Emma: Genteel People and Honest Hearts
In Emma, Jane Austen gives us ‘only the surface of the lives of genteel people’? Though not necessarily a commonly used term today, the meaning of ‘genteel people’ is easily assumed. Good birth and breeding are not necessarily the only ‘qualities’ of genteel people: simple generosity, courtesy and elegance can also apply, as well as marriage into the class. The majority of the characters in Emma to some extent expand this definition to provide exceptions to the rule or abuses of the title. In this way the characters provide an interesting answer to the question of whether or not Austen actually deals with genteel people.
Mrs and Miss Bates are genteel people and of genteel birth. They are well educated and well spoken and readily invited into the Woodhouse circle. This high class is illustrated at Boxhill during Mr Knightley’s vehement reprimand of Emma’s cutting remark: ‘she has seen you grow up from a period when her notice of you was an honour.’ Of course, they have since slipped in monetary value, but retain their social position nonetheless. Mrs. Elton has the money, but not the connections or character to be considered genteel. Her marriage to a vicar as Mr Elton has raised her a class, but she has clearly not had the breeding to be comfortable in such high society, as she shows by continually dropping Maple Grove into conversations, and justifying her talents: ‘well, my friends say…’ Harriet Smith obviously is not genteel by birth, being the ‘natural daughter of somebody’ but Emma invents her parentage for the sake of the love games. The original modesty and humility that Harriet enjoys are accentuated and extended under the careful care of Emma. The venture though initially condemned by Mr Knightley, is subsequently approved by the same judge in the final chapters of the book and reinforces Harriet’s rising status. If she had been able to procure the necessary husband, there is no doubt that her gentility would have become permanent. As it was, she married for love and the ‘intimacy between her and Emma must sink,’ that is, she has lost her albeit precarious hold on gentility.
Jane Fairfax is, at her introduction to the reader, in ready danger of slipping from the class that she deserves through both breeding and character. Jane’s orphaned status and increasing years mean that if she does not find a suitable husband in the near future, a governor’s position will soon be beckoning. Fortunately for her, the engagement to Frank Churchill has secured Jane’s position, as he has genteel breeding and was brought up in the Churchill household – a very prestigious claim.
Jane’s position is almost the reverse of Mrs Weston née Taylor. The life of a governess was seemingly inescapable, save for the connection to Mr. Weston. Mr. Woodhouse’s cries for ‘poor Miss Taylor’ illustrate his social blindness when he cannot recognise the constant desire to further...