60, 70-71). The first thing viewers see is the theft of some hens, and a servant shooting after the escaping thieves; then come a lot of servants escorting Mr. Woodhouse to his carriage, while he tries to dissuade Miss Taylor from proceeding with the wedding by assuring her that "James won’t mind turning the carriage round." On their way to the wedding, they ride past some very poor cottages, whose inhabitants stare after them; this inaugurates a trend in the film of showing substantial numbers of people other than those named in the story, as when we see le tout Highbury at church, with children giggling at the back. Mr. Knightley’s first words concern servants, and mark his consideration for them, as he asks, "How are you, Thomas, and your family?" We see the servant who holds the candles so that the gentry can all look at Emma’s portrait of Harriet, the servant who carries in a flaming Christmas pudding (the visual prominence of the flames in both these images neatly making the point that the gentry literally see by the light provided by the servants), the servants who carry the wraps for them as they set off on Christmas Eve, and the servants who pour their wine when they arrive. Moreover, Mr. John Knightley’s speech about taking out four horses and four servants on such a night is retained, and we register the discourtesy of Mr. Elton (who looks rather like a downmarket version of Colin Firth’s Darcy) as he keeps the servant waiting, holding open the door, while he utters meaningless commonplaces to Mr. John Knightley and Emma. We hear Emma giving directions to James as she drops Harriet at the Martins’, see a servant pouring tea at the Westons’, and see a servant showing in Frank; indeed, in a kind of filmic equivalent of a time-and-motion survey, we are always reminded of the precise labor cost of any action, as we see servants struggling to lift the piano up to the Bateses’, picking strawberries at the Donwell picnic (here not conflated with the Box Hill excursion, as it was in McGrath) at the precise moment when Mrs. Elton says "to gather for oneself," making a nonsense of her ludicrous remark that "we shall be just like gypsies," and toiling up Box Hill laden with furniture and boxes, one of which they drop. The remark about the slave trade is also kept, and the gypsies here are far more menacing than in the McGrath film: there, common sense on Harriet’s part might have averted the catastrophe, but these gypsies are determined on their prey. And though we see all the servants invited by Mr. Knightley to dinner after the haymaking, and Emma moving to greet Robert Martin, this film, unlike all other filmed adaptations of Jane Austen novels (including Clueless) ends not with a wedding, which indeed we never see, but with a return to the poultry thieves.

Davies’s script both retains the emphasis on Mr. Woodhouse’s valetudinarianism and food faddism and reveals the extent to which social relations in Highbury are mystified by an organic-sounding language of growth (Harriet’s body, for example, and Frank Churchill’s hair, which is not referred to in McGrath’s film) and structured by an economy of food gifts, with Mr. Knightley’s gift of eggs to the Bateses, the discussion of the Martins’ cows, and the announcement of the wedding taking place at a Harvest Supper. These scenes are in marked contrast to the McGrath film, where there is no mention of the turkeys, apples, arrowroot, and strawberries that feature so prominently in the novel (though Miss Bates does enter thanking Emma for the pig), and where Mr. Woodhouse’s food fetish is confined to his opening remark about the unwholesomeness of wedding cake. Our awareness of Mr. Woodhouse’s peculiarities is, moreover, further sharpened by a distinct suggestion of the presence of some similar perversity in his daughter, for the film’s several dream-sequences make quite clear the extent to which Emma’s vicarious match-making has deep psychic roots (in these fantasy scenes, she is, suggestively, as much breaker as maker of marriages), and the potential strangeness of the kick she derives from it. These sequences, whose origins may perhaps be traced to the faintly similar dreams of Clarissa in the 1991 BBC adaptation, are in marked contrast with the analogous device in the McGrath film, where Emma’s private wish that something should not come to pass invariably segues into a scene in which it has; this juxtaposition stresses the force of the social constraints which render Emma powerless, whereas what Davies shows us is the force of the inner drives which impel her—especially in view of the fact that all the clues to the Frank / Jane intrigue are prominently there, if she would only see them. Indeed, psychological drives of all kinds are at least hinted at: we hear Mr. Knightley remember holding Emma as a baby, which may well invite speculation on the dynamics of the relationship, and Mr. John Knightley’s bad temper is much more in evidence than in the McGrath film.

In short, Davies’s film is not only, subjectively, a much more interesting and creative adaptation than McGrath’s version; it is one that, objectively, shows more. The decision to shoot the Donwell scenes at Sudeley Castle even makes us aware of a part of English history when we see the ruins of the actual abbey it used once to be. Though the dance at the Crown of the ITV adaptation may be much less aesthetically pleasing, its ingenuity and above all its engagement with the social setting of the novel are indubitably greater. Similarly, Amy Heckerling’s Clueless offers not just a sassy, witty adaptation, but, by its delicate sketching of some differences between North America and its poorer neighbors, a genuine, and very suggestive, reflection on what Austen’s Emma said about the class system and some of the things which have or haven’t changed across two continents and nearly two centuries. In the end, by their focus on the servants, the Davies and the Heckerling films serve us better, too.

Works Cited

Brownstein, Rachel M. "Out of the Drawing Room, Onto the Lawn." In Jane Austen in Hollywood. Ed. Linda Troost and Sayre Greenfield. Kentucky: UKP, 1998: 13-21. Forde, John Maurice. "Janespotting." Topic 48 (1997): 11-21.
Clueless. Writer and director Amy Heckerling. With Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd. Paramount, 1995. Greenfield, John R. "Is Emma Clueless? Fantasies of Class and Gender from England to California." Topic 48 (1997): 31-38.
Dole, Carol M. "Austen, Class, and the American Market." In Jane Austen in Hollywood. 58-78. Lane, Maggie. Jane Austen’s Family Through Five Generations. London: Robert Hale, 1984.
Emma. Writer and Director Douglas McGrath. With Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam. Miramax, 1996. Sense and Sensibility. Writer Emma Thompson. Director Ang Lee. With Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant. Mirage-Columbia (Sony), 1995.
Emma. Writer Andrew Davies. Director Diarmuid Lawrence. With Kate Beckinsale and Mark Strong. Meridian-ITV/A&E, 1996.  

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