2016 Jane Austen Society of North America
Topic: Education in Emma
Education is a running theme in Emma. For instance, there are teacher/pupil relationships, a school, and former and aspiring governesses. Discuss how this emphasis shapes the plot, develops characters or reflects the views of the period.
Emma’s Education: Challenging the Standard of Female Education
By Annette Nayeon Kim
In “Comparison of the Mode of Female Education in the Last Age with that of the Present Age,” Hannah More, an English religious writer and moralist, writes: “The profession of ladies, to which the bent of their instruction should be turned, is that of daughters, wives, mothers, and mistresses of families” (More 500). Such publications were ubiquitous on bookshelves during Austen’s lifetime and advocated the traditional view that successful matrimony and domestic felicity were the ends to a woman’s education. Alongside such literature, Emma was published. The portrayal of life in a conservative, pastoral setting, and kaleidoscopic breadth of social class, educational background and marital status among the female characters presents a social commentary on the inadequacies of the education women received. Against this rich backdrop, Austen redefines female education by arguing that a holistic form of learning such as Emma Woodhouse’s journey of auto-didacticism trumps a formal schooling which only aims to ensnare a useful marriage.
When establishing the background of Emma, Austen refers to a macrocosmic picture of the constraints imposed upon women’s education and prospects. The novel begins with an introduction to Emma and her neighbourhood in Highbury, where Austen brings attention to a modest, local school run by Mrs. Goddard. A “real, honest old-fashioned boarding-school . . . where girls [may] scramble themselves into a little education, without any danger of coming back prodigies,” the school is “in high repute, and very deservedly” (15). From the wry undertones of this praise, it is evident that Austen does not share this approval but is critical of the notion that immoderately accomplished ladies were “screwed out of health and into vanity” (15), thereby running the risk of repelling potential suitors. Far from being encouraged, the cultivation of a woman’s mind was dissuaded for a higher chance of marriage.
The plot of Emma revolves around newly consummated or anticipated matches because exclusively through engaging in courtship, and accepting or rejecting proposals, could a young woman play an active role in her own future. Their meagre education afforded them few prospects through which they could otherwise exert control over their own lives. Alternatively, women turned to trivial, everyday activities such as evening parties, tea-visits, and harmless gossip (14), strongly reflecting the monotony and stagnancy which dictated women’s lives. But there continues to be little need and few chances for a married woman to exercise her intellect and authority, as represented by Mrs. John Knightley. Her lack of “strong understanding or any quickness” in no way interferes with her being a “devoted wife [and] a doting mother” (68), namely “a model of right feminine happiness” (103). Only the events leading to matrimony opened a small window of opportunity for women to take charge of their destinies before they became trapped in yet another cage. Emma’s emphasis on women’s reliance on marriage to play as the “origin of change” (5) in their lives highlights how a deprived education had inhibited their social mobility.
Even among women, depending on their social and financial backgrounds, formal education carried varied implications, but ultimately all pointed to the same set of values. For Jane Fairfax, on account of “the very few hundred pounds which she inherited from her father making independence impossible,” her education is a necessary “means of respectable subsistence” (118) as she is forced to consider becoming a governess. Yet Jane’s situation is viewed a “penance and mortification” (119) to the extent that “governess-trade” becomes comparable to the slave-trade; the former is “widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on . . . but as to the greater misery of the victims, [Jane does] not know where it lies” (219). The miserable portrayal of a woman’s schooling that warranted financial independence and greater social mobility, instead of an idle married life, represents the misplacement of obligations incumbent on women and their education.
In contrast to Jane, Mrs. Elton is a gentlewoman “in possession of an independent fortune” (131) for whom her education is purely ornamental. “Accomplishments,” often involving musical and artistic skills, played a key part in a woman’s education by drawing admiration from viable suitors, but were usually dropped after marriage. Likewise, Mrs. Elton is “determined upon neglecting her music” since she begins “now to comprehend that a married woman has many things to call her attention” (201). Her education has failed to teach her the importance of self-improvement, whether or not it refers to music or “self-important, presuming, familiar, ignorant and ill-bred” (204) manner. Mrs. Elton, already “extremely well satisfied with herself” (197), is oblivious to the “familiar vulgarity” (210) with which she encroaches on social etiquette and unable to evolve from the “little upstart, vulgar being” (202) she is. Austen establishes Mrs. Elton as a comedic caricature to illustrate the shortcomings of an education that is reduced to a disposable marketing device.
Against the context of women’s lives and education in the period, the privileged and distinctive nature of Emma’s status stands out. Jane Fairfax’s hardships underscore Emma’s endowments which exempt her from “the usual inducements of women to marry”: fortune, employment and consequence (63). Emma additionally enjoys wielding a rare amount of dominance that no eligible suitor can offer. She adds, “I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield” (63). Since she has “very little intention of ever marrying at all,” Emma does not limit her education to furnishing useful “accomplishments,” as Mrs. Elton does, but pursues her interests freely by virtue of her “active, busy mind” (64). A young woman such as Emma who is bright and inquisitive, and delights in intellectual activity, is Austen’s rebuttal to society’s condemnation of an education that nurtures an appreciation of learning and growth in women.
Yet Austen does not hesitate to point out the shortcomings of Emma’s character and education. Due to her “disposition to think a little too well of herself” (3), Emma is reluctant to acknowledge and overcome her weaknesses. In her artistic endeavours, Emma always falls short of “[approaching] the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of” (32). Emma continues her wilful ignorance in front of others. When Knightley critiques that Emma had drawn Harriet too tall, Emma “[knows] that she had, but would not own it” (34). This chronic overestimation of her powers, added to her unique position of authority and independence, leads Emma to view herself a superior outsider to the social rituals and day-to-day events of Highbury, and proceed to impose her “kind designs” (18) on those around her. As her “errors of imagination” (250) cause her self-delusions to backfire, however, Emma is forced to take a hard look at her indiscretion and true feelings, and enters the three stages of her education.
Emma’s first major blunder and learning opportunity is a series of miscalculations regarding Harriet and Mr. Elton. Her “infatuation about [Harriet] blinds [her]” to Harriet’s limited “claims, either of birth, nature or education” (44), even prompting her to concoct new fancies such as that “[Harriet’s] father is . . . a gentleman of fortune” (45). With Mr. Elton, Emma is likewise “too eager and busy in her own previous conceptions and views to hear him impartially, or see him with clear vision” (81) and gladly mistakes him of “being in the fairest way of falling in love, if not in love already” (30), with Harriet. Emma gets so carried away by her egotistic imagination that she “actually [talks] poor Harriet into being very much attached to [Mr. Elton]” (101). Yet when Mr. Elton professes his love not for Miss Smith, but for Miss Woodhouse, Emma’s grand scheme reveals itself to be an “overthrow of everything she had been wishing for” (98).
Shocked into disillusionment, Emma realises “how much truer a knowledge of [Mr. Elton’s] character had been there shown than any she had reached herself” (99), and reflects on her irresponsibility, taking to heart that “to take so active a part in bringing any two people together . . . [is] adventuring too far [and] assuming too much” (100). But what mortifies Emma more than anything, and thus drives her to such a resolution, is the pain and humiliation she brings upon Harriet, more so than her own oversight. Emma “would gladly have submitted to feel yet . . . more disgraced by misjudgement than she actually was could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself” (98). Her repentance owes to her natural charity, which proves to be an asset to her education by providing further incentive to be more “humble and discreet” (100), and allows Emma to take from this experience a more accurate assessment of her limitations and external reality.
Though she now “[knows] the limitations of her own powers” (165), Emma’s misunderstanding of Jane Fairfax shows that Emma still holds pretensions to keen insight, marking the second development of her education. Even before Jane enters the stage, Emma’s animosity towards Jane is clear, which Knightley explains is “because [Emma sees] in [Jane] the really accomplished young woman which she wanted to be thought herself,” but an “accusation” Emma has “eagerly refuted” (120). Nevertheless, partly out of contempt and partly out of vain satisfaction from Frank Churchill’s “permitted, encouraged attentions” (315), Emma spins a new “mischievous” (121) drama using her “abominable suspicions of [Jane’s] improper attachment to Mr. Dixon” (307).
Yet long before Emma’s fanciful theories are disproved by the truth of Jane and Frank’s private engagement, Emma shows a markedly improved level of sensibility since her previous humiliation. “[D]etermined not to utter a word that should hurt Jane Fairfax’s feelings,” Emma abstains from probing Jane with “an inquiry or two, as to the expedition and expense of the Irish mails” (217) that Emma suspects were from Mr. Dixon. This display of consideration and self-restraint indicates Emma’s graduation from childish impulsivity to mature discipline. When Emma realises her misjudgement, similar to how she had felt with Harriet, she falls into deep remorse over having “made a subject of material distress to the delicacy of Jane’s feelings” (307). This second blow to Emma’s conscience cements her understanding of her imprudence, causing her to finally acknowledge “the envious feelings which had certainly been, in some measure, the cause” of her “not having sought a closer acquaintance with [Jane]” (307). Already, Emma is beginning to show a consciousness of her habitual indiscreetness, and continues to gain a greater depth of self-insight by coming to terms with some undeniable, albeit unpleasant, feelings.
The development of Emma’s budding self-awareness is completed by Mr. Knightley’s role as Emma’s mentor, rounding up the third stage of her personal growth. As “one of the few people who [can] see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever [tells] her of them” (7), Mr. Knightley has always spoken for Emma’s conscience. Hence, Mr. Knightley’s words dwell powerfully within Emma, most notably during his stern reproof of her for callously insulting Miss Bates at the Box Hill party. Emma is “most forcibly struck” by his reprimand and finds her voice of conscience awakened: “How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates! How could she have exposed herself to such ill opinion in any one she valued!” (274). Moreover, Emma’s subsequent despair of having possibly lowered Mr. Knightley’s esteem of herself points to her dependence on his sound perception, while hinting that Emma may be holding Mr. Knightley dear to herself more than she realises.
Emma grasps that she is indeed in love with Mr. Knightley when the thought that “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself” (297) hits her. Considering Mr. Knightley’s ability to incite a part of Emma deep within her but which is often eclipsed by ambition and imagination, it is natural that a full recognition of “the deceptions she had been thus practising on herself” (300) should supersede her realisation of her romantic feelings for him. The feeling of “wretchedness” (300) that overwhelms Emma as she reflects back on all her past mischiefs with a “clearness which had never blessed her before” (297) acts as a form of catharsis. Through self-reconciliation, Emma is soon redeemed from her pain. In this climatic finale, Austen proves that education can not only come from within, but also from the outward influences of interpersonal relationships.
Furthermore, contrary to society’s low expectations of women who displayed their intellect and knowledge, Emma’s love for Mr. Knightley is reciprocated and their marriage happily draws the novel to a close. In fact, it is her quick-wittedness and vivacity that has “brought [Emma] in brilliancy before him” (315). Yet Emma Woodhouse does not just marry. Instead of relocating to her husband’s dwellings, by “marrying and continuing at Hartfield” (328), Emma maintains a large portion of her valuable independence. By defying the 18th century moralists’ views on educated women and marrying, yet living together with her husband at her own home, Emma both breaks and supports tradition, and her marriage marks a shift in traditional gender roles within education and matrimony.
By acquiring wisdom and maturity, and marrying while holding the power to choose between relocating to her husband’s residence or daring to break tradition by staying at Hartfield, Emma Woodhouse debunks the social precept that any sort of cultivation of a woman’s understanding is detrimental to her character and prospects of finding a husband. As opposed to one that systematically trained women into set roles and stifled growth, Austen argues for an alternative vision of female education: a comprehensive and dynamic process that acquires self-knowledge and engenders development.
Education in Emma: The Development and Dethroning of the Highbury Queen
By Leah F. Palmer
In many of Jane Austen’s novels, the education of the main characters is often mentioned—Elizabeth Bennet’s lack of a governess in Pride and Prejudice, for example, or Lucy Steele’s bad education in Sense and Sensibility—but rarely does it take such prominence as it does in Austen’s delightful comedy of errors, Emma. The novel opens with a review of Emma’s early education, and throughout the book, the effects of her education are under frequent scrutiny. But it is not until Emma receives instruction from someone other than her governess that all conflict in the novel resolves. This emphasis on Emma Woodhouse’s education plays an enormous role in shaping Emma as a novel. It fleshes out the formation of Emma’s personality, moves the plot in intriguing directions, and helps emphasize the patriarchal view of women prevalent in Regency-era England.
Emma opens with a description of the titular character’s academic background. At first glance, this discussion seems necessary only to introduce an important plot point—the marriage of Emma’s governess, Mrs. Weston (neé Taylor). This brief introduction of Emma’s schooling also establishes what sort of adult she had become through Miss Taylor’s teaching. Though hired as a disciplinary replacement for the deceased Mrs. Woodhouse, Miss Taylor was less a strict mistress of learning than a soft-hearted older sister to Emma. This relationship is conveyed through the way the two women interact. Over and again, Emma and her former governess refer to each other in such sisterly terms as “friend and companion” (4), “dear friend” (396), and “my love” (421). Though heart-warming, this easy intimacy had an unfortunate side effect. Because there was a large degree of loving informality present in the relationship between Emma and Miss Taylor, Miss Taylor’s influence—which should have been based on a healthy fear of punishment—greatly decreased. As a result, “the shadow of authority being now long passed away, they [lived] together as friend and friend very mutually attached” (3). In seeing Miss Taylor as her equal instead of as her superior, Emma felt comfortable arguing with her, even rebuking her, with little fear of repercussion (226). Because she and her governess were on “equal footing,” Emma became convinced of her own superiority among the denizens of Highbury, growing disposed to “think a little too well of herself” (4).
The sisterly intimacy between Emma and Miss Taylor had another detrimental effect; instead of being able to identify and address flaws in Emma’s conduct, Miss Taylor instead “had such an affection for [Emma] as could never find fault” (5). Throughout the story, Miss Taylor is always the first to rebut any mention of Emma’s mistakes. When Emma’s drawing of Harriet is deemed an unfaithful likeness, Miss Taylor defends Emma’s error by saying, “Miss Woodhouse has given her friend the only beauty she wanted . . . The expression of the eye is most correct, but Miss Smith has not those eyebrows and eyelashes. It is the fault of her face that she has them not” (47). Even while acknowledging the obvious mistake in Emma’s work, Miss Taylor still cannot bring herself to admit that Emma’s drawing is imperfect. This mindset, kindly in a friend, is unacceptable in a governess; the duty of a governess is to help her charge grow by gently pointing out faults and seeking to correct them. In contrast, Miss Taylor seems determined to overlook any sort of error in Emma, maintaining that “where Emma errs once, she is in the right a hundred times” (39). Instead of teaching Emma to own her mistakes, Miss Taylor instead taught Emma to downplay them. As a result, Emma grew to think herself—not perfect—but perhaps immune to mistakes. This mindset would carry her down questionable paths, from which a little self-doubt might have dissuaded her.
Miss Taylor’s will was naturally weaker than Emma’s. The governess lacked the fortitude necessary to control her charge (4). As such, Emma was able to reverse the student-teacher dynamic and become in many ways the superior. On this subject, Mr. Knightley tells Miss Taylor, “You might not give Emma such a complete education as your powers would seem to promise; but you were receiving a very good education from her, on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid” (37) (emphasis mine). During the same conversation, Mr. Knightley tells Miss Taylor, “You never could persuade her to read half so much as you wished. You know you could not” (36), further hinting that Miss Taylor had become the subordinate in her relationship with Emma. In the same vein, Emma herself later mourns the fact that she neglected her piano playing: “She did unfeignedly and unequivocally regret the inferiority of her own playing and singing. She did most heartily grieve over the idleness of her childhood” (232). Though this idleness was primarily Emma’s own fault, Miss Taylor also shares blame. As Emma’s governess, Miss Taylor was responsible for urging Emma to practice the piano, whether Emma desired it or not. Even in such small tasks as reading and practicing piano, Miss Taylor was unable to bend Emma’s will to hers. As a result, Emma always did “just what she liked, highly esteeming Miss Taylor’s judgment, but directed chiefly by her own” (4). This again proves that Miss Taylor was unequal to the task of helping Emma recognize and embrace wisdom from her superiors.
Miss Taylor’s well-meaning indulgence developed in Emma one very powerful character trait: pride. From this trait stemmed many others: classism, perceived infallibility, and stubbornness. These traits inform Emma’s actions throughout the novel and oftentimes lead her astray. The strongest example is Emma’s relationship with Harriet Smith. Encouraged as a child to think herself on equal footing with her own governess, Emma wastes no time in becoming a sort of surrogate governess to Harriet, imparting “wisdom” that only someone unreasonably confident in her own knowledge and social footing can give. When Harriet confesses her feelings for Mr. Martin, Emma plays the part of the superior and immediately challenges the relationship. In her pride, she tells Harriet that Mr. Martin is not a real gentleman: “I had no idea that he could be so very clownish,” she says, “so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two nearer gentility” (31). Not only does Emma frown upon Harriet’s relationship with Mr. Martin, but she does it with such prideful disdain that the malleable Harriet has no choice but to conform to Emma’s—ostensibly superior—opinion.
Later on, Emma convinces Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin’s offer of marriage. Afterwards, Mr. Knightley, who thoroughly disagrees with Harriet’s decision, confronts Emma. He argues that accepting Robert Martin would have been the wisest course of action for Harriet, laying out his argument with logic and solid evidence (64). Emma attempts to respond to this powerful declamation, but eventually, it becomes “most convenient to Emma not to make a direct reply” to Knightley’s argument. By the end, Emma feels vaguely uncomfortable and seems to suspect that Knightley is correct; but in her pride, “she [does] not repent what she had done” and still thinks herself “a better judge” of the situation than he (65). Emma’s immediate and subsequent responses to Knightley’s speech show that she still holds to her position without acknowledging any missteps on her part. In the months that follow, she remains sorry, but unrepentant (69), still certain that “no effects on [her] side of the argument have yet proved wrong” (100).
The novel’s plot continues to unravel as the effects of Emma’s pride-driven stubbornness snowball. At the crux of the story, Emma is at her lowest point; all of her previous assumptions have been proven wrong. Every match-making attempt driven by her prideful assurance of superiority and perceived infallibility has crumbled (415). It is at this point that Emma begins to feel the educational influence of Mr. Knightley.
Mr. Knightley, sixteen years Emma’s senior, provided consistent instruction and direction to his sister-in-law over the course of their relationship. This steady instruction begins to counteract the effects of Miss Taylor’s indulgence, slowly but surely chipping away at Emma’s pride. Mr. Knightley was equipped to guide Emma in ways Miss Taylor was not. First, Mr. Knightley was under no delusion that Emma was without flaw. Indeed, he was “one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them . . . ” (9). While Miss Taylor—now Mrs. Weston—waxes poetic on Emma’s drawing skills, Mr. Knightley bluntly proclaims, “You have made [Harriet] too tall, Emma” (47). While Frank Churchill giggles with Emma after she slights Miss Bates, Mr. Knightley rebukes her, saying, “It was badly done, indeed” (376). When Emma rejoices in the success of her matchmaking, Mr. Knightley blandly replies, “Success supposes endeavor…what are you proud of? You have made a lucky guess; and that is all that can be said” (11). Unlike Miss Taylor, Mr. Knightley refuses to puff Emma up with an unrealistic appraisal of her merits. “Emma knows I never flatter her,” he says (9); indeed, he does not. Throughout the story, Mr. Knightley speaks nothing but the plain truth. “I will tell you the truth while I can,” he tells Emma, “satisfied with proving myself your friend through very faithful counsel” (376).
Mr. Knightley also possessed something which Miss Taylor did not: a strong will. In contrast to Miss Taylor, who was willing to yield to her spirited young charge, Mr. Knightley never wavers in his will. When arguing with Emma, he never allows her to conquer him. Whatever point he argues, he backs it to the end, despite her protests or discomfort. There is no fickleness or fluctuation in his demeanor; instead, there is steadiness of conviction in every encounter with Emma.
Mr. Knightley’s mode of instruction differs wildly from Miss Taylor’s. Miss Taylor attempted to educate Emma through sisterly affection, “the mildness of her temper [hardly allowing] her to impose any restraint” (3). As a result of this indulgence, Emma becomes prideful, stubborn, and extremely self-confident. In stark contrast, Mr. Knightley instructs Emma by speaking the hard truth, “with an endeavor to improve her, and an anxiety for her doing right, which no other creature had at all shared” (417). The effect of this diligent instruction is admirable. Emma’s pride begins to diminish as Mr. Knightley humbles her with steady and systematic discipline. After he severely rebukes her behavior towards Miss Bates, Emma goes to apologize to the older woman, meekly acknowledging her mistake and seeking to mend it. After Emma realizes the true characters of Mr. Elton (331) and Frank Churchill (428), she bows to Mr. Knightley’s superior judgment, confessing that she had been “completely mistaken” about the two men (330), and that Mr. Knightley had been right all along. By the end of the story, Emma is miles from where she began. She has been humbled. When she admits her mistakes, every piece of the plot falls into place. Harriet marries Mr. Martin, Frank Churchill marries Jane, and Emma, at long last, marries Mr. Knightley. Emma’s education, beginning with Miss Taylor and ending with Mr. Knightley, is finally complete.
The narrative of Emma’s education is not just a commentary on the potential harm in indulgent governesses, however. Every element of Emma’s instruction, from her governess’s inadequacies to Mr. Knightley’s diligence, reflects the role of the woman in Regency-era England. Emma, a vivacious and assertive woman, is a sort of anti-hero—someone at whose blunders readers are expected to laugh, but not someone with whom they are prompted to identify. Mr. Knightley, on the other hand, a sensible and widely-respected man, is most definitely a hero. He comes on-scene and “fixes” Emma, systematically eradicating her “faults” and replacing them with socially acceptable character traits, like humility and deference. In addition, Emma “always declares she will never marry” (40). However, by the end of the novel, Emma’s resolution is overturned and subsumed into the marriage-centered culture of the early 19th century. Through the plotline of Emma, readers come to realize that in Regency-era England, it is better for a woman to acquiesce to the patriarchy than to assert herself over it.
The story-wide emphasis on education in Emma serves a three-fold duty: it lends depth to the character of Emma Woodhouse, elucidating the rationale behind her actions. It also acts as a subplot overarching the whole story, transforming Emma from a prideful young girl into a humble, wise woman. In addition, Emma’s education and development combine to highlight the Regency-era idea of male superiority. This outdated perspective on women should not cloud readers’ minds in regards to Emma Woodhouse’s transformation, however. Indeed, the lessons she learns are still applicable to young women and men today. The take-away from Emma is simple: education can shape one’s personality, for better or for worse, and when one listens humbly to his or her superiors and embraces their advice, one’s path can become infinitely smoother.
Education as Social Currency in Jane Austen’s Emma
By Seth Kim
“A man would always wish to give a woman a better home than the one he takes her from; and he who can do it, where there is no doubt of her regard, must, I think, be the happiest of mortals.”
Jane Austen’s Emma can be viewed as a subjective case study on marriage. While the marriage of her hero, Emma Woodhouse, is most prominent, it is only one in several marriages that Austen presents; the Westons, the Eltons, the Churchills, the Knightleys, and the Martins are the five couples joined in matrimony throughout the course of the novel. Emma’s marriage to George Knightley, her equal in both high wealth and prestigious family background, is consistent with a common societal view at the time—that one should only marry another whose social status is similar to his or her own—but the husbands and wives of the other four couples are less matched in their social standings prior to marriage. In fact, the sole similarity of the five pairings is that no husband-wife pair is matched in level of education. Evidently, Austen is prioritizing a different metric in determining the suitability of her characters’ spouses. Austen thus presents the ideal marriage as a teacher-pupil relationship, in which one partner can only complement the other by helping him or her to grow intellectually.
A great irony of the story being revealed mostly through Emma’s perspective is that she believes herself to be cleverer than she is, going so far as to name Harriet Smith as her protégé. As R. E. Hughes explains, “The underlying theme of this novel is the education of Emma Woodhouse, and the recurrent irony is that Emma, who must become pupil, insists on acting as teacher” (70). However, despite Emma’s feelings of intellectual superiority to Harriet, Emma should not be perceived as being better educated than Harriet is. The incompleteness of Emma’s education is established from the very first pages of the novel. Though she had been under the care of a governess, Mrs. Weston, for sixteen years, Austen notes that Mrs. Weston had been “less of a governess than a friend” to Emma: “the mildness of her temper had hardly allowed her to impose restraint; and the shadow of authority being now long passed away” (Austen 1). As the role of the governess is to be responsible for the education of those under her care, Mrs. Weston’s inability to appropriately assume that role implies that Emma was not able to receive a proper education under Mrs. Weston. In contrast, Harriet has been living as a parlour-boarder at Mrs. Goddard’s school, allowing herself to be shaped by Mrs. Goddard’s teaching: “She had been satisfied to hear and believe just what Mrs. Goddard chose to tell her” (Austen 27). Unlike Mrs. Weston, who had failed to be an authority figure to Emma, Mrs. Goddard has successfully realized her role as educator by being able to exert influence on Harriet. While factors other than education may have influenced Emma’s superior intelligence, Emma, in never having been taught, is clearly not in a position to try to teach another who has already been influenced by another’s principles. Emma’s incomplete education not only makes her an inadequate mentor to Harriet, but also is the reason she must marry Mr. Knightley as opposed to Frank Churchill.
Emma considers Mr. Knightley and Frank as potential husband candidates, chiefly because she views them to be the only two available men whose social standing is equal to hers. However, Mr. Knightley describes Frank as “boyish” (Austen 417), indicating a lack of maturity. Emma also inadvertently realizes Frank’s immaturity; she thinks of him as Frank instead of as Mr. Churchill, despite calling the other single men (Mr. Elton and Mr. Knightley) by their formal titles. Thus, he is unsuitable as a match for Emma; both he and Emma must marry someone who can teach them what they missed the opportunity to learn earlier in life. Frank’s secret engagement to Jane Fairfax is perfect in this sense. Jane had planned to work as a governess if not for the eventual confirmation of their marriage, making it reasonable that she should be competent as teacher as well as wife to Frank. By similar logic, Emma also needs to marry someone who can be her teacher. She thus ends up marrying Mr. Knightley, who “was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (Austen 12). Their marriage is meaningful because Emma, in realizing her incompetency in teaching another, will finally be receiving the education that she is lacking. In anticipation of their wedding, Mr. Knightley asks Emma to start calling him by the less formal “George,” but Emma cannot agree to this: “‘I remember once calling you ‘George’ . . . because I thought it would offend you; but, as you made no objection, I never did it again.’” Here, Emma references an event from her childhood in which she attempted to diminish Mr. Knightley’s authority, as she did Mrs. Weston’s, but discovered that she did not have the power to do so. Her voluntary decision to continue addressing him by the formal “Mr. Knightley” suggests that Mr. Knightley’s role as her teacher trumps his role as her husband and lover. In both marriages, fulfillment of a necessary teacher-pupil relationship is more important than societal convention. Jane’s social standing is inferior to Frank’s, and Mr. Knightley breaks convention by choosing to live with the Woodhouses instead of bringing Emma to his home. That such expectations of society in regard to marriage can be overlooked suggests that Austen is prioritizing the need for education over the commonplace societal standards of that time.
The idea of marriage as a teacher-pupil relationship is also present in the marriages formed between supporting characters. The marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Weston is one such union. When Mr. Knightley states that Mrs. Weston is “very fit for a wife, but not at all for a governess” (Austen 36), the idea that her current role as wife contrasts with her former role as governess suggests that as a wife, she has assumed the role of pupil to her husband, who “had received a good education” (Austen 16) and is thus capable of being her teacher. In addition, though Harriet may have received a better education than has Emma, it appears the quality of her education is in want. Mrs. Goddard’s school is described as a place “where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price” (Austen 22), suggesting room for its former pupils to achieve continued educational growth. In this sense, the “intelligent” Robert Martin (Austen 61), whose compositions are deemed as gentlemanly by even his most vocal critic, Emma (Austen 50), is a suitable teacher and marriage partner for Harriet. The remaining marriage to be addressed, that of Mr. and Mrs. Elton, is notable as the only relationship in which the wife comes from a higher social class than that of her husband. However, as a vicar, Mr. Elton has completed at least the minimum education of the church, which makes him better educated than Mrs. Elton, whose “manners . . . had been formed in a bad school” (Austen 253). Again, the unconventional nature of their marriage is another example of Austen allowing the differences in their educational level rather than the dissimilarities in their social classes to determine their pairing. Indeed, the necessity of the teacher-pupil relationship in marriage seems to trump love, social class, or any other factors that might explain the nature of this novel’s five marriages.
However, Austen’s insistence on this dichotomous model of marriage does not mean she is promoting it, or that she believes that it is the best way to choose a compatible marriage partner. Emma, in observing Mr. and Mrs. Elton’s marriage, notes that Mrs. Elton’s ignorance and unpleasant manners make it inevitable that “her society would certainly do Mr. Elton no good” (Austen 253). Though, as the pupil of the relationship, Mrs. Elton may benefit from having Mr. Elton as her husband, Emma sees something wrong in Mr. Elton not being able to gain some non-superficial benefit from his marriage as well. Emma, also sees that Frank’s shortcomings are not solely a matter of his level of education, upon learning of Frank’s deceitful scheme that caused pain to Jane during their engagement:
So unlike what a man should be!—None of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness, which a man should display in every transaction of his life. (Austen 373)
Frank’s questionable, immoral behavior during his engagement to Jane suggests the possibility of his being able to repeat such improper behavior after their marriage, in which case their union may have negative consequences for her. In contrast to these two couples, in which the teacher-figure seems to derive no meaningful benefit from marriage, the happiness and perfect love of Mr. and Mrs. Weston in their marriage is symbolized by the birth of their first child together (Austen 437). Mrs. Weston, the pupil-figure in this relationship, is of exemplary character, “a friend and companion such as few possessed, intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle” (Austen 8). Unlike Frank or Mrs. Elton, whose questionable behaviors suggest they are capable of doing harm to their teacher-figure spouses in marriage, there is no reason for Mr. Weston to be negatively affected by his marriage to Mrs. Weston. As such, Austen suggests that the only true formula for choosing a marriage partner should be based in character and morals. Though two characters may be drawn together through the necessity of one complementing the other’s education, the issue of compatibility is more concerned with the moral character of the pupil—whether the pupil is accepting of his or her need to be taught.
The emphasis on education and learning within romantic relationships shapes the matches made throughout the novel; however, Austen’s use of the teacher-pupil marriage model applied deliberately to each couple serves to highlight the even greater importance of the pupil being of high moral character. Furthermore, she shows that Emma’s matchmaking skills are not as misguided as they appear. Mr. and Mrs. Weston, the only couple that Emma successfully brought together, are shown to be happy and in love, while Mr. Elton and Frank, whom she had tried to match with Harriet, seem not to be in marriages that guarantee equal benefit for both husband and wife. Though Emma’s naivety is the reason for her failed matchmaking, her untainted view of love is what ultimately allows her to be the best judge of compatibility.