PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.25, NO.1 (Winter 2004)

Jane Austen’s Emma and Empire: A Postcolonial View

Kuldip Kaur Kuwahara


Kuldip Kaur Kuwahara (email: is an Associate Professor of English at North Carolina Central University.  A British Council Scholar at the University of Edinburgh, and an NEH Fellow at the University of California Santa Barbara, Kuwahara is the author of Jane Austen at Play: Self-Consciousness, Beginnings, Endings (1993).  Her work in Literature and Cultural Studies includes articles on Jane Austen, Enlightenment, and Empire.


“She is a complete angel.  Look at her.  Is not she an angel in every gesture?  Observe the turn of her throat.  Observe her eyes, as she is looking up at my father.—You will be glad to hear (inclining his head, and whispering seriously) that my uncle means to give her all my aunt’s jewels.  They are to be new set.  I am resolved to have some in an ornament for the head.  Will it not be beautiful in her dark hair?” (479)


in this passage, Frank Churchill, in conversation with Emma, expresses his love for Jane Fairfax, whom he is about to marry, and reveals how she is to inherit his aunt’s jewels.  Jane is Frank Churchill’s angel; he would now have her wear a tiara, a crown, in her dark hair, and be his princess that they might live happily ever after. 


However, before the novel’s happy ending, there is despair and conflict.  Jane Fairfax is in a state of despair and resignation to her fate as governess.  She tells Mrs. Elton, “‘There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something—offices for the sale—not quite of human flesh—but of human intellect’” (300).  When faced with Mrs. Elton’s exclamations, “‘Oh! My dear, human flesh! You quite shock me . . . ,’” Jane replies, “‘I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade,’” and adds, “‘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’” (300-01).  Jane speaks these words in a moment of despair and anxiety.  This occurs long before she can adorn her hair with sparkling jewels under the admiring gaze of Frank Churchill whom she marries at the novel’s close.


Austen’s typical fairy tale structure of well-deserved conquests of the heart at the novel’s close parallel a social and political order based on Empire-building, conquest, and political power.  By exploring themes of subjugation, slavery, and a woman’s helplessness in the face of limited choices as revealed in Jane’s conversation with Mrs. Elton, Austen makes an ironic comment on the connections between the themes of power and powerlessness.


With the reversal of Jane Fairfax’s fortune, it is fitting, as it is ironic, that she should inherit Frank Churchill’s aunt’s jewels.  That same aunt, most aware of belonging to a “great Yorkshire family” (15) and so propped up by the power of her jewels and property, rejected the marriage of her sister-in-law to Mr. Weston, a member of the militia.  Unable to be “at once the wife of Mr. Weston, and Miss Churchill of Enscombe” (16), Mrs. Weston had died three years later leaving behind a son, the same Frank Churchill who now breaks the news of his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax the very morning of his aunt’s death.  Not only does her death thus remove any remaining obstacle to Frank Churchill’s marrying Jane Fairfax, a woman of no property, or power, but Jane actually inherits her jewels.  While his aunt lived, Frank Churchill, unable to disclose the nature of his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax, had sent gifts, including the gift of a piano, without revealing his identity.  Ironically, Frank Churchill’s aunt thus adds to his happiness when her jewels become the property of Jane Fairfax.  Jane, who was at the point of applying for the job of governess as the only option open to her in her situation, understands the nature of poverty and powerlessness, as well as the inequalities of gender and class in a society where the privileged, appearing to think very well of themselves, cultivate a sense of sophistication and superiority over those without property and power.


At the start of the novel, unlike Emma Woodhouse, who is rich in what she has, Jane Fairfax, though rich in who she is, owns no property.  She embodies priceless qualities that elevate her to the status of a jewel that must be recognized and valued.  As Emma grows and develops in the course of the novel, she begins to see what Mr. Knightley had always been able to see—Jane Fairfax’s true superiority of character and personality.  Her inner sophistication and silence place her at the moral center of the novel much like Fanny who is placed at the moral center of Mansfield Park.  Frank Churchill finally has the courage to give voice to his secret engagement, rescue Jane from the fate of isolation and dependence as a governess, and be adorned with family jewels.


However, in creating characters like Jane Fairfax, and Fanny Price, Austen explores the Woman Question as it relates to Enlightenment Feminism, but hesitates to go beyond that to include Enlightenment Colonialism.  Though Jane Fairfax and Fanny Price are strong, independent thinkers and morally superior women, they appear to be submissive in a class-conscious, patriarchal society.  Unable or unwilling to challenge and change the social order, they make a strong, silent commentary on moral questions.  As Edward Said points out in Culture and Imperialism,Fanny’s question about the slave trade is met with silence in Mansfield Park because “one world could not be connected with the other since there simply is no common language for both” (96).  Said concludes that “[i]n order more accurately to read works like Mansfield Park, we have to see them in the main as resisting or avoiding that other setting.” He is thus referring to the difficulties of connecting stable homes with spreading seas of discovery and conquest, the outer limits of the sea that surround domestic stability at home even as it symbolizes spreading property and power overseas.


Though Austen makes no references to storms at sea or conquests abroad in Emma, she does stir up storms in teacups.  Her aesthetic designs include tea tables, people gathered together at tea time projecting pictures of domestic tranquility and discord. She self-consciously announces that “[s]eldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised, or a little mistaken . . . ” (431).  In Emma, Austen plays with irony that both reveals and conceals complex truths.  The novel is filled with surprises, puzzles, tricks, disguises, and revelations.  Unlike restless Emma with her active imagination, Jane Fairfax provides a still center; she is a strong individual struggling with social attitudes and norms as well as social and moral hypocrisies.  It is fitting that at the end of this comedy, she should be crowned with jewels and riches that match her inner worth and moral stature.  If she is the silent observer who can see more and knows more, Austen places her amidst characters that reveal themselves around tea tables.


The English countryside, and English tea, provide a setting in which characters interact with each other.  We see how Mr. Knightley habitually visited Hartfield  “soon after tea, and dissipated every melancholy fancy” (422), we imagine how families in Highbury sit around the fire in a circle drinking tea, listening to stories, and, in the novel’s triumphant conclusion, the narrative voice asserts, “They sat down to tea—the same party round the same table—how often it had been collected!—and how often had her eyes fallen on the same shrubs in the lawn, and observed the same beautiful effect of the western sun!—” (434).  They drink tea from the East in the West celebrating the power of love. Jane Fairfax’s sparkling jewels reflect her inner joy and fulfillment.


Austen writes at a time when the sun never set on the British Empire.  References to tea, a symbol of English sophistication, are deeply embedded in the structural design of Emma.  Borrowed from ancient civilizations, the ritual of drinking tea provides an ironic commentary on the theme of property and power.  Gayatri Spivak makes a significant reference to the connection between literature and culture in pointing out that “[i]t should not be possible to read nineteenth-century British literature without remembering that imperialism, understood as England’s social mission, was a crucial part of England’s cultural representation to the English.  The role of literature in the production of cultural representation should not be ignored” (798).


Emma is a very English novel.  At the center of Austen’s fictional world lies the significance of connections between property, power, and domestic stability.  The outer dimension of the sea, that other world of sailors and seafarers in Mansfield Park and Persuasion, is absent in Emma.  Yet jewels, landed property, and tea as symbols of social sophistication, are of central thematic significance.  Austen’s preoccupation with creating ironic fictional structures to comment on the significance of property ownership is no less underlined in Emma than it is in Mansfield Park or Persuasion.  Her concern is with men and women of property and power and the potential for power in the powerless.  She explores the limits of land just where it touches the sea and opens up a whole world of victories at sea, adventure, the exotic, and the faraway.  In her fictional designs, Austen chooses to remain rooted on land at a time of tremendous British expansion abroad.  In this juxtaposition of the magical with the real, the postcolonial reader seeks to connect ideal possibilities with social and political realities.


In Jane Austen’s comedy of manners, sparkling jewels, social sophistication, and the ritual of drinking tea provide a setting in which the values and attitudes of different characters are subjected to close scrutiny.  If Austen represented England to the English in the nineteenth-century, twenty-first century readers reflect on the domestic, social, and political contexts of her fictional world.  A postcolonial view is the open, global window to look through and piece together different facets of Austen’s aesthetic designs.  Jewels, crowns, property, and power take center stage in fairy tales, just as conquests and defeats underline power struggles between nations and communities.  Emma is as much a celebration of the power of love and conquest of the human heart as it is an assertion of the power of property in an age of Empire and Enlightenment feminism.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Emma.  Ed. R. W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1986.

Said, Edward.  Culture and Imperialism.  New York: Knopf, 1993..

Spivak, Gayatri.  “Three Women’s Texts and a Critique of Imperialism” in Feminisms:An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism.  Eds. Robyn Warhol and Diane Herndl.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1991.


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