Home ›   |   Publications ›   |   Essay Contest Winning Entries ›   |   2021 Essay Contest ›   |   Elinor and Emma: Artistic Vision and Social Standing of Two Jane Austen Heroines

Elinor and Emma: Artistic Vision and Social Standing of Two Jane Austen Heroines

The inquisitive, matchmaking Emma Woodhouse of Emma seems to have little in common with Sense and Sensibility’s reserved and even-tempered Elinor Dashwood. However, they are united by the fact that they are both visual artists. Drawing and painting are unique in that, while the creative process is often solitary and reflective, the art itself is inherently created for others to view. In the cases of Elinor and Emma, the way in which their artistic visions and creative processes interact with others reveal their relationships and social standings.

For Emma, the artistic process is generally a social one. She paints in a variety of scales and materials but always chooses portraits. Given her interest in observing the lives of others, this is a fitting choice. Because she requires a model, her work inherently enters into a relationship with another person and relies on their willingness to be painted. In the past this has made her art more challenging. When trying to draw her sister Isabella, Emma claims “I should have made a good likeness of her, if she would have sat longer” (Emma 35). Emma is confident in her ability to render “a good likeness” and instead projects the blame for a failed project outward onto an uncooperative model. This suggests she sees the artist-subject relationship as one-sided in which she commands her subject rather than as an artistic dialogue. This commanding attitude appears in other relationships, namely her friendships with Harriet and Miss Bates, in which Emma as a social superior often fails to take responsibility for the insults and interferences she inflicts.

Emma also struggles with a limited number of available subjects claiming there is “No great variety of faces for you” (Emma 35). The narrowness of her pool of subjects reflects the small scale of her social world which affords her few friends of equal standing. In the actual act of painting itself, she permits an audience which further socializes her process. When painting her portrait of Harriet, Emma finds “she could not do anything, with Mr. Elton fidgeting behind her” (Emma 36). Mr. Elton’s presence is a distraction and stifles Emma’s creative activity. However, Emma continues to welcome both his presence and his interference because “anything less would certainly have been too little in a lover” (Emma 37). Emma’s larger goal for this portrait is to further Harriet and Elton’s love. Emma equates his initial enthusiasm for the project with his feelings for Harriet and so, from the start, the painting serves a social purpose far beyond its aesthetic or creative meaning. Emma sacrifices comfort and artistic productivity to further this goal, even if the art itself suffers.

In contrast, Elinor’s drawing often isolates her, taking her to a solitary drawing table or a window, the margins of a social space. Readers know little about the content of her artwork which is never subjected to a detailed conversation as Emma’s is. This further suggests that Elinor’s work is isolated and solitary, in keeping with her characteristic restraint. The lack of clear content in her artwork reflects her unwillingness to commit to strong emotional expression, especially in social settings. What readers do know is that Elinor draws from memory and likely draws landscapes, suggesting that, like Emma, she chooses her subjects from within her sphere of influence. However, Elinor lacks independence, social superiority and even her own house. She does not have total and commanding control over a pool of subjects, however small, as Emma does in Highbury. While little is seen of Elinor’s drawings, their very absence and isolation reveals her standing as a woman without property, placing her perilously close to isolation.

The realm of Elinor’s control from which she can choose subjects is therefore limited to a single object—her own mind—but this she controls absolutely. Following the discovery of Edward’s previous engagement, Elinor sits at her drawing table and “the past and the future, on a subject so interesting must be before her, must force her attention, and engross her memory, her reflection, and her fancy” (Sense and Sensibility 94). Elinor’s blank canvases become a screen onto which she can project and channel her thoughts. As Irene Fizer writes in “A ‘Passion for Dead Leaves’: Animated Landscapes and Static Canvases in Sense and Sensibility” the scenes in which Elinor sits at her drawing table are “invested less in tracking her creative process and more upon the inner workings of her psyche” (Fizer 61). Although Elinor’s drawing appears separate from society, it offers her space for reflection and observation that later informs her interactions with others.

Not only is Emma’s artistic process a social performance, she applies an artist’s eye and mind to situations in her social circles. As Eugene Goodheart writes in “Emma: Jane Austen’s Errant Heroine” “Emma tries to re-create her small world by arranging the lives of her neighbors” (Goodheart 597). The idea of arrangement makes social planning a creative, even artistic act. Emma has a clear vision of what she wants her world to look like, expressed most clearly through matchmaking, a pursuit which relies on aesthetic agreement and balance between two subjects. Her art becomes an allegory for the social arrangements she pursues. In her portrait of Harriet Emma “meant to throw in a little improvement to the figure, to give a little more height, and considerably more elegance” (Emma 37). The specific physical traits that Emma seeks to change symbolize the less tangible changes she hopes to make in Harriet’s life. At the same time that Emma makes Harriet appear taller, she also raises her social standing. Adding “considerably more elegance” is the physical iteration of Harriet’s social and intellectual education. In her role as artist, Emma operates in the mediums of both watercolor and society, arranging both to suit her aesthetic purposes.

Although driven by a matchmaking scheme, the purpose of Harriet’s portrait is not to display her as she is but to present an altered and improved version of her to Elton. As Goodheart writes “Emma in fact is a perfect illustration of how will or desire or preconception may determine interpretation” (Goodheart 590). Whether intentional or unintentional, Emma’s artistic interpretation of a portrait’s subject is influenced by her preconceived affections, aspirations and biases. At times, this can extend as far as figurative blindness such as when she fails to see the attachment between Frank Chuchill and Jane Fairfax. Because Emma consistently interprets the actions of those around her as complying with her existing vision of their social arrangement, she cannot perceive when her desires do not correspond with reality. This failure of perception leads to inaccuracy in both her artwork and her conclusions about others.

While Elinor’s artistic process is more personal and less social, she shares Emma’s observational eye and applies an artistic perspective to social situations. As Deborah Weiss writes in her article “Sense and Sensibility and Ethics” Elinor’s main method of determining the truth about another person is through observable evidence (Weiss 263). With her exact and empirical eye, Elinor strives for greater accuracy than Emma, free of intentional distortion. Yet both struggle in the face of inconclusive evidence. This is most evident when Edward arrives at Barton Cottage at the end of the novel. Elinor laments that “In Edward,—she knew not what she saw, nor what she wished to see;—happy or unhappy,—nothing pleased her;—she turned away her head from every sketch of him” (Sense and Sensibility 316). The word “sketch” implies a link between social understanding and visual observation. The mention of “what she wished to see” suggests that unlike Emma, Elinor is aware of the power of her desires to distort her understanding and avoids it. However, her unwillingness to commit to an artistic vision hinders her ability to form a full picture of Edward, especially his internal state. While she strives for aesthetic harmony and balance, “nothing pleased her” because contradictory observations cancel out to nothing. The language itself reflects the confusion that results from trying to make opposite elements such as “happy or unhappy” coexist. The short sentences and frequent dashes represent shifting and incomplete thoughts as she struggles to draw conclusions from uncertain evidence. Because Elinor strives for a wholly accurate representation, she struggles to move beyond external, observable traits.

The relationship between art and society moves both ways. While Emma and Elinor use their artistic visions to assess and interpret society, the artistic critique they receive from others reveals details of their relationships and standing. Given the high value placed on a young lady’s artistic accomplishment, art becomes a social proxy for the artist with critique reflecting more on her than her art. For Emma, those who would criticize her social interference are those most likely to find fault with her art. Mrs. Weston, on seeing the portrait, observes “Miss Smith has not those eyebrows and eyelashes. It is the fault of her face that she has them not” (Emma 37). Mrs. Weston, Emma’s indulgent former governess, notices that Emma has failed at accuracy; however, she, like Emma, deflects blame on to the subject rather than Emma’s artistic ability. In acquiescing, Mrs. Weston enters the fictional representation of the world that Emma seeks to arrange. Mr. Elton too sees the flaws in Emma’s arrangement of reality but refuses to admit they exist. He argues that Emma’s representation of Harriet is “not too tall; not in the least too tall. Certainly, she is sitting down—which naturally presents a different—which in short gives exactly the idea” (Emma 38). Elton’s unfinished thoughts and frequent shifts from admitting to denying the flaw demonstrate his struggle to put aside his own judgement and accept Emma’s reality. He is determined to accept it but cannot overcome the intellectual barrier of his own perception. This struggling acceptance of Emma’s reality ultimately shatters when she tells him to marry Harriet. Unblinded by affection, he cannot ignore the social scruples of the match. His willingness to comply with Emma’s arrangement of the world fails where it really matters.

Significantly, it is only Mr. Knightley who presents a certain and unshaken view of Harriet’s portrait. On first seeing it he remarks “‘You have made her too tall, Emma” (Emma 38). The direct simplicity of his comment conveys more truth than Mrs. Weston or Mr. Elton who both feel the need to justify, contradict or soften their own opinions. As he does elsewhere in the novel, Mr. Knightlet counteracts the flattery of others to reveal Emma’s flaws. Yet, his critique of both her artwork and her moral character is constructive and aims at offering opportunities for growth. In response to his critique of the painting, “Emma knew that she had, but would not own it” (Emma 38). Emma’s resistance to change harkens back to her earlier struggles with artwork in which rigid expectations for her models compelled her to quit. However, while on the surface she resists Mr. Knightley’s criticism, she accepts the truth of his critique. Ultimately, his honesty does her and her artwork a greater service by providing a clear path to improvement, something that in her earlier discussions of her artist talent she recognizes as lacking. The unity between Emma and Mr. Knightley’s artistic opinions demonstrate a compatibility between their characters and suggests the possibility of further growth.

Elinor also endures artistic critique that uses her art as a proxy for her character. At a gathering at his house, John Dashwood shows a pair of screens Elinor painted to Colonel Brandon adding, “I do not know whether you ever happened to see any of her performances before, but she is reckoned to draw extremely well” (Sense and Sensibility 208). John’s presentation of the screens is part of his ongoing effort to promote a match between Colonel Brandon and Elinor. The word “performances”, even though it refers to static drawings, suggests an exhibition of skill as if Elinor were purposely promoting herself through her art. The Colonel, for his part, “warmly admired the screens, as he would have done anything painted by Miss Dashwood” (Sense and Sensibility 208). The connection between a woman and her artistic abilities is further evident in Brandon’s positive response to “anything painted by Miss Dashwood”. Here, the unknown content of the canvas is rendered obsolete, replaced by the identity of the artist. In social situations, especially ones linked to courtship and matrimony, the value of artwork becomes representative of the value placed on the artist.

Mrs. Ferrars’ reception of the painted screens furthers this idea. At first, she is interested in the screens but when she learns that they are Elinor’s work she says “‘very pretty’- and without regarding them at all, returned them to her daughter” (Sense and Sensibility 208). In dismissing the screens with vague praise, Mrs. Ferrars relegates the work to a place of unimportance while maintaining the facade of politeness necessary in her position. As an upper class woman she recognizes the value of her praise to elevate a woman of lower standing and wields it to intentionally snub Elinor. Elinor does not respond to or challenge the criticism. This suggests she accepts the socialized and performative nature of producing work for others which, in a culture focused on accomplishments, invariably reflects and is influenced by her own social standing.

While visual art appears to be static and non-performative, it plays a central role in social situations. From the first moment of the creative process, Elinor and Emma engage with the world around them in selecting their subjects. Although often imperfect or obscured, the artists’ eye at the center of each novel provides the probing, observational perception through which Jane Austen’s wit and insight travels. The social reception of a piece of artwork reveals as much about the artist’s status as it does the work itself. Visual art and drawing is not just a solitary pastime for Austen’s heroines; it is intricately bound up in the complex social worlds she creates.

Works Cited
  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Canterbury Classics, 2013.
  • _____. Sense and Sensibility. Barnes & Noble, 2019.
  • Goodheart, Eugene. “Emma: Jane Austen’s Errant Heroine.” The Sewanee Review, vol. 116, no. 4, 2008, pp. 589–604. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27550012. Accessed 28 May 2021.
  • Fizer, Irene. “A ‘Passion for Dead Leaves’: Animated Landscapes and Static Canvases in Sense and Sensibility. South Atlantic Review, vol. 76, no. 1, 2011, pp. 53–72. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41635671. Accessed 28 May 2021.
  • Weiss, Deborah. “Sense and Sensibility: Uncertain Knowledge and the Ethics of Everyday Life.” Studies in Romanticism, vol. 52, no. 2, 2013, pp. 253–273. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24247250. Accessed 28 May 2021.
‹ Back to Publication