CLASS AND STATUS IN JANE AUSTEN NOVELS
EMMA AND PERSUASION: A COMPARITIVE STUDY
Dr. (Mrs.) T. Bhaskara Sudha
Head Dept of English
St. Joseph’s College for Women (A)
In 19th century England women weren’t supposed to write novels, which many considered to be striking but of a sour taste. They weren’t allowed to publish any of their works. Women were apparently made to confine their lives to family and home, doing the household work. (In Persuasion, Austen writes: “We live at home, quiet, confined…”) At a “Society” level her publications should have disqualified Austen as an author—according to the customs of the time. But Austen did publish, and she published as “a lady,” rather than using a male pseudonym, as the Bronte sisters did later. This article compares the class and status of her time with the help of Austen’s two novels Emma and Persuasion where she depicts the conflict between the two classes especially in a male dominant society where maintaining a status was more favoured by them depriving the women’s rights.
Keywords: Class conflict, status, feminism, custom, rights
Jane Austen, the English novelist, often faced lot of problems living under the pressure of social classes which was like coping with the status of women and their class during her time in the nineteenth century. Miss Austen’s novels all outlined this common link, during which she shows how this has affected their rights in relation to status and class of gentlemen. The upper class did not work, and contained some of the oldest families, in which most were titled aristocrats. Most of the income was received upon birth and came from inherited lands and investments and the inheritance was given only to men in the families.
Social classes consist of the status of people based on titles, wealth and connections. However, the levels represented levels of power and influence. The levels of the classes were very distinct. In Jane Austen’s novel’s she focused mostly on the middle class. This reflects with Miss Austen’s personal life too because she was not well off.
In Austen’s works one can also find many demonstrations of feminist beliefs. While none of her characters agitate overtly for changes in gender norms and class distinction, but at the same time they also do not blindly follow the dictates of the society and conventions. However, one can believe there is no better way to represent Austen’s feminist beliefs than a quote from Persuasion. Hargrave says, “I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by men.” Anne replies, “Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands”.
Class and Status in Emma and Persuasion
Jane Austen’s novels “Emma” and “Persuasion”, the main theme lies in class distinction and status symbol. The social order of the characters is more prominent in understanding their situation in the society and how they perceive themselves in relation to others and they also believe they have impact over others, making them superior to those they come in contact.
In “Emma” the story mainly revolves around the female protagonist Emma Woodhouse and how events affect her character. The opening line of the novel enlightens the reader; “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich with a comfortable home and a happy disposition”(1.1) The narrator informs the reader of this fact but ironically, Austen observes next to Emma allowing the reader to view purely throughout Emma’s eyes. Therefore, the description of Emma being “handsome, clever and rich” is exactly how Emma sees herself in Highbury and how she would like to be in control of situations.
Emma, like most of Austen’s novels, is a study in 18th Century English society and the consequence of decency and decorum maintained by the people living in it. The rich and “well-bred” are the one who try to control the social situations, issuing orders and initiating invitations and friendships. People who belong to a low social class depend upon the charity and initiative of those in the higher class. When violations of this social order occurs, they are often meet with great arrogance by those of genteel-breeding, as when Emma takes offense at Mrs. Elton presuming to nickname Mr. Knightley.
Emma is used to having her own way and is first in Highbury society, a position she is proud of and wants to hold onto her class and does not like to be deviated from her status. Social standing is very important to Emma herself and she considers it to be good enough to help others below her status, especially to an orphan called Harriet Smith. As their friendship develops, pride arises in Emma; “As a walking companion, Emma had very early foreseen how useful she might find her Emma is using Harriet for her own gains and she has the power to beckon Harriet, being fully aware of how Harriet feels about her. There is an irony where one sees when Harriet gushes about her flourishing friendship with Emma and the narrator informs us simply that this,”…made Emma feel that she had never loved Harriet so well, not valued her friendship so highly before ” this gives a clarity that Emma is willing to associate with people for her own benefit.
The patronizing side of Emma shown towards Harriet emphasizes that Emma always believes she is above her social inferior companion. Austen’s voices out through the character of Mr Knightley who criticises Emma, but his words are always fair. Austen knows that Emma has truly good qualities underneath and through Mr Knightly, he is hopeful and wishing that she demonstrates some endearing qualities more fitting to a lady of her social standing. For instance, at Box Hill where Emma shows unkindness to a long-time family friend, Mr Knightley scolds Emma; “Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done indeed!”.
Social class also restricts the actions that characters can take in fulfilling their desires, as is most evidently seen in the novel regarding match making. Frank must conceal his engagement with Jane because she is an orphan and regarded as an unsuitable social match by his family. Harriet rejects Robert Martin because Emma advises her that he is “beneath” her. Mr. Elton rejects Harriet by the same calculations, and so on.
In the other novel Persuasion, Austen depicts the English society, and its distinctions of class rigidity and social mobility. Status and individuality are a combination of wealth, ancestry, and occupation. Some characters achieve independence through marrying into wealth, as with Mr. William Elliot’s first marriage, while others such as Captain Frederick Wentworth achieve status and wealth through climbing the Naval ranks. Sir Walter Elliot prides himself on his “ancient and respectable” lineage, baronetcy, and wealthy estate;
Social class and status also affect women, such as Lady Russell and the protagonist Anne Elliot. Lady Russell cautiously advises Anne about the importance of marrying a man who matches her class and status. Persuaded by Lady Russell, Anne meticulously refrains from marrying the man she loves. Austen here supports the society’s convention that the importance of “marrying well” as a concern that none of the characters can escape, and moreover, taking into considerations of class and wealth which is a social norm.
Status and social class both provoke and restrict the activities that characters take in fulfilling their desires and wishes. From the beginning of the novel, Sir Walter Elliot’s pride and lavish spending to live according to his status leads him into financial debt and forces him to rent his estate. Mr. William Elliot is motivated to marry Anne out of a lately developed appreciation for his inheritance and baronetcy. Captain Wentworth takes up a profession in the Navy to make his fortunes and to be an eligible suitor for Anne. One of the most striking examples of how status and class influence the people living in a society is in the tragedy of Mrs. Smith, Anne’s girlhood friend who is crippled by debt, widowhood, and illness. In the eyes of society, she has essentially nothing and relies on Anne’s kindness, friendship, and charity.
Jane Austen wrote about her world and this included her social class, the gentry. She explored the situations of a gentleman’s daughter’s life and put them in the plots of her novels. She depicted more of her experiences in the society in which she was a part of it. As a woman she was deprived of her rights in education, profession, property. Marriage was also according to the norms of the social class where one belongs to.
Christian Grawe supports this assumption in his book’ Darling Jane’, when he writes that Jane`s novels are about the life form and form of use in the gentry, thus about her own world and her moral scale of rating. 1 As an author Jane took a character trait of a person she knew and gave it to a fictional character in her novel. Which seems to be true.
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