PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.22, NO.1 (Winter 2001)

“The Value of a Good Income”: Money in Emma

Sheryl Bonar Craig


Sheryl Bonar Craig (email: is an English Instructor at Central Missouri State University.  She has published several journal articles on the English Novel, and she has published a short article, “My Kingdom for a Horse,” on the website of the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England.


Although Jane Austen’s heroines are generally “handsome” and “clever,” only Miss Emma Woodhouse has the advantage of being “rich,” and this addition makes all the difference in Miss Woodhouse as a character and in Emma as a book.  All of Austen’s novels are stories of young women growing up, learning about themselves and about other people through trial and error.  One of the painful facts of life they must deal with is how financial insecurity leaves women easy prey to their greedy, shallow, and callous friends and acquaintances.  Edward Copeland, in “Money,” notes that “the shadow of the single woman without money, Charlotte Lucas syndrome, continues to haunt her works to the end” (145-46), but perhaps the most difficult lesson for Austen’s characters is acknowledging their own weaknesses and limitations.  In Sense and Sensibility, Elinor and Marianne Dashwood have to learn the importance of mastering their emotions and the dangers of not doing so.  Elizabeth Bennet finds she cannot trust her “first impressions,” Austen’s original, working title for the book Pride and Prejudice.  Fanny Price, in Mansfield Park, realizes her true worth, and Persuasion’s Anne Elliot is shown that sometimes people are given second chances.  To both her disappointment and relief, Northanger Abbey’s Catherine Morland discovers the world is not a gothic novel, and Emma’s Miss Woodhouse learns that her wealth has blinded her. Early in the book, Emma declares that “‘One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other’” (81), but, as she comes to realize, neither do they comprehend the other’s pain.


The pampered child of a doting, wealthy father, Emma Woodhouse is spared the both large and small financial worries that haunt the other inhabitants of Highbury.  “With very little to distress or vex her” (5), Emma blunders through the novel, misjudging the motives and best interests of one character after another.  Assuming everyone else acts as she would act and is motivated by what would motivate her, Emma eventually learns that money, not love, may be driving them.  Emma repeatedly finds that she has erred because she failed to consider the limitations of another person’s pocketbook, and Mr. Knightley always has insight, and perhaps irritatingly so, because he first considers the character’s degree of poverty and then judges what a person in financial difficulty is likely to do.  Mr. Knightley is always one step ahead of Emma because he, like Mr. Elton, “‘knows the value of a good income’” (66).


In the world beyond the confines of the covers of Emma, the wealthy Miss Woodhouse was also the perfect and timely foil for the struggling Austen household and for the impoverished English countryside.  On 21 January 1814, Jane Austen began working on what she fondly referred to in her letters as “my Emma” (11 December 1815, ? December 1815), and Emma was finished on 29 March 1815 (Tomalin 241).  This was after the death of Austen’s father when she was living in reduced circumstances with her sister Cassandra and their widowed mother in a modest house, Chawton Cottage, on her brother’s rural estate.  The three women had a combined income of a little less than £500 a year, the exact sum the Dashwood women have to live on in Sense and Sensibility.  In “Money,” Copeland has calculated what this would mean in terms of lifestyle:  no carriage, no horses, and perhaps three servants (135-36).  At Chawton Cottage, Mrs. Austen employed a cook, a man-servant, and a house-maid.  To economize, the Austen household baked their own bread and washed their laundry at home (Lefroy 54).  Consequently, Jane Austen’s Chawton letters, like Miss Bates’s chatter, are full of references to trivial expenses and petty cash.  Claudia Johnson reminds us that Jane Austen was delighted with the relatively meager income from her publications (121).  The Austen women had to mind their shillings and pence, but, compared to the majority of people in rural England at the time, the Austens were to be envied.  Although there were fortunes to be made, primarily in trade, and busy merchants in bustling markets could accrue wealth in a relatively short time, financially, the country was a shambles, and rural areas bore the brunt of the depression.


W. H. Auden mused in his poem on Jane Austen that her books “Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety / The economic basis of society” (299), and, in Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds, historian Oliver MacDonagh considers Emma to be an accurate reflection of the Regency world (143), a world in the throes of economic chaos. Between 1790 and 1814, wholesale prices doubled (Ashton 90), a particularly distressing occurrence to household budgets based on fixed yearly incomes, such as the Austen family’s.  At the same time, taxes soared; for example, the window tax on houses quadrupled (Murray 87), and, even without the increase, taxes in general were outrageous.  Not only were people taxed on land, houses, and income, taxes were affixed to obvious luxury items such as horses, carriages, and silk and to less ostentatious non-necessities such as male servants and dogs.  Middle-class items—glass, hats, newspapers, coffee, sugar, paper, and playing cards—were taxed.  Neither could the poor escape the tax burden as taxes were levied on the most common and mundane items, such as candles, beer, malt, bricks, stone, salt, tea, soap, and coal (Pool 87-88).  Perversely, wages for agricultural laborers plummeted from around 15 shillings a week to 6, slightly more than one-third of their former pay.  A series of bad harvests and a 60% drop in agricultural prices preceded the passing of the Corn Law in 1815, but it was too little, too late for hundreds of bankrupt farmers and their employees (Murray 84-86).  Fay Weldon reminds us this was also the time of enclosure:  “The rural population saw its common land vanishing as farmers and landowners claimed it for their own, and enclosed it with hedges, and was powerless to prevent it, and grew hungrier and hungrier” (92-93).  In 1816, as Emma was being distributed, conditions were so bad that food riots broke out in Sussex and Yorkshire.  The desperation of the rural poor probably explains the presence of begging gypsies and poultry thieves in Emma.  Many banks were forced to close, including the bank managed by Jane Austen’s brother Henry.


Given the abysmal economic depression that gripped England, it may seem a strange time for Austen to create a wealthy heroine.  Emma’s money sets her in stark contrast not only to Austen’s other heroines, but also to every other character in her own book, and a reader may wonder why Austen chose to create such an affluent heroine after having had such success with a series of poor ones, but Emma’s substantial resources are absolutely vital to the plot.  In Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity, Roger Gard has noted that “Emma is faced with choices.  It is a commonplace about the book (in relation especially to Jane Austen’s other heroines) that she is exceptionally well placed to make them” (173).


At the 1999 Jane Austen Society of North America’s Annual General Meeting, George Butte declared that of all of Jane Austen’s novels, Emma “is the least challenging for the landed gentry” (“Debate” 5), and Julia Prewitt Brown, in “Civilization and the Contentment of Emma,” reminds us that “critics have pointed out that no one works in Emma” (105), but nothing could be further from the truth.  Of all of Austen’s writing, Emma is most consciously aware of how money is won and lost, of the efforts people make to procure it, and of the sacrifices they must endure when they are unable to obtain it.  The wealthy characters in Austen’s other novels idle away their days while the money pours in, ten or twenty thousand pounds a year or more, with no apparent effort on their parts.  Even the origins of their wealth are usually shrouded in mystery. For example, Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Bingley is occupied in shopping for an estate; the reader can only assume his family is recently wealthy since he doesn’t already possess one, but we are left to speculate on the source of their money; their origins in the north of England and their house in London may be clues.  Mr. Darcy’s rural estate, Pemberley, represents old money made on the land, but, just like Elizabeth Bennet’s own father, he has no title and no occupation.  Though still a relatively young man with unmarried children, Sir William Lucas is retired and busies himself in giving balls in a rather desperate effort to unload his daughters on any willing members of the local gentry.  Unable to apply himself to any respectable employment (even the military fails to repress him), libertine George Wickham makes a full time occupation out of seduction and extortion.  Elizabeth’s uncle Phillips, the attorney, is occasionally referred to, but his actual presence is not required, and her uncle Gardiner, the businessman, puts in his appearances while vacationing.  The only working man to be observed in the book is the odious clergyman Mr. Collins, a virtual slave to his patroness, but his toadying days are numbered; he has every expectation of outliving Mr. Bennet and then retiring to Longbourn.  Indeed, one would hardly be surprised to find him taking Mr. Bennet’s pulse in eager anticipation of imminent unemployment.  By contrast, there are no aristocrats in Emma, no Lady Catherine, not even a Sir William.  As Prewitt Brown has noted, “even the Churchills are just inflated gentry” (98).  Instead, Emma is filled with characters who work, or have worked, or are about to begin working, or who suffer because they are unemployed or unemployable.  As actor Jeremy Northam, who played Mr. Knightley to Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma, observed, “After I read the book I realized these people are not as wealthy as you think they are” (Tyler 173).


Somewhat strapped for ready cash, Mr. Knightley is a local magistrate and constantly occupied in managing his rural estate (100), as, given the state of agriculture at the time, he should have been.  Improving his fields and concerned for the welfare of his farm laborers and the local people in general, he reveals himself to be an able gentleman farmer.  His brother, Mr. John Knightley, is “rising in his profession” as a busy London attorney (92).  Mr. Weston is a retired merchant (16), and his wife had been supporting herself as a governess.  “Jane Fairfax had yet her bread to earn” (165), but she was raised to be a governess (164), and Mrs. Elton does everything within her power to see that she becomes one.  Mr. Elton supports himself as a clergyman, and Robert Martin is an industrious farmer.  Mrs. Goddard runs a bustling boarding school, and Mr. Perry earns his living as a long-suffering apothecary who is compelled to pay frequent house calls on a wealthy hypochondriac, Mr. Woodhouse.


Mr. Knightley and the other inhabitants of Highbury might well be cutting corners and saving money where they could, but, because of her privileged position, Emma Woodhouse has led a charmed life and remains ignorant of their struggles.  On the first page of the novel, Austen tells us Emma’s only real faults are selfishness and egotism:  “the power of having rather too much her own way, and disposition to think a little too well of herself” (5).  Throughout the book, Emma displays her father’s flaw of “never being able to suppose that other people could feel differently from himself” (8); Emma repeatedly blunders because she assumes everyone else must share her view of things.  If left unchecked, these tendencies could grow, become entrenched, and leave Emma a fussy, demanding old lady, not unlike her father.  The perceptive and ever vigilant Mr. Knightley, however, makes it his business to see that this doesn’t happen, and the result is our story.


Emma begins with the advantageous marriage of Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor. Miss Taylor’s alliance to Mr. Weston, a man of “easy fortune” (6), dramatically elevates her both socially and economically from the role of former destitute governess, now dependent hanger-on at Hartfield, to mistress of her own home with “every domestic comfort” and “a carriage of her own” (19).  After sixteen years as a governess, Miss Taylor “had lived long enough to know how fortunate she might well be thought” (18).  Fully aware of “‘how much the marriage is to Miss Taylor’s advantage’” (11), Mr. Knightley appreciates the precarious position of a governess living in a childless home with a quirky and elderly employer and his very willful, grown daughter; he acknowledges that Miss Taylor was obliged to placate both her employer and his daughter in order to keep a roof over her head (10).  Emma and Mr. Woodhouse are less enthusiastic about Miss Taylor’s becoming Mrs. Weston, as they see the marriage as a loss to themselves.  Although Emma takes credit for having made the match in the first place (11), she considers Miss Taylor’s marriage to be “a gentle sorrow” (6), and she finds herself “divided between tears and smiles” (11).  Only Mr. Woodhouse exceeds her in his selfishness by being utterly baffled at Miss Taylor’s decision to leave Hartfield, “‘a grievous business!’” (93).  Cinderella-like, Miss Taylor is saved from a state of poverty and dependence that neither Mr. Woodhouse nor his daughter seems to fully appreciate.


Emma’s first major blunder involves her assessment of Harriet Smith, whom Mr. Knightley describes as “‘the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all’” (61).  Because she is wealthy Mr. Woodhouse’s daughter, Emma has always been free from worry, and she assumes a similar and carefree existence for Harriet; she declares Harriet’s father to be “‘a gentleman of fortune’” (62), but Emma proves to be wrong.  Harriet’s father turns out to be “a tradesman, rich enough to afford her the comfortable maintenance” (481), but she is by no means assured a continuing income.  In Women Writing About Money, Copeland refers to this as Emma’s “self-willed blindness to Harriet Smith’s realistic chances in the scramble” (109).  As Mr. Knightley realizes, poor Harriet’s position is extremely vulnerable.


Although she has been well provided for to date—her allowance is so generous that she pays someone else to sew her clothes (178)—Harriet’s being openly acknowledged throughout Highbury as “the natural daughter of somebody” points out her financial insecurity (22).  The very fact that not even Harriet knows the identity of her benefactor should be worrying; who knew where the money came from or how financially secure or insecure the source might be?  Harriet’s allowance could be reduced due to financial reversals or cut off entirely on a whim.  Even given a steady resolve, Harriet’s benefactor could be elderly or infirm, and what would be her fate if he were to die?  Illegitimacy not only bore a social stigma but also gave a child no legal rights; Harriet could not prove paternity nor sue for any inheritance.  Other relatives may not even be aware of her existence or, if they were, they have not acknowledged her.  Let Sense and Sensibility’s Fanny Dashwood serve as a warning to us all; even legitimate siblings could be legally disinherited or neglected.  Given her situation, Harriet Smith has been a very fortunate young woman even to be a “‘parlour-boarder at a common school’” (61), but her continued well being is by no means assured.


Were she to lose her regular income, Harriet would have virtually nothing to fall back on, not even a means for supporting herself, as Mr. Knightley seems to have considered:  “‘She has been taught nothing useful’” (61).  With no money of her own and no job skills, Harriet “‘is pretty and good tempered and that is all’” (61), and, despite Emma’s protestations to the contrary, there’s very little money to be made in that.  To her advantage or to her detriment, Harriet seems blissfully unaware of her vulnerability.  “So easily pleased—so little discerning” (180), Harriet occupies herself with frivolities:  “the only mental provision she was making for the evening of life, was the collecting and transcribing all the riddles of every sort that she could meet with” (69).  Harriet lacks the social connections, refinement, and talents most people, even Mrs. Elton, would require in a governess; for instance, she cannot play the piano (229), nor speak foreign languages (232), as Jane Fairfax can.  In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Elton’s contempt for Harriet might be a good indication of how she was likely to be treated as a governess if she were so fortunate as to find such a position.  Should Harriet’s mysterious benefactor cease to provide for her, she had the options of marrying with rapidity or of being reduced to domestic service, perhaps as a parlor maid or nursery maid, but Harriet’s precarious finances never seem to occur to Emma who does everything in her power to influence Harriet to reject the marriage proposal of Robert Martin, a man to whom Harriet is already favorably inclined.  Unfortunately for Harriet, she accepts Emma’s advice without questioning her friend’s judgment.  She would have done better to have listened to Mr. John Knightley:  “‘Business, you know, may bring money, but friendship hardly ever does’” (293).


Emma’s decided distaste for Robert Martin as a potential spouse for Harriet is grounded in Emma’s assessment of his occupation as a farmer, which Emma seems to find particularly odious:  “‘with all his sense and all his merit Mr. Martin is nothing more’” (62).  Mr. Martin rents “a large farm from Mr. Knightley” (23), has a flock of sheep, is making a considerable profit on their wool, and owns eight cows (28).  He presumably pays Mrs. Goddard for his sisters’ educations, employs household help for his mother, including “‘an upper maid’” (27), and has at least one employee for farm labor, a shepherd who supports a family of his own on the wages Robert Martin pays (28).  The Martins can afford to shop where they will, and thus, according to Harriet, they “‘always dealt at Ford’s,’” where Frank Churchill buys gloves and Emma and Harriet purchase cloth for a gown, “the shop first in size and fashion” (178).  Although he shows every indication of being hardworking and prosperous, even proving his financial security to Mr. Knightley’s satisfaction (59), Emma continues to insist that he is beneath Harriet, a notion which Mr. Knightley declares to be “‘errant nonsense’” (64).  Emma turns his prosperity into an evil by declaring him to be dull, “‘thinking of nothing but profit and loss’” (33), “‘too full of the market’” (34), but after Harriet’s disappointment with Mr. Elton, Emma seems to reassess Mr. Martin when she surveys his farm from the vantage point of Donwell Abbey.  Mr. Martin’s home and surrounding property silently declare his bounty; “with all its appendages of prosperity and beauty, its rich pastures, its spreading flocks, orchard in blossom and light column of smoke ascending” (360), his home reveals present comfort and every promise of a bright future.  Because it is “the middle of June” (353), the smoke from the chimney suggests bustling kitchen activity rather than a cold hearth devoid of food.  In the end, of course, an enlightened Emma is forced to acknowledge Harriet fortunate in becoming Mrs. Robert Martin of Abbey Mill Farm, a secure member of a respectable family at last:  “‘I think Harriet is doing extremely well’” (473).


Given his occupation, one must be inclined to forgive Emma for mistaking Mr. Elton for a compassionate, sensitive, caring man, one who would presumably value Harriet’s gentleness, meekness, and humility, but all the tell-tale clues were there to expose his true inclination, if not lust, for money.  Emma’s initial mistake in Mr. Elton is her assumption that he is wealthier than he appears:  “Emma imagined a very sufficient income” and “independent property” (35), but in reality Mr. Elton needs additional money in order to live the lifestyle to which he aspires.  Emma notices that the vicarage is “an old and not very good house” (83), and, before his marriage, Mr. Elton had no carriage and perhaps no horse as he had to be picked up by Emma and her brother-in-law in Mr. John Knightley’s carriage in order to attend the Westons’ Christmas party.  Mr. Elton seldom passes up the invitations of his parishioners to a free meal and even reveals his gluttony when he lists the variety of dishes he enjoyed consuming at the Coles’ (89).  Looking for an easy way to supplement, if not double or triple, his income, Mr. Elton is a man on the make, one, as Mr. Knightley puts it, “‘not at all likely to make an imprudent match’” (66).  Mr. Knightley tells Emma that their parson is a fortune hunter (66), and, for the first time, Emma is forced to acknowledge, if only to herself, that Mr. Knightley could well be right:  “Mr. Elton might not be of an imprudent, inconsiderate disposition as to money-matters” (67).  Mr. Elton may have taken pains to hide his mercenary motives from Emma, but, however unaware, she is indeed being courted by him, a fact that is readily apparent to Mr. John Knightley (111-12), and gossiped about by Mrs. Cole (176).  Mr. Elton’s carriage ride proposal to Emma settles the point:  “He only wanted to aggrandize and enrich himself” with her £30,000 (135).  Emma is then able to predict “he would soon try for Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten” (135), and his subsequent hasty engagement four weeks later to Miss Augusta Hawkins, daughter “of a Bristol-merchant, of course” (183), proves her correct at last, but clever Miss Woodhouse must grudgingly admit that the Knightley brothers were there ahead of her:  “There was no denying that those brothers had penetration” (135).


For all of her faulty judgments and missteps, Emma is shrewd enough to see through the pompous, arrogant, and thoroughly obnoxious Mrs. Elton, in spite of Augusta’s Herculean efforts to appear to be socially acceptable.  It is interesting to note that Mr. Elton originally believed Augusta to possess a fortune of £20,000 (66), but, after they are married, all Highbury knows her to have only £10,000, “or thereabouts” (181).  One wonders, who could have misled and exaggerated her fortune so outrageously to Mr. Elton?  Perhaps this is an example of Austenian justice, for in a letter to her niece Caroline, Austen said that once a character had proved to be a “good for nothing,” he “should not escape unpunished” (288).


In Augusta Elton, Austen created a character who is the worst of a human type, one who has superfluous income and is determined that everyone she meets shall be made aware of the fact.  While acknowledging she is “‘careless of expense’” (283), Mrs. Elton gloats over the extravagance of her gowns and jewelry (302, 324), proudly announces that they routinely have enough food left over from their dinners to feed several additional people (283), and brags that they employ so many male servants that she doesn’t have enough work for them to do nor can she remember all of their names (295).  But she is at her most annoying when she finds fault with the lifestyles of those around her, such as reminding Jane Fairfax, and all other parties assembled, that the Bates ladies employ only one servant, “‘so much as Patty has to do!’” (296).  Mrs. Elton declares herself to be “shocked at the want of two drawing rooms, at the poor attempt at rout-cakes, (which may well be further stabs at the Bates household), and there being no ice in the Highbury card parties” (290).  Emma seems most annoyed by Mrs. Elton’s insistence on putting herself forward:  “‘Must I go first?  I really am ashamed of always leading the way’” (298), as though anyone else would be given the opportunity.  Because of “‘all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery,’” Emma declares her to be a “‘little upstart’” (279), and it does seem that Mrs. Elton has acquired capital without the benefit of learning a few social graces.


Mrs. Elton’s status as nouveau riche reveals itself at least partly in her obsession with carriages, both her own and those of her sister, Mrs. Suckling of Maple Grove, who owns two (183): “‘They will have their barouche-landau, of course. . . . They would hardly come in their chaise’” (274).  A carriage was an expensive luxury, one that Mr. Knightley had largely given up, “keeping no horses, having little spare money” (213), and, much to Mrs. Perry’s distress, remaining beyond the means of Mr. Perry (344).  Mrs. Elton’s complete lack of consideration for others leads her to speculate on the rustic pleasure of traveling to Box Hill in a donkey cart, the early-nineteenth-century’s version of a sub-compact car, the mode of transportation Jane Austen, her mother, and Cassandra owned at Chawton Cottage (Lefroy 55).


Donkeys eat less than horses, get good gas mileage, are hearty, disease resistant, and can bear more weight for their size than a horse; donkeys are well-made, dependable, considerably cheaper to purchase, and are therefore affordable.  A “deluxe donkey” could be purchased for roughly one-tenth the price of a carriage horse (Pool 143).  One distinct disadvantage, which donkey carts also share with small, modern cars, is that they are limited in the number of passengers they can accommodate.  Any more than two adults results in cramped quarters for the passengers and heavy pulling for the donkey.  While the Eltons already own two horses and a new carriage for Augusta to brag about—“‘I believe we drive faster than anybody’” (321)—Mrs. Elton doesn’t have the means of her sister at Maple Grove and cannot afford a second carriage and four horses (283-84, 306).  The Eltons have no spare horse, and, when one of their carriage horses goes lame, they are temporarily without transportation (353).  It is perhaps this inconvenience that leads Mrs. Elton to consider a donkey cart, or maybe it is just the knowledge that the Coles have both horses and a donkey (233, 356).  But for all of the economy involved in owning a donkey cart, which may have been no financial impediment for Miss Woodhouse, Mr. Knightley, the Westons, and Frank Churchill, this would place the expedition to Box Hill completely beyond the limited means of Miss Bates and Miss Fairfax.  As it is, they are already dependent on their friends for transportation and are in no position to complain when Mrs. Elton forgets to pick them up, as promised (320, 322).


Because of her intimate friendship with her own governess, one might assume that Emma would have more understanding of and compassion for the impoverished Jane Fairfax, but this is not the case.  The mild-mannered Miss Taylor was well loved, and this accounts for the fact that even though Emma no longer needed a governess, Miss Taylor stayed on at Hartfield, although still entirely dependent on the benevolence and good will of the Woodhouses.  Jane Fairfax is offered a similar situation with Colonel and Mrs. Campbell, but she declines.  The Campbells are willing to provide a home for Jane “as long as they lived” (165), but what would happen to her when they died?  Presumably, Mrs. Dixon would be willing to take her in, but Miss Fairfax would only be trading one dependence for another.  Unlike Harriet Smith, Jane has considered her future: “‘who can have thought of it as I have done?’” (299).  Everyone else admires Jane Fairfax for her beauty, intellect, and talents, and no one but Emma finds fault with her.  Indeed, Jane Fairfax served as Miss Campbell’s companion, and her status as a member of the Campbell household had been entirely dependent on her affability.  As a woman who lives on the good will of those around her, Jane Fairfax must be agreeable, and she cannot afford to make enemies.  As Fay Weldon reminds us, “Women survived, in Jane Austen’s day, by pleasing and charming if they were in the middle classes” (36).  Emma’s sister Isabella suggests that Miss Fairfax might come to Hartfield:  “‘She would be such a delightful companion for Emma’” (104), but Emma is not disposed to think well of Jane Fairfax.  Emma’s primary objection to Jane is based on her reserve. While Emma criticizes Miss Bates for being “‘so satisfied—so smiling’” (85), she is at least equally annoyed by Jane Fairfax for her “‘apparent indifference whether she pleased or not’” (166).  Mr. Knightley believes Miss Fairfax’s behavior “‘has its foundation in diffidence’” (171), that Jane is reserved because she doesn’t feel herself to be Emma’s equal, but perhaps Miss Fairfax has perceived Emma’s contempt for her aunt, Emma’s jealousy of Jane herself, or both, and is thus even less inclined to humble herself before Miss Woodhouse.


In not befriending Miss Fairfax, Emma does her the gross disservice of leaving her to Mrs. Elton, a circumstance that Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston chide her for, leaving Emma “conscious stricken about Jane Fairfax” (291), as well she might be.  Augusta Elton seems determined to remind Jane Fairfax, and anyone else within the range of her voice, of Miss Fairfax’s lowly status as a governess.  Even in her fantasy of an ideal situation for Miss Fairfax, Mrs. Elton is reminding Jane of her misfortune:  “‘name your own terms, have as many rooms as you like, and mix in the family as much as you chose’” (301).  Translation:  You’re in it for the money, you’ll live in someone else’s house, and they may condescend to treat you as an equal, at times.  In the midst of praising her for her talents, leave it to Mrs. Elton to remind Jane Fairfax of her deficiency, “‘even without the harp’” (301).  In an attempt to dazzle Jane with the splendors in store for her as governess to Mrs. Bragge, cousin of Mr. Suckling of Maple Grove, Mrs. Elton makes reference to “‘wax candles in the schoolroom!  You may imagine how desirable!’” (300).  Augusta Elton is reminding Jane, and everyone else assembled, that a wax candle was a luxury item to a governess.  A year’s worth of wax candles for a middle class house cost around £25 (Murray 79), the equivalent of the modern electric bill.  Presumably, in her status as a member of the household’s staff, the governess would normally be given cheap or homemade tallow candles rendered from scraps of fat which, as burning fat, would both smoke and stink.  It is small wonder then that in the course of this conversation Jane Fairfax alludes to the slave trade and speculates that “‘as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies’” (300-01).  Emma is repeatedly baffled by Jane’s silent tolerance of Mrs. Elton’s insults, slights, and impertinence, but given the fact that Mrs. Elton invites Jane and her family to dinner and is one of the benefactors of her aunt and grandmother, she may well fear alienating Mrs. Elton for their sakes; indeed, it would be self-indulgent to do so.


Jane Fairfax’s consideration for her grandmother and aunt is, no doubt, her most endearing trait, and her thoughtfulness repeatedly reveals itself in her efforts to spare them further expense.  When Jane arrives, she brings presents of new caps and workbags, highly visible, practical items yet within Jane’s limited means, but she displays more sympathy and compassion when she sacrifices dearly for them, in the only ways she can.  Knowing herself to be yet another mouth to feed, with Spartan self-denial, Jane eats as little as possible from their table.  Although Jane seems to feast well enough when they are invited to someone else’s house for dinner, or at least her portions draw neither notice nor comment, Miss Bates is concerned about “‘how little bread and butter she ate for breakfast and how small a slice of mutton for dinner’” (168). Jane’s aunt and grandmother worry that she “‘eats nothing’” (237).  Both times when she is clearly unwell, Jane does everything she can to discourage Miss Bates from calling in Mr. Perry (162, 389).  No doubt Miss Fairfax considers the costs, as her aunt has done, additional expenses they both know Mrs. Bates’s income can ill afford.  Emma correctly assesses Jane Fairfax’s stay in Highbury as “‘a life of privation and penance’” (217).


When presented with a handsome, charming, and wealthy companion who sings, dances, and seems inclined to flatter, surely the natural inclination is to enjoy the situation and ask no questions, and this is Emma’s response to the appearance of the dashing Frank Churchill.  Based on what he knows of Frank Churchill—“‘We hear of him forever at some watering-place or other’” (146)—Mr. Knightley judges him sight unseen and pronounces him to be “‘above his connections, and to care very little for any thing but his own pleasure’” (145).  Annoyed by his seemingly hasty judgment, Emma jumps to Frank’s defense and dismisses Mr. Knightley’s opinion:  “‘You are the worst judge in the world of the difficulties of dependence’” (146).  It doesn’t seem to occur to Emma that her criticism of Mr. Knightley would at least equally apply to herself.  Having grown up in the lap of luxury, as Emma has, Frank Churchill seems to be no better at understanding the less fortunate.  Frank considers Mr. Elton’s house to be adequate:  “He could not believe it a bad house” (204), but Mrs. Weston reminds Frank that, being wealthy, “he could be no judge of the privations” (204).  Not having given the matter much thought, Frank, like Emma, assumes comfortable circumstances for those around him.


Frank Churchill appears to be generous, if not careless, with his money; he sends Jane the mysterious and expensive Broadwood pianoforte from London (215), but he seems to give the purchase little more thought than he gives to the pair of gloves he spontaneously buys at Ford’s shop in Highbury (200).  Though procured with an evident desire to please, the piano seems an impractical, exaggerated gesture when one considers the pressing financial concerns of the Bates household and the austerity in which they live.  Surely such “a very elegant looking instrument” would be out of place in the tiny parlor among the faded and worn furniture of the Bateses’ better days (214-15), perhaps even serving as a reminder of how far they had sunk.  Mr. Knightley comments that the gift of the piano may have given no more pleasure than it caused pain (446).  The thoughtful Mrs. Dixon seems to have done much better by sending Mrs. Bates a “‘large new shawl’” (322), something practical to help keep the old lady warm.


Considering his casual attitude, Emma assumes Frank to be indifferent about money, but he soon sets her right: “‘I sick of prosperity and indulgence!—You are quite mistaken’” (365).  It is, in fact, Frank’s calculated pursuit of a sizable inheritance that causes Jane Fairfax so much pain.  Although Frank gives every indication of being a master of manipulation, he is apparently unable to cajole Mrs. Churchill into the idea of allowing him to choose his own wife, or perhaps he is unwilling to run the risk of possibly alienating her by trying.  Acutely conscious of his own financial status and dependency, Frank seems entirely oblivious to anyone else’s concerns.


Perhaps Frank Churchill’s most self-revealing remark is his drawing attention to Jane’s hair: “‘Miss Fairfax has done her hair in so odd a way’” (222).  Emma has a maid to curl her hair (134), as does Mrs. Elton (324), but Miss Bates lets it slip that Jane, no longer afforded the privileges of living with the wealthy Campbells, is reduced to arranging her hair as best she can (323).  The Bateses’ adaptable Patty may be adept at cleaning (178), cooking (237), and answering the door (239), but apparently she is not up to the challenge of arranging a lady’s hair, or perhaps she’s just too tired.  Were he thoughtful, considerate, and compassionate, surely Frank Churchill would not have used evidence of Jane Fairfax’s poverty to ridicule her, and this is Frank’s equivalent to Emma’s Box Hill faux pas at Miss Bates’s expense. Frank Churchill shares Emma’s fault in thinking too much of himself to the detriment of those around him, and he blames his shortcomings on his wealth:  “‘It is very difficult for the prosperous to be humble’” (437).


Given her inclination to chatter and Emma’s desire to be the center of attention, it comes as no surprise that Emma finds Miss Bates to be tiresome company.  Granted, they have so little in common.  As a woman of very limited means, it is not surprising that much of Miss Bates’s conversation involves thanking her generous neighbors or giving them credit for their benevolence, the gift of some pork, a supply of apples, the free use of the vicarage pew, or the loan of a carriage, but when one considers Miss Bates’s comments, there appears to be an element of obsession in her stream of thanks (172-74), or what Emma refers to as “‘her dreadful gratitude’” (380), as though she fears offending someone by forgetting to acknowledge her gift or favor:  “‘Do not think us ungrateful, Miss Woodhouse’” (379).  In their more humble ways, Highbury’s shopkeepers like Mrs. Wallis, Mrs. Ford, and John Saunders are also benefactors of Mrs. and Miss Bates (236), and thus they are assured of a ready welcome in the Bateses’ humble parlor (155).  Indeed, supplying the poverty-stricken Bates household seems to be a communal effort, and one does have to wonder what Miss Bates, her mother, and the overworked Patty would have to eat should the bounty of the countryside cease to flow in.


Even given the general good will, Mrs. Bates, Miss Bates, and Jane Fairfax are occasionally overlooked or slighted.  When the Coles have a dinner party, Miss Bates and Miss Fairfax are not invited until later in the evening, after the food has been eaten and cleared away (214).  They seem routinely to be the last persons added and the first to be omitted from Highbury’s guest lists (20).  Although Emma treats them to a “plentiful dinner” with “large slices of cake and full glasses of wine” (213), there was always the possibility of being offered the austere gruel Mr. Woodhouse favors.  It must have been very frustrating to them to survey the bounty of Mr. Woodhouse’s table but only be offered “‘very small’” eggs, “‘a very little bit’” of apple tart, or “‘a small half glass’” of wine (24-25).  It seems particularly distressing to Miss Bates when, due to Mr. Woodhouse’s fear of under-cooked asparagus, her mother was offered and then denied her anticipated dinner (329), the best meal Mrs. Bates was likely to get that day or for many days, certainly not until invited to dine with her affluent friends again.  It comes as little surprise that “‘she was rather disappointed’” (329), and who knew when she would next be forced into “unwilling self-denial” (213), and there is plenty of that already in the Bates household as their meager breakfasts of bread and butter indicate (168).


A great talker upon little matters” (21), Miss Bates is most pitiable when one considers the frequency with which she mentions small expenses, trifles that would never concern her more affluent friends, such as paying the doctor’s bills (162, 389), providing her mother with a second pair of glasses (236), salvaging an old petticoat (225), employing a chimney sweep (236), or cross writing in a letter to save on postage (157).  Indeed, these expenses seem to weigh on her mind and present themselves in Freudian slips.  Miss Bates scrimps and saves wherever she can and is constantly alert to any small extravagance.  She considers coffee and asparagus to be luxury items, is surprised to have soup as a side dish, and is amazed to see a profusion of candles in use or a large fire in the fireplace (323, 329).  Mr. Knightley chides Emma for “not contributing what she ought to the stock of their scanty comforts” (155).  Their income must be limited indeed; based on the presence of their versatile and lone maid, Patty, Copeland estimates the Bateses’ income at around one hundred pounds a year (“Money” 135).  Miss Bates is even impressed by the relatively meager salary being offered to Jane Fairfax as a governess (382), and, as Mr. Knightley is aware, when Mrs. Bates, already “a very old lady” (21), dies, Miss Bates may have even less:  “‘She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more’” (375), yet Miss Bates seems determined never to complain and always to appear happy.


For all her privation, Miss Bates is not indifferent to the suffering of others; she worries about “‘Poor old John,’” her father’s clerk who now lives on “‘relief from the parish’” (383).  Although Mr. Perry doesn’t charge Mrs. and Miss Bates for his house calls, Miss Bates is concerned and possibly feels guilty about this as “‘[h]e has a wife and family to maintain’” (162), and he is not yet able to afford a carriage.  Unable to return dinner invitations, Mrs. Bates and her daughter serve their guests tea and cake (156), probably the best culinary offerings their limited means could normally afford.  According to Daniel Pool, by the early 1800s, tea was a staple of the English diet for the affluent and for the poverty stricken, “a hot item to liven up the otherwise cold meals of the poor” (208), but humble people rarely had coffee, and this is the case with Miss Bates (323).  When in possession of a quantity of pork, a gift from Emma and Mr. Woodhouse, Miss Bates is already considering inviting Mrs. Goddard in to share in their bounty (177), just as she invites her friends in to enjoy the apples she has received from Mr. Knightley (238).  Admirably, Miss Bates never complains about her lot in life: “‘Nobody was ever so fortunate as herself’” (223).  Given all that she must already suffer, Emma’s cruel remark to Miss Bates at Box Hill is the intolerable incident that angers Mr. Knightley into confronting her, and it is this challenge which finally forces Emma to acknowledge her own folly and to grow as a human being.


Although Emma calls Miss Bates “‘silly’” early in the book (85) and Frank Churchill considers her ridiculous—“‘She is a woman that one may, that one must laugh at’” (260)—both could have avoided much embarrassment, pain, and trouble had they valued Miss Bates more and actually listened to what she was saying.  In Jane Austen and Her Art, Mary Lascelles asserts that Miss Bates is actually the wisest and most clear-sighted character in the book, and Lascelles quotes Miss Bates to prove her point:  “‘What is before me, I see,’ Miss Bates says—and it is more than any other character in the story can say, for all the more intelligent people (even to Mr. Knightley himself) are peering through mists of prejudice; and if I wanted to know what happened in Highbury on any particular day I should go to Miss Bates” (145-46).  Indeed, there is much practical wisdom, genuine concern, and touching kindness peppered throughout her humble flow of eager-to-please conversation.  Miss Bates certainly understands a great truth Emma has yet to learn when she says “‘one never does form a just idea of any body beforehand.  One takes up a notion, and runs away with it’” (176).


From the beginning of the book, Miss Emma Woodhouse is well aware of the grinding poverty of the obviously poor.  She considers “what the poor must suffer in winter” (155), and she does what she can to help those crippled by poverty, as she demonstrates when she and Harriet visit the sick cottager (86), but by the end of Emma she is also aware of the privations and struggles of the lower middle class, the working poor.  At last, she is able to sympathize with Jane Fairfax and to be kind to Miss Bates.  Emma acknowledges Harriet’s limitations and her own detrimental influence on Harriet and wisely distances herself from her all too impressionable friend.  Emma learns to appreciate the contributions of farmers like Robert Martin and Mr. Knightley’s able assistant, William Larkins.  She recognizes the cold calculation that motivates Mr. Elton and the selfishness and egotism of the idle Frank Churchill, a mirror image of her unreformed self.  When Emma confesses her mistakes to Mr. Knightley as “‘a series of strange blunders’” (331), the reader feels assured these are errors she will not be repeating.  Emma learns to value the kindness, wisdom, and insight of the Knightley brothers and to question her own, but Miss Woodhouse is never such a simpleton as to eschew her wealth.  In fact, by the end of the novel, Emma Woodhouse Knightley is richer than ever, but money itself has never been her problem.  According to the Bible, “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10); according to George Bernard Shaw, “Lack of money is the root of all evil” (680), but in Jane Austen’s Emma, the evil lies in not appreciating the difference it makes in our own lives and in the lives of those around us.



Works Cited


Ashton, T.S.  The Industrial Revolution 1760-1830.  New York: Oxford UP, 1969.

Auden, Wystan Hugh.  “Letter to Lord Byron.”  Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage.  Vol. 2.  Ed. B. C. Southam.  London: Routledge, 1987.

Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1988.

_____.  Jane Austen’s Letters.  Ed. Deirdre LeFaye.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1995.

Brown, Julia Prewitt.  “Civilization and the Contentment of Emma.”  Modern Critical Views: Jane Austen.  Ed. Harold Bloom.  New York: Chelsea, 1986.  87-108.

Copeland, Edward.  “Money.”  The Cambridge Companion to Jane Austen.  Ed. Edward Copeland and Juliet McMaster.  Cambridge: CUP, 1997.

_____.  Women Writing About Money: Women’s Fiction in England 1790-1820.  Cambridge: CUP, 1996.

“A Debate to Remember.”  JASNA News 15.3 (Win. 1999): 5.

Gard, Roger.  Jane Austen’s Novels: The Art of Clarity.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1994.

Honan, Park.  Jane Austen: Her Life.  New York: St. Martin’s, 1987.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics and the Novel. Chicago: CUP, 1990.

Lascelles, Mary.  Jane Austen and Her Art.  London: Athlone, 1939.

Lefroy, Helen.  Jane Austen.  Phoenix Mill: Sutton, 1997.

MacDonagh, Oliver. Jane Austen: Real and Imagined Worlds.  New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.

Murray, Venetia.  An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England.  New York: Viking, 1998.

Pool, Daniel.  What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.  New York: Touchstone, 1993.

Shaw, George Bernard.  Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.  Ed. Emily Morison Beck.  Boston: Little, 1980.

Tomalin, Claire.  Jane Austen: A Life.  New York: Vintage, 1999.

Tyler, Natalie.  The Friendly Jane Austen.  New York: Viking, 1999.

Weldon, Fay.  Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen.  New York: Carroll, 1996.


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