As her usual focus on the description of the provincial aristocratic-bourgeois life of the late 18th-century England, the gentry families to be specific, Jane Austen writes Emma, with an ever more conspicuous and trenchant view, and in meticulous detail, tending to articulate her firm belief in the predominance of reason over passion, the sense of responsibility, good manners and clear-sighted judgment over the romantic tendencies of emotion and individuality while social identity constitutes the fundamental.
Centred on the small circle of the heroine’s life, Austen shows her extraordinary power of keen observation and penetrating analysis in relation to the very narrow world of the rural gentry and clergy. Can you imagine those plotting and well-weaved stories are composed, no less than, of daily conversations, walks, drives, teas, dances, visits, journeys or other common activities? Which dominates people’s life, and via which, she precisely explores the human nature and relations, which are ever her major concern. She is widely charged of obliviousness of to the big social and political upheavals in the outside world, which is inevitable in her time, the wars between England and French, the pageantry of the French Revolution of 1789-1794 and of the Napoleonic Wars that followed. But there has to be one focus to be weighed over the other, now that one could see a world from a grain of sand’ (by William Blake), she could definitely go for those matters that concern her most. And there are points of social situation referred to in Emma: The miseries of the poor labouring folk when Emma makes a charitable visit to a poor sick family (Chapter 10); a casual reference to the terrible "governess-trade” in the towns as it is illustrated in the case of governess Jane Fairfax and compared to “salve-trade (Chapter 35); and the scene of a disturbing group of gypsies who beset Harriet Smith when she was walking alone on a public road (Chapter 39). (History of English Literature,2003:149) Though brief, they are significant to defend for Austen.
Austen’s subject matters always concern three or four landed gentry families, which, in Emma, are the Woodhouse, the Knightley and the Churchill, the wealthy and noble families, while in Pride and Prejudice, the Darcy, the Bingley, and the Catherine de Bourgh. They represent the respectable status of that society, and their values prevail. The Weston, who has merits but less social status; and Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, the women devoid of men in family, who are the most pathetic. Austen asserts her opinion by means of girls’ pursuit of marriage, among which, those who without money or social rank are forever reduced into a desperate situation of having to lure young and rich to marry them, like Jane Fairfax, we've got no idea about the particulars; and poor Harriet Smith, the gullible pretty, who under Emma's manipulation, is intended to marry the clergyman Mr. Elton and later, even unmindful of her own status, falls in love with Mr. Knightley, who’s equalled by nobody but Emma. Austen suggests by the depiction of Mrs. Elton that such flimsy and imprudent match is no more than a disaster, being sneered and slighted upon and at the same time degrads the status of both. The author sensibly suggests giving full consideration to money and social position is vital to a decent marriage, while the intellectual equality makes the most desirable, like Emma and Mr. Knightley (I don’t dare cutting off “Mr.” here lest I would be scoffed at by Emma).
In Austen’s novels, there never wants distinct figures, amiable and sensible one like Mrs. Weston, mannerless chattering one like Miss Bates, and vigorous and reckless one like Frank Churchill, and snobbish one like Mr. Elton. These characters while enliven the story, help the merits of the hero and heroine stand out, which are the very qualities in human Austen extols. The old respectable gentleman Mr. Woodhouse would fuss about every little change and require the most attention as he could. But endless respect and care and patience are still paid to him for his being caring and concern about others himself. Though being overly doted on, Emma is always aware of the kindness of heart, and never takes liberties with the goodwill, which urges her to take good care of her father. And when she involuntarily humiliates Miss Bates on an outing at Box Hill on her talktiveness while getting to no point, she deeply confesses herself after being scolded by Mr. Knightley, and pays her sincere attention to Miss Bates later on, which makes Emma be more sensitive of human’s good nature instead of forgivable flaws. It is one of the lessons that taught Emma to have an objective and kinder view towards the people around her, and to admire the good qualities of people. Compared with the frivolous and indiscreet young people at early twenties like me, she’s far ahead of us.
And another fact that obliges Emma to seriously examine her judging skills about people and herself is her intention to elevate Harriet’s position by marriage, which is the most arresting plot in the whole story to me. Guided by her great affection to her pretty friend Harriet, who’s merely said to be a daughter of a gentleman, she exhorts Harriet to reject Mr. Martin, a rural farmer owner, of his proposal of marriage and talks her into falling love with Mr. Elton. But Mr. Elton turns out such a social identity-conscious man who’s not likely to marry a woman whose social rank is lower than his. It is a startle and an insult for Emma for he turns out to be in love with her. Then she contrives to fix Harriet up with Frank Churchill, who ends up with a secret engagement with Jane Fairfax already. At this crucial moment, when been taught to be a more mature and attractive woman who's brought into a higher society than she’s supposed to, Harriet finds herself having feelings for Mr. Knightley, who from the very beginning is attended to Emma, for God sake, everybody could make such a successful guess, I am enticed to gloat over Emma’s dilemma, how she would dispose of Harriet's happiness for there’s no eligible men around to be picked and how she would realize her own happiness. Though it ends up with Harriet happily throwing herself to Mr. Martin, I don’t have no scruples to like this set. No very convincing particulars are given to justify Harriet’s choice and she would still appear a pushover. Or we could interpret like this: it is Austen’s intention to weaken the manpower to control but to yield in order to reveal the social system at that time, which might also her sad reconciliation to the cruel fact.
As the story was coming to its ending, I couldn't help laughing. Austen would never stop until she makes sure every figure in story is well-settled. Frank’s secret engagement is explained and the couple are happily together; Mrs Weston has her own girl baby; Of course Mrs Elton is still what she was; Harriet is engaged with Mr. Martin; and finally Emma and Mr. Knightley are the most happily married.
But there’s one question lingering in my mind that if it raises people's eyebrows by astonishment that a twenty something gets married with a forty, give or take a few years, at that period of time, though they have equal social status, elegant appearance and the height of intellect. Huh! Austen forgets to explain this point. The late 18th-century aristocratic society was far from this open I bet. Or they set a very good epitome of the happiest marriage for modern people, as long as the fathers are not pissed off by being called “father” by a man of his age?