Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’, is rather certain of one thing- she is most assuredly not in want of a husband. Establishing Emma as the cupid of the novel, Austen indicates the mischievous nature of Miss Woodhouse, as well as her oblivious and naive tendencies, with regards to matchmaking.
Emma is adamant in finding the perfect bachelor for her young friend Miss Harriet Smith. She initially dissuades Harriet from marrying Robert Mason, a lovelorn farmer, clearly possessing great feelings towards Miss Smith and remaining a socially acceptable match, within the confines of Harriet’s unknown parentage. However, Emma sets her sights high for the youthful Harriet, who still lacks the qualities of a sophisticated woman, thus leading to a rejection from Mr Elton, the village vicar, who actually holds feelings towards Miss Woodhouse. As Austen depicts Emma’s matchmaking quest, she soon falls under the spell of charming Mr Frank Churchill- the son of Mr and Mrs Weston. Mrs Weston, Emma’s former governess, and Mr Weston, a widower, were delighted at the prospect of Frank’s visit, succeeding their marriage, for he actually resides in London, with his aunt and uncle who raised him. Whilst Emma perhaps develops feelings towards Frank, Austen later reveals that he is engaged to another and merely used Emma’s affection as a cover-up for his secret love affair (ooohh scandalous!). As events unfold, outlooks are certainly changed and unlikely marriages are most certainly made.
Firstly, I would like to inform you that ‘Emma’ was, in fact, the first Austen novel that I chose to read. Other than having a fantastic title/name (I wonder if you can guess what my name is…), I wished to divert my path from Austen’s most famous novel ‘Pride and Prejudice’ for the time being, in order to avoid falling into the disillusionment that one must absolutely love any other novels or classics, purely because they are written by a prominent author in a certain time period. Therefore, presenting my honest opinion, I cannot say that I was rendered astounded by ‘Emma’. Please don’t be mad die-hard Austen fans. Personally, I found the plot extremely tedious, the characters difficult to connect with and the way in which it was written rather mundane. Instead, I was willing myself to read a few chapters a night, simply to finish such a monotonous novel. Perhaps it was my 21st Century ideals screaming that there is so much more to life than finding a suitable husband and that one is not obliged to perform to the expectations of men, or merely just my newfound thirst for dystopian and strongly political or controversial novels, but I was simply uninterested in reading about women in the pursuit of marriage.
That being said, I can understand that Austen’s first publication of ‘Emma’, during the early 1800s, would’ve been highly controversial and would’ve undoubtedly challenged societal standards. Therefore, I can assuredly appreciate the intent of Austen’s novel, as a plea for women to dismiss the expectation that they must marry, have no choice in who they marry and must accept their first offer, in fear of receiving no future offers-a concern also raised in ‘Pride and Prejudice’, which I have recently embarked upon. Despite the fact that Emma eventually conforms to the societal pressure of marriage, Austen did indicate her initial withdrawal from the concept altogether. This all sounds rather familiar…right? Yes! I believe this is a similar controversy raised by Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’. Is it to be classed as conformity, if the woman agrees to marriage, by her own “independent will”? Upon my initial reading of ‘Jane Eyre’, my answer was definitely undecided, for I was rather sceptical of the matter. Therefore, much like my first perception of ‘Jane Eyre’, I was much annoyed that Austen would wed Emma at the end of the novel, despite her ongoing aversion towards marriage. However, mirroring my changing interpretation of ‘Jane Eyre’, my mind took an unexpected turn with regards to ‘Emma’ too. Whilst I am displeased that both authors are willing to sell the souls of their strong, female protagonists (okay, maybe I’m being a little bit dramatic), marriage itself should definitely not be regarded as a symbol of conformity. Rather, both authors have allowed their leading ladies to take that symbol of oppression and transform it into a symbol of empowerment. Yay for women’s rights!!! Consequently, I no longer perceive Brontë and Austen’s decisions to marry their female protagonists as the downfall of female subversion, at the hands of the patriarchy. Instead, I accept the controversial willingness of such authors to debase the view of marriage as women becoming a possession, no longer of their father but of their husband, and approve of their readiness to replace the meaning of marriage as a woman’s liberty to choose.
What do you think: is marriage presented a symbol of conformity in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’? What were your final perceptions of the novel: captivating and enlightening or dreary and drab?