Poor Little Girl – An Essay on Jane Austen’s EMMA




Jane Austin’s burlesque, Emma, is a modern tale of the poor little rich girl’s search for love. Of central concern is the heroin’s fragile heart, confined to an unstimulating environment.

Famously Jane Austen said; “I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” (Lodge 1978: 11)

Emma is not controlled by the needs of her father. Fearing intimacy she uses him to hide from her confining world. She also indulges in match-making schemes. Ironically, she fails to divert admiration away from her lonely self. The people she wants to bring together are attracted to her in varying ways.

“Handsome, clever and rich” (Austen 1996: 723) she stoutly affirms;

“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.” (770)

Emma, free to do as she pleases (Bush 1978: 13) keeps her aristocratic distance. Her home, surrounded by lush ground, is isolated from Highbury, home to her only companions: Mr and Miss Bates, and Mrs Goddard (732). Alone in her thoughts of her past, present and future (138), the grounds stimulate her intellect and lonely heart.

Emma’s father, Mr Woodhouse, is elderly, nervous and depressed. He is a reclusive hypochondriac who finds succour in his summer and winter walks, his apothecary, Mr Perry, his gruel and whist table (41). Foolish and weak, he has enough humanity to be loveable (Simpson: 55). “What was unwholesome to him was unfit for anybody.” (724)

Emma’s nemesis, Mrs Wilson, observes that her father’s illness is a great drawback for her (878), but under cover from poor weather, a metaphor for Emma’s melancholia, spending time with her father in “a whole evening of backgammon” (939) soothes her.

Set against her love for her father is Emma’s homophillic affection for Harriet Smith, brought about by her own lack of self-esteem. She embraces Harriet with her superior intellect and morality. Marvin Mudrick unfairly calls Emma an ”unlikeable heroine and latent lesbian, incapable of committing herself in normal relationships” (22).

The analogy is unfortunate. Conversely Richard Simpson in his “The Platonic Idea” describes Emma as a “young lady full of preconceived ideas not borrowed from the traditional romance of poets and novelists which are the product of our own reflections upon our mental powers”. Her prejudices are natural and not artificial. Mudrick accuses Emma of “being an imaginist, moved to play God without tenderness or caution, making the worst of every situation, imagining evil where there is good and good where there is nothing but an extension of self. Emma, wanting in altruism and sympathy, must have admirers to confirm her position (117-123).”

Mudrick acknowledges; “ We sympathise with Emma because she must fall in love, and we know that she will” (106).

Emma’s future lover and hero, Mr Knightly, sagely observes that “she is spoilt, the cleverest in her family, quick, assured and the mistress of her house. In her mother she has lost the only person able to cope with her. She inherits her mother’s talents, and must have been under subjection to her” (742).

Knightly, who knew Emma’s family intimately, understands Emma’s behaviour which may explain her fear of commitment and her father’s self-centered opposition to marriage.

In anguish, she supports the high sacrament of marriage, and earnestly goes about her business of setting one with the other. While she shuns marriage for herself, she subconsciously yearns to be married, no different from genteel young women of her society with similar aspirations.

Mr Knightly, the oldest and wisest of Jane Austen’s male mentors, is a serious, strong and attractive councillor. He has authority and beneficence. He is credible, likeable, humorous and fallible. Wayne Booth describes Knightly as the most morally reliable character in the novel (23).

He brings about Emma’s redemption, rescuing her from loneliness, within a confining and unstimulating environment. He has the most concern for her welfare;

“I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good. But there is nobody hereabouts to attach her; and she goes so seldom from home.” (141)

Intellectually superior to the characters of Highbury, towering above all and sundry, he is not repressed and restricted as Emma is. He is acutely more observant. Knightly encourages forgiveness of Emma’s mistakes. He brings two lovers, Harriet Smith and the farmer, Robert Martin, together.

“In her carriage with the depressed and silent Harriet Smith Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home, without being at any trouble to check them, extraordinary as they were.”

Emma is confirmed and checked. Her turning point is reached. She is consciously carried some way toward self-knowledge (152, 153). She is redeemed.

Emma is in love. Lionel Trilling advised that sentimental sexuality is not part of her nature. She chooses her husband wisely, seriously and eagerly.

It is dancing that romantically brings Emma and Knightley together. Emma remains in love as she ponders Knightley’s proposal of marriage. On a first name basis, their union is sealed (911-989). R Simpson observes; “The platonic ideal is realised, not merely through heart, but through intelligence.”

Complex in personality and nature, heralded above her peers, Emma willingly acknowledges her errors and graciously opens her heart to Knightley. The dreamed of union with a true, genteel country gentleman is formed. Knightley is above everyone throughout the novel, and Emma’s openness towards him brings his love for her to fruition.

Emma rises above her circumstances and Knightley meets her in conversation, rational or playful. Her circumstances justify her unruly behaviour and she is deserving of her hero.

In the truest sense Jane Austen masterfully transforms her anti-heroine into a heroine, encouraging the reader to revel in her complex creation, yet another caricature of her own self.

We note Micheal William’s (2002: 38) observation of the flexible medium, but ultimately it is Emma Woodhouse’s and Mr Knightley’s feelings that we dearly consider. We rejoice in Jane Austen’s coup de grace, a true meeting of minds, in heart, body and soul.



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