Understanding Emma’s World by Pamela Whalan

Understanding Emma’s World

by Pamela Whalan

You have to work harder to understand and enjoy reading Austen than you do when reading a modern novel, but I assure you the effort is worthwhile. That you have to work harder is not Jane Austen’s fault. Her writing is clear, precise, beautifully structured, and economical. She never uses a word unnecessarily. She understands human nature frighteningly well – I doubt if any of her acquaintances could fool her for a moment. Why then is it sometimes difficult to understand her work? Why is it that you can sometimes miss the fine detail? The subtle nuances? The irony? The humour?

Difficulties for modern readers

The world in which Jane Austen lived was different from the world we inhabit, and while human nature has not changed, the ways we express information about human nature have. Let me give you an example. You might read something like this:

He parked his truck between a Mercedes and the Audi, picked up the proposal, and clutching it to his chest, entered the building.

Which of the cars was familiar to him? What kind of occupation was he in? What kind of people was he going to meet? Why was he entering the building? What kind of a building was it likely to be? Was it an important meeting for him? Was it likely to be an important meeting for the people he was going to meet?

That was easy for you, but do you realize that sentence would have been almost unintelligible to Jane Austen? She would understand that the man had never seen the Mercedes, but had some knowledge of the Audi. She would understand that the proposal was important to the man, and that he was nervous. She would have difficulty with the words “truck”, “Mercedes,” and “Audi,” until you told her that they were vehicles. She would have difficulty with the words “parked” and “proposal,” because “park” was used as a noun to describe a large area used for hunting or recreation, but the verb form as we use it today, regarding placement of vehicles, was not in use during her lifetime. “Proposal” was used to describe an idea that one wished to put into action, but a proposal was always verbal. We use the word to refer to either a verbal expression or a hard copy report. But most importantly, Jane Austen would miss the subtle nuance that you would immediately pick up through the reference to the vehicles: the luxury cars (Mercedes and Audi), as opposed to the working vehicle (“truck” used by tradespeople); the suggestion that here was a working man, probably proposing a business deal that could make him or break him to Captains of Industry, who would have many other business proposals to consider—this one being of interest but not necessarily of vital importance to them. The reason that you would pick up these impressions has nothing to do with whether you are smarter than Jane Austen, but because you are reading something written by your contemporary. She would have to work at your use of language. You have to work at hers to get its full value, so the more you know about Regency life and manners, the easier it is to pick up on some of the clues she gives you about her characters and their world.

In this essay, I want to give you some idea of the manners, habits, and expectations of the English gentry of the late 18th and early 19th century. If you have a working knowledge of the world in which Jane Austen lived, some of the clues (that her contemporaries would pick up immediately) will become clear, and you will know why certain actions were performed, or why something that might seem slightly irregular to you was considered the height of vulgarity or even quite scandalous to someone who lived two hundred years ago. We have to be careful not to judge a character’s actions by 21st century standards, when the expectations and opportunities of 18th century England were so much more limited.

Timeless Human Nature

But before looking at differences, let us look at some of the things that are familiar. Conditions and circumstances change, but human nature does not. Look at the opening sentence of Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.( 1, Ch.1, p.3)

I am sure that you know someone like that – a girl who has everything going for her. She is popular, pretty, can always afford anything she wants – only has to ask daddy and there it is. She never has to worry about getting a date for the school dance. She is always invited to every party. No wonder she has a happy disposition when she has very little to distress or vex her.

And look at Harriet Smith:

Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody … She was a very pretty girl … Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person … She was not struck by anything remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether engaging – not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk – and yet so far from pushing, … (I, Ch.3, p.22)

Harriet is one of those pretty little nitwits who will do as she is told and will believe anything that the person she hero-worships tells her. She is the perfect human doll for Emma to play with when she has nothing better to do with her time.

And you know someone like Emma’s sister, Isabella. She is totally taken up with her husband and children. She can talk for hours about the children’s health, and can bore you silly by explaining that her husband likes mashed potatoes better than baked potatoes. You couldn’t care less about such things, but they are important to her. She is not quite sure who the Prime Minister is, but she thinks she knows her current affairs because she took a great interest in a recent royal wedding. Sound familiar?

When you are reading the novel, look at the various characters and you will quickly realise that Jane Austen was a very acute observer of human nature. Although she was seeing people in an English country village two hundred years ago, she was observing the same kind of people as you see in the main street today.

Now let us look at some of the things that have changed in the last two hundred years—that mean we have to work a little harder to understand the subtleties of Austen’s work.

…but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family – and that the Eltons were nobody. (I, Ch.16, p.147)

This is the kind of statement that shows us the difference between accepted standards in the early 19th century and accepted standards today. Understanding the way society operated at the time when Jane Austen was writing will help us to appreciate her novel, Emma.

Good Breeding: A Marriage Consideration

Wealth and breeding were both very important considerations when contemplating marriage at the beginning of the 19th century, and of the two, breeding was the more important, even though it was becoming easier for wealthy people to buy their way into society.

Mr Knightley gave a sensible summary of Harriet Smith’s marriage prospects early in the novel, and you will notice that good breeding is the basis of his assessment:

Miss Harriet Smith may not find offers of marriage flow in so fast, though she is a very pretty girl. Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wives. Men of family would not be fond of connecting themselves with a girl of such obscurity – and most prudent men would be afraid of the inconvenience and disgrace they might be involved in, when the mystery of her parentage came to be revealed. (I, Ch.8, p.68)

Mr Knightley had good sense and knowledge of how the world of his time operated. He was aware that marriage may have an element of romance, but it was also a business matter. Good families “connected” themselves to other acceptable families. One’s breeding was even more important than one’s wealth, although both must be considered when planning a marriage.

You can get an idea of how important being connected to respectable families was by the position of Mrs and Miss Bates. They were very poor, but because they were of respectable birth, they were socially acceptable. The Coles family, on the other hand, were quite wealthy, but not nearly so socially acceptable because they had no connection with gently bred families.

So what constituted being “gently bred”? To be considered of good birth, your family’s main income needed to come from landed property, not from trade. The usual way of owning land was through inheritance, and it was normally the eldest son who inherited. Sometimes there was a smaller property that could be willed to a younger son, or something came on the market and was bought for a younger son. However, property sufficient to provide a good income through its rents rarely came on the market, so inheritance was the usual method of becoming “landed gentry.” This meant that belonging to the right family was important. Hartfield would have been bought for a younger son of a titled family several generations before Mr. Woodhouse inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father. When Mr. Woodhouse died, Hartfield would most likely be inherited by his elder daughter’s eldest son, so family connections ensured Little Henry his position in society.

Primogeniture, i.e. the eldest son inheriting the family estate, was the norm in Jane Austen’s time, and so marriage was not based on romance as it is today. Marriage had much more to do with ensuring the ownership of estates, of maintaining one’s position in society, and assuring financial stability. There was no such thing as DNA testing, so a woman’s virtue was an important consideration in selecting a wife. It was essential that there should be no shadow of doubt as to the paternity of a child, particularly of the eldest son. So the important things when a man was looking for a wife were the respectability of the family she was born into, the virtuous conduct of the lady, and the size of her dowry.

Wealth through Marriage: Dowries

A young woman who had no money of her own was unlikely to be an attractive proposition as a marriage partner, because the cost of maintaining a household and providing for the current and future needs of the family could not easily be done on the income a man earned through his profession. We know that Emma Woodhouse had a dowry of thirty thousand pounds. This money would have been invested in government bonds that paid 5%, so her annual income was fifteen hundred pounds. A pound in the early 19th century had roughly the spending power of $150 of today’s money, so Emma would have the equivalent of about $225,000 per year to add to the family income. Obviously she was a very eligible marriage partner, and you can see why Mr Elton would want to court her, and why Emma would consider his courtship an insult – she could look much higher for a suitable partner. Elton had to seek a bride somewhat lower down the pecking order – “the charming Augusta Hawkins, in addition to all the usual advantages of perfect beauty and merit, was in possession of an independent fortune of so many thousands as would always be called ten; a point of some dignity, as well as some convenience” (II, Ch.4, p.194). Note that her dowry is not 10,000 pounds but somewhere close to that amount, i.e. at least seven or eight thousand pounds. We may presume he tried unsuccessfully for one of those friends of his sister who all had “twenty thousand pounds apiece” (I, Ch.8, p.70), but in eventually winning the hand of Miss Hawkins, he settled for an annual addition to the family income of somewhere in the vicinity of $60,000, in today’s terms, an amount that was not inconsiderable, but closer to what society would consider an equal match. Jane Fairfax had inherited from her father a “very few hundred pounds” (II, Ch.2, p.175), which made independence impossible. Mr Weston had made sufficient money through his business “to marry a woman as portionless even as Miss Taylor” (I, Ch.2, p.15). So Miss Taylor brought no money into that marriage, only her respectability, good sense, and good nature. Although nobody can say what Harriet’s marriage portion would be, it was known that “her allowance is very liberal” (I, Ch.8, p.66), and we are told “the young man [Mr Martin] was liberally treated” (III, Ch.19, p.526), i.e. Harriet was provided with a good dowry. So money was always a consideration in any marriage because otherwise the social order, as they knew it, could not continue.

How did a girl get the money for her dowry? Her family provided it. Usually her mother’s dowry was divided among the daughters of the family, and the father would add to this amount from his savings.

Work for Single Women

A well brought up girl was not expected to get a job. Indeed there were only two kinds of work that she could have been involved in without bringing shame upon the family. She could be a “companion,” or a governess.

A “companion” was often a poor relation of a good family, and the job involved being available to keep the lady of the house company, and do any of the tasks that were the responsibility of this lady but that she did not want to do. A lady who was single or widowed was expected to have a female companion of gentle birth living in the same house as a chaperone. As a “companion,” you got your board and keep and a small allowance.

Miss Taylor had been performing this function after Emma had left the schoolroom. Until then, Miss Taylor had been a governess. Miss Taylor had been fortunate in having a considerate employer, although putting up with Emma when she was being wilful, and always considering the whims of Mr Woodhouse, would have provided many moments of frustration.

Many governesses were not so lucky. Jane Fairfax was not looking forward to becoming a governess, even though she had been preparing to take up such a role all her life. She likened it to prostitution: “widely different certainly as to the guilt of those who carry it on; but as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.” (II, Ch.17, p.325), and Mrs. Elton thought that this remark was likening a governess to a slave (ibid.).

A governess lived in a room somewhere near the schoolroom or nursery, was on duty 24 hours a day, had, perhaps, one week’s holiday per year, and earned between 10 and 20 pounds per year. Of course she had her board and keep, but you couldn’t get rich on such a salary, nor could you do much to plan for your retirement. Look at Chapter 1, Volume 1 of Emma and you will get some idea of what Miss Taylor’s job involved.

Remember that when Emma grew beyond the classroom, Miss Taylor continued to be employed as companion to Emma, but most governesses would have been dismissed when the daughters of the family grew up. These women would then have to seek another post. They had no pension plan, no security, and on the wages they earned would have few savings to tide them through any months of unemployment. Eventually they would grow too old to be employable, and there was no social security safety net for them, so their old age would be spent in great poverty.

If a girl did not marry and did not have any money settled on her, she became an old maid, dependent on her father while he was alive, or her brother, when her father died. If she had no male relatives she became like Miss Bates, a poor but respectable woman dependent on the charity of good friends. If a woman wished to live with some degree of comfort and dignity, she either had to be very rich or marry. Emma is one of the lucky ones:

Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! The proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else. (I, Ch.10, p.91)

Marriage as a Business Deal

Once a girl married, her property became her husband’s. It was almost impossible for a woman to get a divorce, even if her husband beat her, misused her money, was unfaithful or neglectful, or became a drunkard or a gambler. She could only sue for divorce if her husband brought his mistress to live in the marital home. That was the main reason why it was necessary for marriage settlements to be drawn up. A marriage settlement was a legal document, drawn up before the marriage took place, which guaranteed that the bride would have a certain sum of money “settled” on her, i.e. she was entitled to the interest from that money during her lifetime, and that money could be willed to her children. A marriage settlement also clearly stated what she would be entitled to if she were widowed, or what would happen to any money she brought into the marriage were she to predecease her husband. A marriage settlement was a way of guaranteeing that property and wealth remained within the hands of well-connected families. The amount of a girl’s marriage settlement was usually determined by how much money she brought into the marriage, but in the case of someone like Miss Taylor or Jane Fairfax, the husband would certainly supplement the amount.

Since marriage was very much a business deal, perhaps the guilt that Jane Fairfax felt in having entered into a secret engagement might become more obvious to you. If either of them appeared to be available as a marriage partner, therefore available to enter into a business contract that involved the distribution of property, then others might make romantic and business plans that could involve them in expense as well as heartbreak. Jane and Frank had entered into an agreement that would be considered in the same way that we would consider a questionable business deal such as insider trading. When you understand this it will become clearer to you why Jane Fairfax should feel so guilty and exclaim:

I never can be blameless. I have been acting contrary to all my sense of right; and the fortunate turn that everything has taken, and the kindness I am now receiving, is what my conscience tells me ought not to be. Do not imagine … that I was taught wrong. Do not let any reflection fall on the principles or the care of the friends who brought me up. The error has been all my own … (III, Ch. 12, p. 456)

Men Earning Money: Law, Army, & Church

If only the eldest son inherited the family estate, how did the rest of the family survive?

It was generally expected that the younger sons of the gentry would take up a profession, and the only jobs classed as gentlemanly professions were those of the army, the law, and the church. Doctors were only just emerging as a respectable group of people, and were seen more as high-class tradesmen than as social equals. Mr Perry, for instance, is not seen at social events at Donwell or Randalls, and is only seen at Hartfield in a professional capacity. The Dr. Hughes who attended the ball at the Crown Inn (III, Ch. 2, p. 350) was probably not a medical man but a scholar.

The army was the most favoured way of keeping younger sons occupied. You needed to have money to be an officer in the regular army, as you had to buy a commission, and promotion was more a matter of patronage than ability, so you needed to have powerful connections. To become an officer in the militia, a volunteer force raised by individual counties in time of war, you did not have to have the money that was needed to enter the regular army because you did not have to buy your commission. Although you would not be accepted as an officer in the militia if you did not have a good education and some degree of respectability, you did not need to be as socially well-connected as you needed to be if you wanted to become an officer in the regular army. Mr Weston had been a member of the militia. He was “born of a respectable family, which for the last two or three generations had been rising into gentility and property” (I, Ch.2, p.13)—note that it was “rising” but had not yet achieved gentility—and when he left the militia he went into trade with his brothers. Jane Fairfax’s father had been a lieutenant in the regular army. This shows that she came from a more respectable family than did Mr Weston. Jane’s parentage was actually more genteel than Frank’s.

The law was an acceptable profession. In Emma we see the Cox family, who are country attorneys. The male part of that family dine with the Coleses (II, Ch. 8, p.231), the family go to Mr and Mrs Weston’s ball, and Emma considers whether William Cox might be a possible husband for Harriet (I, Ch.16, p.148). Mr. Cox talks of parish business with Mr. Knightley, Mr. Weston, and Mr. Cole before joining the ladies after dinner at the Coles’. Mr. Martin is invited to dine with the Coxes after a business visit (II, Ch. 9, p. 250), and Miss Nash thinks that either of the Cox girls would be very glad to marry Mr. Martin (II, Ch. 9, p.251). Emma thinks that the Cox girls are, “without exception, the most vulgar girls in Highbury.” (ibid.) So we can see that the profession of country attorney was one which allowed entry into polite social circles without being of exalted status.

Mr John Knightley, the younger son of a very respectable family, is higher up the social ladder: “a very clever man; rising in his profession” (I, Ch. 11, p.100). He is a London lawyer, and his ability, combined with his social connections, will ensure that he rises to the very top of the legal profession, and could even look forward to becoming a Supreme Court judge in time.

The other person associated with the law in Emma is Mrs. Elton’s uncle. He is at the lowest end of the social scale where law is concerned. Although when she was still Miss Hawkins she had spent some part of each winter in Bath, Mrs. Elton’s home had been with her uncle who lived in Bristol. He was:

in the law line – nothing more distinctly honourable was hazarded of him, than that he was in the law line … Emma guessed him to be the drudge of some attorney, and too stupid to rise. (II, Ch. 4, p. 196)

The other profession that had social acceptability was the Church. Remember that in England there is an Established Church, i.e. the Church of England has official state recognition, the Head of State appoints the bishops, and the Church of England receives state funding. In the 18th and early 19th century, there was also considerable patronage. If you were the local landowner you had the power to appoint the local clergyman. This meant that it was possible to buy the position of the parish parson. When you were appointed the vicar of a parish, the position was yours for life, so if Mr Elton had found it difficult to live in Highbury after his rejection by Emma, he could not apply for a transfer. To become a parson, all you had to do was to complete your undergraduate studies at a recognised university, and then apply to a bishop, who would ask you some basic questions about the beliefs of the Established Church before ordaining you. If you were the vicar, you had the vicarage rent free, some farmland (glebe) that you could farm yourself or rent out, and you were entitled to tithes from your parishioners. Many parsons were good and worthy men who carried out their duties conscientiously, but one did not need to be particularly devout to seek the Church as a profession. If you had sufficient money and connections backing you, you had a house and job for life. Mr Elton was

quite the gentleman himself, and without low connections; at the same time not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet. He had a comfortable home for her, and Emma imagined a very sufficient income; for though the vicarage of Highbury was not large, he was known to have some independent property. (I, Ch.4, p.35).

Of course there were no pensions. Jane Fairfax’s father, Lieutenant Fairfax, was killed in action, but his wife and daughter were entitled to no money from the state. If Mr Elton were to die, his widow and any children would be required to vacate the vicarage immediately and fend as best they could. Mrs and Miss Bates had had to do this and now lived in rented rooms, largely dependent on the charity of their friends.

Privileges of Landowners

The social system was one of privilege, based on an economy where the wealth of the nation had traditionally been based on agriculture. If you did not own land, you had no voting privileges, so you had no say in how the country was governed, or how the state collected revenue. At the beginning of the 19th century, the economy of England was rapidly changing. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing. It was possible to become wealthy without inheriting land, and with the country at war for almost all of the period from 1790 to 1815, there were wild swings in the price of agricultural products. The traditional sources of wealth were not as lucrative as the new sources through trade and industry. Those who make money want some position of respect and power, and Highbury, quiet little village that it was, was not immune to changing forces. Mr Weston earned his fortune through trade, but his purchase of Randalls ensconced him in the ranks of the socially acceptable. Augusta Hawkins came from Bristol, which was a port known for its connection with the slave trade. The name of Hawkins was associated with the Bristol slave trade, and Mrs Elton does not display any true gentility, so her respectability is suspect even though Emma must accept her as a social equal. Austen shows us how the old order is changing by including characters like Mr Weston and Mrs Elton and also by the inclusion of the Coles.

The Coles had been settled some years in Highbury, and were very good sort of people – friendly liberal, and unpretending; but, on the other hand, they were of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel. … With their wealth, their views increased; their want of a larger house, their inclination for more company. …The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them. This lesson, she [Emma] feared, they would only receive from herself; she had little hope of Mr Knightley, none of Mr Weston. (II, Ch.7, p.223)

Emma Woodhouse had lived “nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” (I, Ch.1, p.3) The old order had been kind to her, so she had little reason to question it, but her conservative view of society is challenged by this changing world. It is necessary for a 21st century reader of Austen’s work to be aware of some of the standards in society which Emma accepted as right and proper, but which Jane Austen realised were changing. Some understanding of the society of the period helps place Emma Woodhouse and her development as a character in context.

Robert Martin rented his farm from Mr Knightley, and most of the other farms in the area would also be owned by Mr Knightley. Mr Knightley is what is known as “landed gentry.” Being a landowner, Mr Knightley also had civic obligations. He was a magistrate, so minor disputes in the area would be settled by him. When Harriet is set upon by gypsies, “notice of there being such a set of people in the neighbourhood” was sent to Mr. Knightley (III, Ch. 3, p. 362) because, as the local Justice of the Peace, he would be the appropriate person to deal with the situation. More serious misdemeanours and serious crimes were dealt with by the legal system, but the first port of call in peace-keeping was with the untrained and unpaid local landowner.

Mr Woodhouse does not have extensive tracts of land. He is from “the younger branch of a very ancient family,” so he has not inherited a large estate, but a comfortable smaller property, with a very comfortable home, gardens, and a home farm. His money, and there seems to be quite a lot of it, is invested in the funds, i.e. in government bonds that paid 5% interest. He must have married well, too, because if Emma has 30,000 pounds, Isabella would have taken that much with her as her dowry and, whilst Mr Woodhouse may have supplemented his wife’s dowry in their marriage settlements, most of the fortune that his daughters can lay claim to would have been inherited by them from their mother. Mr Knightley oversees Mr Woodhouse’s business affairs as a matter of friendship, not for monetary rewards.

Cost of Living: Investments, Travel, & Clothing

Now that you know how people earned their living, let us look at the cost of living. As I mentioned earlier, one pound in 1810 had approximately the same purchasing power as $A150 today. In some of Austen’s novels we know exactly what a man’s income was. In Emma we don’t, but a man was considered very wealthy if he had an income of 10,000 pounds per annum, i.e. $A1,500,000 and very comfortably situated if he had an income of 2,000 pounds per annum, i.e. $A300,000. That, of course, was gross income. He had to pay his servants and the expenses of maintaining his home, and wealthy men often also had a town house in London to keep up.

A wealthy man also had many calls on his purse. There was no state social security system, so any charitable causes were locally based within the parish, and the local gentry were expected to help the poor and the sick. Emma saw it as her duty to visit the poor and the sick (I, Ch. 10, p. 93), and when parish relief was sought, one went first to the local clergyman, who then referred the matter to the parish council so that funds could be distributed – the funds coming from the pockets of the wealthy. Old John Abdy’s son visited Mr. Elton to ask for parish relief for his father, who was bed-ridden “and very poorly with the rheumatic gout in his joints.” (III, Ch. 8, p.416) Miss Bates intended visiting John Abdy, but her help would be to cheer him and perhaps to help with his physical needs; it would be people such as Mr. Knightley, Mr. Woodhouse, and Mr. Weston who would be expected to provide the money for food and medicine for such a person.

Investment “in the funds” meant having government bonds. These paid 5% per annum. Marriage settlements and dowries were invested in “the funds,” so Emma Woodhouse’s 30,000 pounds would bring in 1,500 pounds per year or $A225,000 per year. Miss Hawkins, with probably 8,000 pounds (both she and Mr Elton would exaggerate) would have about $A60,000 per year – not in the same league as Emma, but still nothing to be sneezed at.

These dollar values are a rough estimate only, and you have to realise that there were periods of rapid inflation and recession, since the Napoleonic Wars (which followed so closely on the American War of Independence) provided a very unstable economic period throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The other thing to remember is that some things that are very inexpensive today were extremely expensive at the beginning of the 19th century, and some things that were necessities then are completely unnecessary today.

Travel is a good example. You could not expect to keep a horse and carriage unless you had an income of at least 1,100 pounds per annum, i.e. $170,000. In today’s world, you can own a car if you are earning much less than that, but feeding and stabling a horse and paying the wages of a groom were more expensive than paying for the registration, insurance, and fuel for a car. This may put Mr Perry’s contemplation of purchasing a carriage in perspective for you. Mr Knightley does not keep carriage horses, but hires horses from the local inn when he wishes to use his carriage. He has farm horses, and he has riding horses, but he sees the maintenance of carriage horses as an extravagance. When Mr. Elton marries, he purchases a carriage. Miss Hawkins’s financial contribution to the family income would allow this expenditure. One of the ways in which Mrs. Elton flaunts the importance of her sister and brother-in-law is to boast of their two carriages: a chaise and a barouche-landau. (II, Ch. 14, p. 295)

Roads were rather a hit and miss affair too. Post roads were like tollways today. Businessmen built them, and you were charged by distance, so even if you were using your own vehicle, every time you came to a toll gate, you had to pay for the next stage. The cost was approximately 70c per kilometre.

Even if you used your own carriage, you would have to change horses about every thirty kilometres, or else travel no more than sixty kilometres a day, because you had to rest your horses. Very rich people could send their own horses ahead, to be waiting for them at the various coaching inns, but that meant much forward planning and incredible expense, as they would have to send grooms ahead with the horses and pay for stabling. More commonly, you hired horses for each stage of the journey. If you were travelling post, i.e. if you hired a chaise with two horses and a driver, the cost was 1/- per mile (about $10.00 per kilometre). No wonder that John Knightley said, quite vehemently, “If Mr Perry can tell me how to convey a wife and five children a distance of a hundred and thirty miles with no greater expense or inconvenience than a distance of forty, I should be as willing to prefer Cromer to South End as he could himself.” (I, Ch. 12, p.114)

If you travelled by stagecoach, costs were about half what they were travelling post. Travel by stage was not as comfortable, respectable, or as convenient as travelling post. Jane Fairfax comes to Highbury in the Campbell’s carriage, and while still under the protection of Col. Campbell, would travel by stage only in extreme emergency, and never unaccompanied. However, were she to become a governess, she would travel by stage without any companion. The stage also only travelled to the centre of the town, so you had to find your own way to your village or country home. In Highbury, the butcher’s cart conveyed luggage to the place where the coaches passed (II, Ch. 5, p.200), and Mr Elton travels to Bath by coach, which would be considered perfectly respectable for a gentleman, but not for an unaccompanied lady.

Clothing was also expensive. Remember that everything had to be hand made, as sewing machines did not come into use until the 1880s. Shoes, stockings, hats, and gloves for men and women had to be purchased and were expensive. If you went to Fords in 1811 to buy a pair of silk stockings, it would cost you 12/- or about $80 in today’s terms. Men’s shirts and underclothing were sewn by the women in the household, but their other clothes had to be bought, as they required tailoring rather than plain sewing. Women’s clothes were made at home or by a dressmaker (called a mantua maker), who would charge about 2 pounds ($300) per garment. The industrial revolution had reduced the price and increased the quantity of fabric available for sewing, but you needed about 6 or 7 metres of fabric to make a dress, and the cheapest fabric cost the equivalent of from $15 to $20 per metre, so even a dress you made yourself would cost more than $100. There was much remaking of old clothes. When fabric faded, the dress was often unpicked, “turned,” and resewn so that it looked fresher. There was also much dying of old dresses, retrimming of hats and coats, and when the use-by date of the outer garments had eventually come, they were often unpicked and remade into undergarments. You can imagine how many economies were practised by the Bates family.

Importance of Servants

And you might wonder why people so grindingly poor as Mrs and Miss Bates kept a servant. At the end of the 18th century, a household needed a large number of people to exist. Just consider a typical day in your life: you get up, shower, dress, prepare breakfast, wash up, make the bed, and go to work. This takes the average person about an hour, but if you lived at the beginning of the 19th century, you had no electricity and no running water. The fire would have to be lit before you could warm water to wash in; you would have to use the chamber pot, which would have to be emptied and cleaned; you would put on clothes and use bed linen, which had been washed and ironed laboriously; your cereal would be prepared from raw materials, not poured from a packet bought at a supermarket; you would wash the dishes using home made soap, in water which had been carried in a bucket from the outdoor pump or well, then heated over an open fire. Although these tasks are simple and automatic today, in Jane Austen’s time they required hard physical labour and enormous amounts of time. When you consider that lighting the household fire would take as much time if one person used it as if ten were to benefit, that marketing for and preparing a meal for ten would take little more time than for one, that boiling the laundry over a fire would take about the same time and effort for ten sheets as for one, you will understand that it was both economical and necessary to live in a household consisting of a number of people including servants as well as family members. And remember that Mrs Bates was a very old, frail lady, and Miss Bates was not in her first youth. Their servant, Patty, would not get very much in wages, probably only one or two pounds per year, but she had her board and keep and was a very important member of the household.

The use of servants as a literary device to establish status and character is highly developed in Emma. This novel is very domestic in that the action takes place almost exclusively within Highbury, so the interaction between servant and master is more obvious because we are seeing the drama played out on a very small stage.

Status is clearly shown by reference to servants. As early as Chapter 4, the respectability and status of the Martin family is clearly displayed when Harriet is describing their home. They had “an upper maid who had lived five-and-twenty years” with Mrs Martin (I, Ch. 4, p. 26). Emma might ignore the level of comfort in which the Martin family lived, but Mrs Martin’s upper maid having been with the family for such a length of time should suggest to her that Harriet has the chance to ally herself with a stable, established, and respectable household. Emma’s wilful self-deception and intention to ignore Harriet’s best interests are shown in what seems like a passing reference to a servant.

The growing importance of the Coles family is described thus: “They added to their house, to their number of servants, to their expenses of every sort, and by this time were, in fortune and style of living, second only to the family at Hartfield.” (II, Ch. 7, p. 223)

Emma uses servants to provide excuses for what she wants to do. When Harriet is curious about seeing the inside of the Vicarage, we hear Emma saying “I wish I could contrive it … but I cannot think of any tolerable pretence for going in; no servant that I want to enquire about of his housekeeper – no message from my father.” (I, Ch. 10, p.90) However, she does contrive to break her bootlace so that she can request help from Mr Elton’s housekeeper, and by moving into the back parlour with her and engaging in “incessant chatter” for ten minutes, Harriet is left alone in the company of Mr Elton. Again we see Emma using servants as an excuse to do as she pleases when she determines on the nature and length of Harriet’s return visit to Abbey Mill Farm. “Emma observed her [Harriet] to be looking around with a sort of fearful curiosity, which determined her not to allow the visit to exceed the proposed quarter of an hour. She went on herself, to give that portion of time to an old servant who was married, and settled in Donwell.” (II, Ch. 5, p.200) Considering the time it would take her carriage to move on from Abbey Mill Farm to the old servant’s home and return again within fourteen minutes, the visit to the old servant must have been extremely brief, which suggests a lack of consideration for all concerned. This use of servants hardly recommends Emma Woodhouse as a caring young woman or a thoughtful mistress of a respectable household. We see her in a better light when she examines her stores with her housekeeper and dispatches some arrowroot of superior quality for the use of an ailing Jane Fairfax ( III, Ch. 9, p. 425).

Both the good and the bad qualities in Mr Woodhouse are shown to us through his concern for his servants. Mr Woodhouse’s references to and his dependence on James, his coachman, and Serle, his cook, are continuous throughout the novel, and we find that his concern for their welfare is one of his chief occupations. He would not have “poor James think himself slighted upon any account,” and is very pleased to think that he suggested James’s daughter, Hannah, as housemaid at Randalls. The reasons he gives for her being a good housemaid show his gentle nature and his fussiness : “she always curtseys and asks me how I do, in a very pretty manner; and … I observe she always turns the lock of the door the right way and never bangs it.” (I, Ch. 1, p. 7) In his own small world, Mr Woodhouse shows himself to be truly a gentleman in his awareness of his duty to provide for his servants.

Mrs Elton, on the other-hand, does not even know the names of her servants when she comes to Highbury. She likes to impress upon people that she has more than one man servant – “The man who fetches our letters every morning (one of our men, I forget his name) shall enquire for yours too” (II, Ch. 16, p.319). That she is unaware of his name shows that her housekeeping is more impressive than prudent, but more significantly, it shows her vulgarity in not honouring her staff in a proper manner. She also attempts to aggrandise her small vicarage establishment by belittling the Donwell servants.

My dear Mr E., he must have left a message for you, I am sure he must. Not even Knightley could be so very eccentric; and his servants forgot it. Depend upon it, that was the case and very likely to happen with the Donwell servants, who are all, I have often observed, extremely awkward and remiss. I am sure I would not have such a creature as his Harry stand at our sideboard for any consideration. And as for Mrs Hodges, Wright holds her very cheap indeed. She promised Wright a receipt, and never sent it. (III, Ch.16, p.500)

Mrs Elton has been in Highbury six months by the time she utters this speech, so she has been been exposed to the daily gossip of the village—in which the concerns of everyone, including servants, are discussed in detail—and she has learned that in Highbury, it is not considered a mark of superiority if one is careless of servants’ names. She shows that she is mistress of everybody else’s business, too, by not only knowing the names of their servants but by presuming to comment on their shortcomings. If she finds that the Donwell servants are “extremely awkward and remiss,” can we assume that she has overstepped the bounds of propriety in making demands of them when she had no business to do so? This is far more likely than that Mr Knightley would have a home run with any lack of decorum.

Miss Bates’s conversation is liberally sprinkled with references to Patty – and by the way, never be tempted to slide over Miss Bates’ long speeches – they may seem rambling, but they contain all kinds of clues about what is really happening, even though she is not acute enough to pick up on the meaning of what she sees and hears. Patty is an important part of Miss Bates’s life. She speaks with Patty about the salting-pan for the pork just after Patty has been washing the kitchen (II, Ch. 3, p.185). Patty thought “the kitchen chimney wanted sweeping” (II, Ch. 9, p. 255). Patty makes an excellent apple dumpling (ibid.). Patty found out from William Larkin that Mr Knightley has sent the Bates the last of his cooking apples for the season (II, Ch. 9, p. 257). Patty announces Miss Woodhouse too soon for Jane Fairfax to exit without being seen (III, Ch. 8, p.411). In all the references to Miss Bates’s servant, our attention is drawn to the cramped conditions that Miss Bates so cheerfully endures. Miss Austen’s use of a servant to give the reader information about the circumstances and nature of a character is at its best in her references to Patty.

In Austen’s work, any mention of a servant is adding to the reader’s understanding of status and character. If we look at those who cook and serve the meals, as well as those who eat them, our understanding of Austen’s work will be even more rewarding.

Emma as a Detective Novel

What I have tried to do in this essay is give you some background understanding of the world in which Austen’s characters moved. I hope this will help you to find the humour and the wit in her work. Remember, too, that Emma is a detective novel. When you read it a second time, you will be able to pick up all kinds of clues that you didn’t pick up first time around, because Austen plays fair – she gives you all the information, you just have to be acute enough to grasp it. Emma grows more delightful every time you read it. On the first reading, we tend to see the world through the prejudiced eyes of Emma Woodhouse, but subsequent readings allow us to see the world through the eyes of the much wiser Jane Austen. The more you know about the world that Miss Austen inhabited, the more you can be guided by her understanding of the world, and the less you will be limited by Emma’s narrow vision of the world and her place in it.


Volume, chapter and page references are to the Cambridge Edition of Emma edited by Richard Cronin and Dorothy McMillan, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

EIL Editor’s Note: Since this author, Pamela Whalan, is from Australia, you may notice that she follows British usage in punctuation and other formatting. In your own writing, please follow the formatting standards requested by your teachers.

Pamela Whalan has adapted Emma for the stage; you may enjoy reading an excerpt from her play.


Pamela Whalan is a Jane Austen scholar who has adapted Austen's novels for the theater.Since 1962, Pamela Whalan has been an active member of the Genesian Theatre in Sydney, Australia, including working as the Theatre Director for six years. She has also been a member of JASA (Jane Austen Society of Australia) for twenty years. Combining her love of the works of Austen and her love of theatre, she has adapted five of Austen’s novels for the stage. These adaptations have been published and produced successfully in Australia and the United States. In addition, on a number of occasions Pamela has presented papers on the works of Austen at conferences in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.A.

In 2002, Pamela returned to her hometown of Newcastle in New South Wales, Australia. Shortly afterwards, she was invited to become a judge for CONDA (City of Newcastle Drama Awards) and performed this civic duty for the next twelve years.

Pamela holds an M.A. from the University of Sydney and an MLitt from the University of New England (Australia). She has done extensive post-graduate study in the field of 20th century Irish Drama, and she taught English for many years at the University of Technology in Sydney.

When will you read Jane Austen’s work in Excellence in Literature?

E4.6 Focus text: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Modern Library Classics)

E4.6 Honors text: Persuasion or other novel by Jane Austen
Persuasion by Jane Austen (Norton Critical Edition, 2nd edition)

Emma by Jane Austen

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