Society and Neighbourhood in Jane Austen´s 'Emma'

Term Paper, 2011

14 Pages, Grade: 1,7




1 Families in Emma

2 Class structures

3 Manners

4 Harmony as a primary value

5 Conclusions



This term paper tries to work out the habits and social graces of the regency period by using the novel Emma.

Emma by Jane Austen is a novel about a 21-year-old girl living in the small town of Highbury, Surrey, in England. The novel deals with the relationships between the neighbours, the class differences and, typical for Jane Austen novels, marriage and match- making. The characters in this novel may not be as highly-drawn as the ones in Pride and Prejudice are, but it “delineates with great accuracy the manners and the habits of a middle class gentry” (Gentleman´s Magazine in September 1816: Lodge 1972: 46), and thus Emma is convenient to be a source for research for typical habits. In this paper, the aspects of family life, neighbourhood, manners and values in Emma (and thus representatively for the English Regency period) are to be portrayed.

1 Families in Emma

The main families and characters living in the neighbourhood of Highbury, a little town in England, are acquainted and visit each other regularly, whether these visits are happening out of the responsibility the upper class has towards the lower class (Emma visits Mrs. and Miss Bates) or visits between friends (Mr. Knightley visits Emma and Mr. Woodhouse at Hartfield).

Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition” (Austen, 1994: 5) lives at Hartfield with her father, Mr. Woodhouse, a “valetudinarian all his life, without activity of mind or body” (Austen 1994: 6) whose “horror of late hours and large dinner parties made him unfit for any acquaintance” (Austen, 1994: 16). The Woodhouses are the mostly esteemed family in Highbury (“the Woodhouses had long held a high place in the consideration of the neighbourhood”, Austen, 1994: 105), equal only to the Knightleys. Emma´s father is described as a “nervous man, easily depressed; fond of everybody that he was used to,and hating to part with them; hating change of every kind.” (Austen, 1994: 7)

The visits of Emma´s former governess Mrs Weston (before her marriage she was called Miss Taylor) are amicable whereas Emma is highly esteeming Mrs. Weston´s judgements: “She had been a friend and companion such as a few possessed: intelligent, well-informed, useful, gentle, knowing all the ways of the family, interested in all its concerns, and peculiarly interested in herself, in every pleasure, every scheme of hers; - one to whom she could speak every thought as it arose, and who had such an affection for her as could never find fault.” (Austen, 1994: 6). Mrs Weston´s husband Mr. Weston, a “man of unexceptionable character, easy fortune,suitable age and pleasant manners” (Austen 1994: 5) is away for business in town often so the spare time can be used for meetings. The Westons married out of affection and do now live at Randalls, a few minutes from Hartfield. Mr. Weston has a son, Frank Churchill, who was raised by his aunt and uncle Churchill, who have a bigger income than he has and thus are able to offer a better education to their nephew. Frank Churchill is, by his father and his wife, considered as “the very person to suit Emma in age, character and condition” (Austen, 1994: 92). Emma is very fond of Frank Churchill, not being aware of the fact that he is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax. This circumstance is concealed well by him through mentioning instances such as “Miss Fairfax is naturally so pale, as always almost to give the appearance of ill health.- A most deplorable want of complexion.” (Austen 1994: 150)

Mrs. and Miss Bates, the former a widow and “almost past every thing but tea and quadrille” (Austen, 1994: 17), the second “neither young, handsome, rich nor findmarried” (Austen, 1994: 17) live with deprived backgrounds in a little house where Emma comes to visit them often. The Bates are below the social class Emma is in, so she visits them out of a feeling of responsibility. The narrator describes Miss Bates as following: “The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself” (Austen, 1994: 17). Emma´s description of Miss Bates is more pejorative: “so silly – so satisfied – so smiling – so prosing – so undistinguishing and unfastidious” (Austen, 1994: 67).

Jane Fairfax is an orphan and the beloved only child of Mrs Bates youngest daughter, not owning any income and having the privilege to live with a rich family, the Campbells, who raised her with their own daughter. Every letter written by her is being read to the whole society of Highbury and Miss Bates talks about her as often as she can to as many people as she can.

The narrator describes her as follows: “Jane Fairfax was very elegant, remarkably elegant; and she had herself the highest value for elegance. Her height was pretty, just such as almost every body would think tall and nobody could think very tall; her figure particularly graceful; her size a most becoming medium, between fat and thin.” (Austen, 1994: 125)

Emma does not like Jane Fairfax at all because she combines all the good traits and abilities which she herself would like to possess. “One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax”, she says. “I wish her very well, but she tires me to death.” (Austen, 1994: 68). Isabella Knightley talks about Jane Fairfax as “very accomplished and superior- and exactly Emma´s age.”

Harriet Smith, Emma´s protégé throughout the novel, lives at Mrs. Goddard´s “real, honest, old-fashioned” (Austen,1994: 17) Boarding School a few miles away from Hartfield, so she can come by foot and visit Emma at Hartfield daily. She is “a girl of seventeen whom Emma knew very well by sight and had long felt an interest in, on account of her beauty” (Austen, 1994: 18). A further description of the narrator calls her “certainly not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to” (Austen, 1994: 21).

Harriet is the “daughter of somebody” (Austen, 1994: 18), her father is first unknown, afterwards it is found out that he is a tradesman. Emma likes to picture Harriet as the daughter of a rich gentleman and treats her exactly that way.

Mr. George Knightley ,a “sensible man about seven or eight-and- thirty, was not only a very old and intimate friend of the family” (Austen, 1994: 8) but also the elder brother of Mr. John Knightley and lives at Donwell, which is his property. Mr. Knightley has a “cheerful manner which always did him good” (Austen, 1994: 8). He “loves to find fault with me, you know – in a joke – it is all a joke. We always say what we like to one another” (Austen, 1994: 9) is what Emma herself says about Mr. Knightley which suits the narrator´s opinion of their relationship: “Mr. Knightley, in fact, was one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them” (Austen, 1994: 9).

Mr. Knightley is highly regarded by Emma who talks of him as having “an air so remarkably good” and “that you might not see one in a hundred with gentleman so plainly written as in Mr. Knightley” (Austen, 1994: 26).

Mr. Knightley rents a farm on his property to the Martins who are farmers and till the fields around. The Martins are below the social class of Mr. Knightley and the Woodhouses. Throughout the book the reader often sees the Martins through Emma´s eyes who describes them as “coarse and unpolished” (Austen 1994: 19). When Harriet Smith talks to Emma about Mr. Martin, she depicts him as “being so very good-humoured and obliging” (Austen, 1994: 22) with which Emma is first able to agree at the end of the novel. The only one speaking well about Mr. Martin throughout the whole novel is Mr. Knightley: “I never hear better sense from any one than Robert Martin. He always speaks to the purpose; open, straight forward, and very well judging.” (Austen, 1994: 46)

Mr. Elton is the vicar of Highbury. In the beginning of the novel he is portrayed by Emma as a “good humoured, cheerful, obliging and gentle” man, a man that “a young man might be very safely recommended to take […] as a model.” (Austen, 1994: 27).

He owns some independent property besides the vicarage of Highbury and is thus considered very agreeable by Emma to marry a person like Harriet.

In the beginning of the novel Emma refers to him as “the very handsomest man that ever was, and a man that every body looks up to, quite like Mr. Knightley” (Austen, 1994: 59), but she shall soon change her opinion of him. on, he proves himself “in many respects the very reverse of what she had meant and believed him; proud, assuming, conceited; very full of his own claims, and little concerned about the feelings of others.” (Austen, 1994: 104)

Mrs Augusta Elton, the woman Mr. Elton marries after he is refused by Emma, is described as “her person rather good; her face not unpretty; but neither feature, nor air, nor voice, nor manner, were elegant.” (Austen, 1994: 203) Emma soon makes up her mind about her and thinks her “a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school; […] that if not foolish, she was ignorant” (Austen, 1994: 205); a devastating judgement.

Mr. John Knightley (the younger brother of Mr. George Knightley) and his wife Isabella Knightley (the older sister of Emma Woodhouse) moved away to Brunswick Square in London after their marriage. They have four children and come to visit Highbury regularly. Isabella is described as “a devoted wife, a doating mother, and so tenderly attached to her father and sister that, but for these higher ties, a warmer love might have seemed impossible. […] She was not a woman of strong understanding or any quickness and […] with this resemblance of her father, she inherited much of his constitution.” (Austen, 1994: 72).

Mr. John Knightley is “a tall, gentleman-like, and very clever man; rising in his profession, domestic, and respectable in his private character; but with reserved manners which prevented his being generally pleasing; and capable of being sometimes out of humour.” (Austen, 1994: 72).

These descriptions show Isabella Knightley as the perfect mother and John Knightley as the inferior little brother to George Knightley, whose manners and humour always seem to be appropriate.

Mr. Perry is the apothecary of Highbury. He is very highly esteemed by Mr. Woodhouse and his neighbours and is called on every time there is the smallest reason to do so.


Excerpt out of 14 pages


Society and Neighbourhood in Jane Austen´s 'Emma'
University of Hildesheim  (Institut für englische Sprache und Literatur)
Jane Austen´s Pride and Prejudice and the didactics of the classic novel
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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407 KB
Emma, Jane Austen, Regency
Quote paper
Svenja Strohmeier (Author), 2011, Society and Neighbourhood in Jane Austen´s 'Emma', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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