Teaching Jane Austen to high school homeschoolers is a delightful and enlivening experience. In addition to eagerness and enthusiasm, the students bring hearts relatively free of suspicion and agendas. They do not come determined to read post-Christian sensibilities into emphatically Christian texts. I do find, however, that some time must be devoted to negotiating deeply-infused egalitarian principles. We cannot merely dismiss the social hierarchy of Regency-era England as “un-American”; we must be able to recognize the way in which the society worked and, to the best of our abilities, value all that is good in its structure. Jane Austen’s Christian Aristotelianism demands that the hierarchy operates on terms of responsibility and virtuous relationship.
In our consideration of Jane Austen’s Emma, I anticipated many struggles in recognizing the inappropriateness of the friendship between the titular heroine and parlour-boarder Harriet Smith. Mr. Knightley, who holds the highest position of the society of Highbury, sees this inappropriateness clearly. Harriet, “the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations,” has no claims of “birth, nature or education” to elevate her beyond the social tier of the young farmer, Robert Martin. Mr. Knightley rightly declares that Mr. Martin “is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation.” This is not merely a commentary on Harriet’s birth; it is an evaluation of her character as well:
She is not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information. She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself. At her age she can have no experience, and with her little wit, is not very likely ever to have any that can avail her. She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all.
Later in the novel, after Emma’s matchmaking schemes repeatedly go awry, Harriet fancies herself in love with Mr. Knightley himself. Further, she declares to Emma that she has reasons for assurance of his affection for her, thereby catapulting Emma into a few dramatic chapters of deepening self-knowledge which are the crowning point of a necessary character arc for the titular heroine. Harriet is quite mistaken, of course, and Mr. Knightley declares his love for Emma within a very few chapters—in one of the most descriptive and romantic proposal scenes in all of Jane Austen. The novel concludes with the “perfect happiness” of the union of Mr. Knightley and Emma, while Harriet is contentedly reunited with Robert Martin, his farm, and a sweet jersey cow.
Even as students unanimously cheered this conclusion, a question lingered: What if Mr. Knightley had married Harriet Smith instead? Could their marriage be counted as successful or happy in any way? We have Emma’s own response to the union, a response intensified by her own feelings:
Mr. Knightley and Harriet Smith!—Such an elevation on her side! Such a debasement on his! It was horrible to Emma to think how it must sink him in the general opinion, to foresee the smiles, the sneers, the merriment it would prompt at his expense; the mortification and disdain of his brother, the thousand inconveniences to himself.—Could it be?—No; it was impossible. And yet it was far, very far, from impossible.—Was it a new circumstance for a man of first-rate abilities to be captivated by very inferior powers? Was it new for one, perhaps too busy to seek, to be the prize of a girl who would seek him?—Was it new for any thing in this world to be unequal, inconsistent, incongruous—or for chance and circumstance (as second causes) to direct the human fate?
Nevertheless, taking Harriet’s birth and lack of abilities into consideration, the question remains: could there have been success or happiness in such an unequal union? The debate this question provokes strikes at the heart of our attitudes toward marriage. For Jane Austen, there are three respectable reasons for planning a marriage: first, the continuation of the species through the begetting of children (and the social and moral stability of society through the formation of those children); second, financial or personal security for those who would otherwise not have it; and third, responding to the prompting of romantic feeling, with the promise of personal growth and deep friendship. There are many examples of failed marriages and relationships in the novels, where merely financial or merely social concerns are entertained. Austen also depicts the dangers of mere passion without virtue. By exploring the three respectable reasons listed above, we will come to see Austen’s strong Christian understanding of marriage.
The first reason for marriage, the continuation and health of society, is tacit throughout the novels. Children are not often visible, but Austen has an eye for the virtues and vices of parenting. In fact, each of her novels considers this topic very carefully with regard to its heroines. Emma herself serves as a poignant cautionary tale against overindulgence and lack of discipline in child-rearing. Harriet can be seen as the opposite, as an illegitimate girl, yet it is notable that she is not on the streets a la some Dickensian fallen woman. Someone, presumably her father, has modestly provided for her, giving her a tenuous position near the bottom (but not in the dregs) of the social scale.
The second reason for marriage introduces dramatic urgency into three of Austen’s six finished novels. Austen’s economic consciousness is captured in W.H. Auden’s 1937 poem “Letter to Lord Byron”:
You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of “brass,”
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Auden, like the overeager Marxist theorists of the last fifty years, overemphasizes the point, of course. Austen does not reduce society to its economic basis. What she does do is recognizes the inescapable financial realities of her characters. Economic concerns introduce dramatic urgency into all of Austen’s six finished novels. Finances are at the heart of General Tilney’s angry dismissal of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. The Elliot family of Persuasion operates from a position of extreme financial constraint, due to the imprudence and vanity of Sir Walter Eliot—so much so that their social position is jeopardized. Most importantly, what will happen to the virtually-portionless heroines of Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, and Mansfield Park if they do not marry?
Emma tells Harriet she has “none of the usual inducements of women to marry.” She is not in love, she has a fortune, she has occupation, she has consequence, and she has preeminence in her father’s house. Harriet, on the other hand, decidedly requires marriage. As Knightley himself remarks:
My only scruple in advising the match was on his account, as being beneath his deserts, and a bad connexion for him. I felt that, as to fortune, in all probability he might do much better; and that as to a rational companion or useful helpmate, he could not do worse. But I could not reason so to a man in love, and was willing to trust to there being no harm in her, to her having that sort of disposition, which, in good hands, like his, might be easily led aright and turn out very well. The advantage of the match I felt to be all on her side; and had not the smallest doubt (nor have I now) that there would be a general cry-out upon her extreme good luck. Even your satisfaction I made sure of. It crossed my mind immediately that you would not regret your friend’s leaving Highbury, for the sake of her being settled so well. I remember saying to myself, ‘Even Emma, with all her partiality for Harriet, will think this a good match.’
Notice here that Mr. Knightley addresses the social level of Harriet, her lack of fortune, and, most importantly, the consideration of her appropriateness to satisfy the third reason for marriage. Mr. Martin’s love for Harriet is clear, and is a driving force for Mr. Knightley’s approval. Mr. Knightley does not, however, consider her at all likely to be “a rational companion or useful helpmate.” Malleable, yes. There is “no harm in her,” and she “might be easily led aright and turn out very well.” Dampening praise indeed.
Are the impulses of romance and the prospect of moral growth and friendship that important? Jane Austen certainly thought so. As she wrote to her niece in 1814:
And now, my dear Fanny, having written so much on one side of the question, I shall turn round and entreat you not to commit yourself farther, and not to think of accepting him unless you really do like him. Anything is to be preferred or endured rather than marrying without affection.
Such affection could have been present in our hypothetical marriage. Further, the marriage could have been a basis for some growth. If, prompted by strong romantic feeling, Mr. Knightley were to marry Harriet, he could have achieved much of what he hopes for Mr. Martin’s union. He could have guided Harriet easily. She already views him with awe. There is one point of danger, which we see when Harriet confides in Emma. Harriet, always so humble and yielding, displays a spark of self-assurance which borders on the gauche:
“I never should have presumed to think of it at first,” said she, “but for you. You told me to observe him carefully, and let his behaviour be the rule of mine—and so I have. But now I seem to feel that I may deserve him; and that if he does chuse me, it will not be any thing so very wonderful.”
Perhaps, as Mrs. Knightley, Harriet would have become a more obnoxious object than Mrs. Elton, lording superficial social superiority over Highbury. Perhaps, instead, she would always have been uncomfortable in the position, feeling awkward and out of place, even among her own children (who would have been raised to be Knightleys, not of “Smith” quality). If so, it would not have been the fault of her husband. Even after the rush of heady emotion passed and Mr. Knightley found himself matched to a pretty, ignorant little wife, he would remain Mr. Knightley. His own virtuous character would protect his wife from neglect or from feeling his disappointment. He would not be like Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, guilty of “that continual breach of conjugal obligation and decorum which, in exposing his wife to the contempt of her own children, was so highly reprehensible.” Thus, the dangers of “an unequal marriage,” describe by Mr. Bennet, would not be possible for Harriet:
I know your disposition, Lizzy. I know that you could be neither happy nor respectable, unless you truly esteemed your husband; unless you looked up to him as a superior. Your lively talents would place you in the greatest danger in an unequal marriage. You could scarcely escape discredit and misery. My child, let me not have the grief of seeing you unable to respect your partner in life. You know not what you are about.
Even if Harriet became an insufferable upstart, she would not lack esteem for her husband. She would, on the contrary, probably be in danger of considering him in an avuncular light rather than as a “partner in life.”
What would be missing is be the promise of friendship, the fulfillment of romantic desire in companionship. This is a vital point for Jane Austen, and clearly so in Emma. Instead of financial struggles, the novel begins with the desire for such fulfillment, though Emma herself does not recognize it. When her former-governess and long-time companion marries, Emma is left alone with her father. At this impasse,
…with all her advantages, natural and domestic, she was now in great danger of suffering from intellectual solitude. She dearly loved her father, but he was no companion for her. He could not meet her in conversation, rational or playful.
Companionship, friendship, and the possibility of moral growth—this is the highest expression of Christian marriage, and the thing most desired by Austen for her heroines. It is the most cutting point of Emma’s agony over the prospect of a Knightley-Harriet marriage. Knightley has yearned for Emma’s moral growth in spite of her negligence, perversity, and spoiled, willful opposition: “from family attachment and habit, and thorough excellence of mind, he had loved her, and watched over her from a girl, with an endeavour to improve her, and an anxiety for her doing right, which no other creature had at all shared.” He is the answer to the over-indulgence of her upbringing, and the one person to whom she gives complete respect in addition to affection. He is also intellectually capable of engaging her mind. The undisciplined, haphazard education of Emma is far superior to the “very indifferent education” Harriet received at Mrs. Goddard’s school (an education which Emma herself marks as “superior” for the sisters of Mr. Martin). We need not fear a merely didactic, hierarchical arrangement in the marriage of Knightley and Emma. Knightley’s superiority “in sense and situation” to Emma could bear comparison to that of Mr. Martin for Harriet. We can, however, hear in his passionate declaration of love, a vague, unconscious echo of an altogether higher promise of friendship:
No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you. (John 15:15)
Jane Austen will not leave us meditating upon an unequal union. In fact, she would probably have something satirical to say about this entire exercise. She does not merely want her heroines socially stable and secure; if she did, she would express more satisfaction in the thoroughly unappealing marriages but scattered throughout her novels. Though the begetting and moral upbringing of children technically satisfies the social object of marriage, she does not merely desire that either. Thankfully, Austen aims higher. She seeks the satisfaction of our higher desire for intimate Christian friendship—a friendship that elevates and strengthens the virtue of both parties. Emma considers this when she evaluates the prospect of Harriet’s marriage to Mr. Martin with satisfaction:
She had no doubt of Harriet’s happiness with any good-tempered man; but with him, and in the home he offered, there would be the hope of more, of security, stability, and improvement. She would be placed in the midst of those who loved her, and who had better sense than herself; retired enough for safety, and occupied enough for cheerfulness. She would be never led into temptation, nor left for it to find her out. She would be respectable and happy; and Emma admitted her to be the luckiest creature in the world, to have created so steady and persevering an affection in such a man;—or, if not quite the luckiest, to yield only to herself.
Emma is not the only one to take joy in the marriage of Mr. Martin and Harriet. Austen herself predicts for Harriet “security, stability, and improvement,” in addition to the undeniable love and affection of the Martins. Harriet, reunited with Mr. Martin and his jersey cow, is not merely cast to the side that we might enjoy romantic fulfillment in a superior marriage, but is granted her own share in Christian friendship. The social scale, while it may seem harsh and foreign to young American students, brings with it a great deal of wisdom here. Those degrees are not unassailable, as other Austen novels clearly show us. There is, however, a great deal to be said for mutual standing in one’s character, which takes pieces from the social, economic, and educational realm, but is at the same time a deeper, and an elusive point for evaluation. It is upon this basis, more than any other, that Austen decrees we shall not merely have basic satisfaction of marital expectation in Emma; we shall have “full and perfect confidence” and “perfect happiness”—and that for both Emma Woodhouse and Harriet Smith.
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The featured image is an illustration by Hugh Thomson (1860-1920) from chapter 12 of Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. The caption for the picture is “He cut off a long lock of her hair.” (According to the customs and etiquette of the time, permitting him to take a lock of her hair as a keepsake would be considered improper on her part unless the two were actually engaged.) This image is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.