Gentlemanly Ideals in Emma and Reflections on the Revolution in France
The last two centuries have been full of drastic changes in the human condition. Today, we tend to overlook just how drastic those changes were. Britain during the late 18th Century provides an excellent example because both the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution were chipping away at the established social order. In Britain, the aristocracy had ruled in relative stability since the medieval period. There were power struggles but the ideology of privilege remained untouchable. British society considered privilege a reward for refinement and expected a gentleman to distinguish himself by following a specific code of conduct. However, his duty and honor depended on more than a code; he also had to feel sympathy for the weaker sex and the lower classes and know when to act accordingly. This sensibility made him “gentle” and a just participant in the governing process. In the 1790’s and 1800’s these gentlemanly ideals were eroding. Yet, while the British did not guillotine their nobles like the French did, many still said that rapid change could unravel the delicate balance of society perpetuated by a refined nobility. The rise of merchants and industrialists into the ranks of the upper class graphically illustrated a shift toward individual success and the selfish ideology of capitalism. Gentlemen through birth and education were losing ground to these nouveaux-rich and consequently the ruling class disconnected further from their communities.
In 1790, Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament, made an impassioned plea in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” to avoid letting the radical changes occurring around the world cause British citizens to give up their traditional values. He thought that a social hierarchy where gentlemen took care of the lower classes allowed individuals to contribute to society. If people focused too much on their own success, society would crumble. His outspokenness against the French Revolution for just this factor led to the demise of his political career. But he was proven right when many atrocities took place in the name of progress. His conservative ideas also apply to the more gradual breakdown of British society over the following century. By the time Jane Austen published Emma in 1816, marked changes had occurred within British society. Austen’s portrayal of small community life chronicles the decline of what Frohnen calls the “conservative good life” emphasized by Burke. Characters in Austen’s work reflect a society struggling with value systems that were slipping away. In Austen’s Emma, her character George Knightley upholds the aristocratic tradition of British society despite the impact of people in his own class who acted against the welfare of the community.
One aspect of chivalry was that gentlemen gladly performed their duty to society; powerful men like George Knightley had to be concerned...