Villette and Emma: The Economic and Social Position of Women in the Victorian Era
In Victorian England, there was a widely accepted conservative ideology of social roles and activities for women.
By Dr. Aycan Gökçek
Lecturer in Language and Literary Studies
Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University
This paper aims to point out to the social position of women in early 19th century England with references to Jane Austen’s Emma and Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. In the first part, in addition to the definition of the ideal Victorian woman, limited educational, economic, and social opportunities of women will also be pointed out. In the second part, Villette will be handled in terms of its approach to the social problems of women such as their limited job and educational opportunities. Social norms drawn for an ideal Victorian woman and the significance of the institution of marriage for women will also be scrutinized. In the third part, Emma will be studied in terms of its reflection of the social position of women. With the analyses of two novels, the paper aims to conclude that in the Victorian Era, women were seen as social inferiors because of the prejudice against them in society. Examining how Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen became the voice of the injustice and prejudices against women, the paper concludes that Victorian women could only justify their presence on earth by dedicating themselves to others through self-effacement, duty, and sacrifice. In addition to this, the paper also points out that in early 19th century England, women faced many difficulties to obtain social, economic, and educational rights that are equal to those of men. This paper is dedicated to the examination of the social position of Victorian women because although this issue is referred to superficially in many articles, few articles handle the subject thoroughly. Hereby, the paper aims to engage in a scrutinized study of the issue on two novels of the period both of which provide fruitful and clear examples to the object of the study.
The aim of this paper is to point out the social position of women in early 19th century England with references to Jane Austen’s Emma and Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. With the analysis of the expectation of Victorian society from an ideal woman, the paper intends to show that a Victorian woman was expected to be submissive, dutiful, selfless, disinterested, kind and spiritually pure especially to their fathers and husbands. In early 19th century England, there was a widely accepted conservative ideology of social roles and activities for women. According to this ideology, men were supposed to operate in professions, governmental services, the world of business or industry to acquire property, advance themselves, and improve the condition of their families. On the other hand, women were expected to deal with domestic affairs and serve as a moral guide. It was believed that women were protected against worldly evils and possessed a moral influence that can correct men’s missteps. Victorian society believed that a woman’s only contribution to the masculine world is emotional and moral guidance which constitutes a woman’s responsibility as a wife or mother. They were seen as the divine guide, purifier, inspirer of man, and their mission was to help man to resist the evils and temptations of the world.
Virtue was increasingly articulated upon gender in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Women were represented as protecting and incarnating virtue. They were regarded as angels whose education was a combination of strict formation on Christian principles and rigorous training in domestic skills. The ideal middle class home was a haven managed by such angels. Therefore, domesticity was the sign of excellence for women. House for the angel used to serve as a safe expression of physicality and validation of materialism as a virtue. The determined qualities of the angel were extreme emotional sensitivity, unlimited selflessness, weakness of intellect, and a lack of sexual instincts. It is paradoxical that these inferior qualities of women were coded positively as components of moral excellence. Women were expected to offer love and moral guidance to her family and they were also expected to be untroubled by wayward personal desires including erotic longing. Thus, the very ideal of mother and wife, the source of all virtue, purity, and good sense, appeared as the good conscience of Victorian society. Poets, moralists, and philosophers embellished the domestic and family role of the woman with a universal and transcendental dimension.
Women were thought to be so innocent that it was believed that by definition they are ignorant and incapable of any sexual impulses. They even went so far as to affirm the absence of sexual instincts in women. For instance, in The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs in Childhood, Youth, Adult Age, and Advanced Life: Considered in Their Psychological, Social and Moral Relations by William Acton, the anatomy and physiology of the reproductive organs of the woman is omitted. It is suggested that love of home, children, and domestic duties are the only passion they feel. For them, consummation of marriage meant only suffering and distress. “The perfect ideal of an English wife” definition offers an idea about the expectation of gentlemen from an ideal English lady in the 19th century:
I believe this lady a perfect ideal of an English wife and mother, kind, considerate, self- sacrificing and sensible, so pure hearted as to be utterly ignorant of and averse to any sensual indulgence, but so unselfishly attached to the man she loves as to be willing to give up her own wishes and feelings for his sake. (qtd. in Dillman 129)
As seen, an ideal woman is expected to give up her wishes and feelings for the men she loves and be ignorant and sacrifice herself for her family.
Feminine gender was associated with the elaboration of natural maternal and nurturing instincts into guardianship at the home of morality and sexual purity. The woman at home who blossoms exclusively as wife and mother was the only ideal. The idealization of the wife as an inspirer of humanity belonged to the Victorian conception of the home and its meaning within the contemporary system of values. Women were seen as the moral guidance of home and symbol of sexual purity since they were expected to refrain from even mentioning of sexuality. They were expected to repress their sexualities. Victorians attached importance to the domestic household affairs of women. Because of these reasons, it was inappropriate for a woman to comment on sexuality in the 19th century. In addition, men used to believe that it was their duty to protect women from sexuality. In 19th century books for women, the coding of femininity was reflected and these books shaped moral values. Therefore, Victorian novels do not include any mentioning of sexuality. It is the reason why as a representative of the Victorian novel, Emma does not include any mentioning of sexuality. For instance, Mr. Knightley loves Emma, but there is no passion that leads to sexuality, but Villette includes the Cleopatra chapter which is associated with sexuality and a subversive female character like Lucy. These qualities of the novel make Villette a subversive novel, a kind of novel going against the traditional novel genre of the period in which it was written.
In early 19th century England, women were not allowed to improve their conditions through education, occupation, and emotional experience. They had to deny emotional fulfillment and desire to have roles in relation to men in society. Especially in the early 19th century, a girl had little chance to cultivate her accomplishments because she was allowed to do only certain restricted accomplishments which do not necessitate professionalism. For instance, they were allowed to play piano, draw, and write, but they were not allowed to take them too seriously. Nineteenth-century society believed that advanced education would spoil women’s innocence and nurturing instincts. They also believed that an intelligent woman is an error of nature. Therefore, intelligent women were not wanted in the society. Because of this reason, intellectual and creative women had to hide their abilities from the public. Despite prejudices and difficulties, the profession of letters was opened widely to women from the 1840s. However, the women interested in writing such as George Eliot and the Bronte sisters had to use pseudonyms. Even those who did not use pseudonyms such as Jane Austen had to write their novels secretly. Once Charlotte Bronte complained about the burden of being a woman writer and expressed her wish to be judged as a writer rather than as a woman with these words:
I wish you did not think me a woman. I wish all reviewers believed: “Currer Bell” to be a man— they would be more just to him. You will—I know—keep measuring me by some standards of what you deem becoming to my sex—where I am not what you consider graceful, you will condemn me … (quoted in Hoeveler 42)
This is the response Charlotte Bronte gave to the critique in Edinburgh Review, in response to G.H. Lewes who criticized her unfeminine style of the author in the note he sent her about the first chapter of her novel Shirley (Hoeveler 41–42). With these words, the author points out the injustice she is exposed to for being a woman writer and her belief that her work would be assessed differently if it would be regarded as a work of a male author. The author’s response also indicates that like most of the woman writers of her time, she used the pseudonym “Currer Bell.”
Since society does not approve of intellectual women, parents used to believe that education is not necessary for girls in early 19th century England. At that time girls could only attend institutions that claim to prepare them for marriage. In these institutions, they were taught the rudiments of French, reading, writing, and arithmetic. Among the working classes, there was little sign of a future for women since they were illiterate. Women were not admitted to universities to take degrees too. University education was open strictly to upper-class males, so university teachers were also male. Women had to be excluded from the universities by a Victorian assumption that women were not capable of sustained rigorous work required by university studies.
It was after the middle of the 19th century when public schools for girls began to be built with the help of the reformers who wanted these schools to function as equivalent to prestigious public schools for boys and raise the status of women associated with these institutions as teachers and graduates. This act enabled female educators to see themselves as training characters as well as intellect. These schools provided a growing number of secondary teaching posts for women. The public schools for girls were the result of the dissatisfaction in the middle class families with the educational opportunities for their daughters. At the beginning of the century, families of gentle status educated their daughters either by hiring governesses or by sending them to private schools operated by gentlewomen in need of money. Since neither type of schooling provided a good education for girls, public schools for girls began to be operated. With the Education Act of 1870 women acquired new employment opportunities, the right to vote and run for membership of school boards. Women could only win the right to take regular university examinations, to attend lectures offered by the tutors and professors of the men’s colleges in the late 19th century. The provincial universities and university colleges abandoned their barriers to women students and by the 1890s most had a small, but growing number of women lecturers, mainly in French, music, and English literature.
In the 19th century, women were deprived of not only educational opportunities but also legal, economic, and political rights. Married women had been defined as objects rather than subjects with rights. A husband was responsible for the wife’s actions; he controlled her property. An unmarried woman was traditionally dependent on her father and brother. With the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857 which empowered the courts to order payment of maintenance to a wife separated from her husband, a married woman’s rights to inherit or bequeath her property, to enter into contracts, and to sue or to be sued as if she was single were recovered. Before this act, in the early 19th century a separated woman had no right to inherit property and maintenances while a married woman had no rights regarding their offspring. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 grew out of efforts by a group of Manchester feminists. Although this act did not provide women the same rights as men, at least it granted all wives to have rights to separate property comprising their earnings, investments, and some legacies acquired after marriage. Women were also granted rights to have their property acquired before and during marriage with the Women’s Property Act of 1882. Before these acts, in the early 19th century, all the property of a wife was regarded as the property of her husband. Women, married or not, suffered from legal and social inferiority. In the 18th and early 19th century, a woman’s legal condition was still based on patriarchal Roman laws which vested legal existence only in the head of the family and provided no right to a woman with a political post except that of the queen.
In addition to rights, women were also deprived of work opportunities thanks to limitations in professions for them. All liberal professions were closed to women, especially to middle class women. The jobs in accord with the traditional view of a woman’s nature were governess, servant, teacher, nurse, or writer, and none of them provided a satisfactory salary. The career of letters was only open to a minority of women with talent who could manage with scanty education. The 1851 census lists only 7% of middle class women as working, most of whom worked as governess, writers, or artists. Although being a governess was among the commonest professions for middle class English women, it was not a respectable profession because in general, they were the objects of humiliation. Charlotte Bronte, who also worked as a governess, complained about its psychological disadvantages as follows:
I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family—proud as peacocks and wealthy as Jews—at a time when they were particularly gay—when the house was filled with company—all strangers—people whose faces I had never seen before. (qtd. in Kaufman 97)
These words of Bronte show that it is painful to live among strangers with whom she could not communicate well. Another woman writer of the time, Elizabeth Gaskel, also asserted that the life of a governess only brought her torment and humiliation. The similar comments of woman writers on the profession of governess show that even if women did not like the job, they had to perform it because of financial reasons and limited job opportunities.
Another traditionally accepted opportunity for middle-class women was nursing, a low-status, poorly paid female occupation which was “feminized” in the 19th century. For the girls who were forced to leave home to find work, being a servant was another suitable job. The job was often dirty and girls suffered from irregular payments despite long hours working. Like the governess, the domestic servant worked in the homes of others. Actually, throughout the 19th century, being a servant became an important opportunity for lower-class women, especially for young unmarried women. Prostitution was also a common job among women in the early 19th century because of the limited employment opportunities and unemployment, which drove thousands of poor women in cities to turn to prostitution in order to survive.
As seen, the professions offered for early 19th century English women were limited and uncomfortable. Charlotte Bronte complained about the limited opportunities for English women in the early 19th century with these words:
It is true enough that the present market for the female labour is quite overstocked—but where and how could another could be opened? Many say that the professions now filled only by men should be open to women also—but are not their present occupants and candidates more than numerous enough to answer every demand? Is there any room for the female lawyers, female doctors, female engraves, for more female artists, more authoresses? One can see where the evil lies—but who can point out the remedy? (Selected Letters 108)
The author points out the fact that the eligible professions such as lawyer, doctor etc. are only occupied by men. She implies that the limited job opportunity is a well-known fact, but there is nobody who can come up with a “remedy” for it.
Both Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen reflected the social position of the Victorian woman mentioned in this part in their work Villette and Emma. In the next part, how Bronte handled the problems Victorian women faced will be analyzed.
Social position of Victorian women: ‘Villette’
Villette is a novel by Charlotte Bronte written in 1853 mainly concerned with the life of the protagonist Lucy Snowe who travels from her native England to the fictional city of Villette to teach at a girl’s school. Mostly through the protagonist Lucy, the novel holds a mirror to the social position of Victorian women, which will be revealed in this part. The problems Lucy encounters in her life give ideas to the reader as to the social position of the Victorian woman such as their expected attitude to sexuality from the eyes of the society, hardships they encounter as an intellectual woman in the society, as well as limited educational and job opportunities.
The Victorian woman’s expected attitude to sexuality in the society is clearly portrayed in the Cleopatra chapter of the novel in which Lucy does not like the representation of women as sexual objects as expected from a Victorian woman. She finds Cleopatra’s nakedness, untidiness around her and her physical attitude comic rather than shocking. While doing this, Lucy tries to censor the excessive sexual presentation. Her censoring the sexuality and regarding passion and sexuality as dangerous feelings which she must subdue reflects the Victorian female idea of sexuality. In this chapter, as a representative of a Victorian man, M. Paul tries to prevent Lucy from looking at the Cleopatra picture. By doing this, he believes he is protecting Lucy from its evil influence. This can be concluded from these words of M. Paul: “How dare you, a young person, sit coolly down, with the self-possession of a garçon, and looking at that picture?” (188).
Instead of the Cleopatra picture, M. Paul wants Lucy to look at morally good pictures which is suitable for a Victorian woman who is regarded as an inspiration of morality. He recommends Lucy look at a set of four didactic paintings entitled “Le vie d’une femme” (188) which reflects women in their four stages: the girl, the married woman, the mother, the widow. These stages in the lives of women as reflected by the paintings are morally acceptable roles for a woman in 19th century England. Lucy objects to the painting of women claiming that these roles appointed to women will not allow them to have their own identities. She thinks that in the painting women are portrayed as nonentries because their duties should be to serve their fathers as young girls, as wives to serve and to obey their husbands, and as mothers to serve their children and to end up as lonely widows when they lose their husbands. Because of these beliefs of Lucy, she is blamed to be egoistic by M. Paul with these words: “Women who are worthy of the name ought infinitively to surpass to our course, self-indulgent sex, in the power to perform such duties” (190). From these words of M. Paul, it is clearly understood that in Victorian society, women were regarded as respectful only when they perform the duties portrayed in the painting. Even if Lucy may be right in her interpretation of the painting, she is accused of being egoistic by M. Paul. These show us that in 19th century England, everything concerning women’s status is determined by the existence of patriarchy and women’s relationship with patriarchy.
Lucy Snowe also serves as an example of an intelligent woman. The novel shows that an intelligent woman is an outcast in society with M. Paul’s reaction to Lucy whose primary aim in life is to learn and be successful. When he realizes that Lucy is intelligent, he is both impressed and intimidated because he has the vision of traditional Victorian men:
A ‘woman of intellect’ it appeared, was a sort of ‘lusus naturae’ a luckless accident, a thing for which there was neither place nor use in creation, wanted neither as wife nor worker. Beauty anticipated her in the first office. He believed in his soul that lovely, placid and passive feminine mediocrity was the only pillow on which manly thought and sense could find rest for its aching temples; and as to work, the male mind alone could work to any good practical result-hein. (332)
As seen, an intellectual woman is viewed as “lusus naturae” meaning something like an error of nature and is not wanted either as a wife or worker. It is also understood that women are expected to be mediocre. M. Paul reflects the idea of a man who cannot stand an intellectual woman. Although he assigns difficult passages to be read to Lucy, whenever she reads and understands them well, he gets angry. He also wants Lucy to write an essay, yet he does not want her to be able to do that. He even accuses Lucy of plagiarism when she knows the answer. The fact that M. Paul wants Lucy to be unsuccessful can also be understood from Lucy’s claims who says: “He never liked to see me mend pens” (390). All of this shows that an intelligent woman is not wanted in the Victorian society.
As a novel written in the early 19th century, Villette reflects the limited education and job opportunities of a woman in that era. First of all, all female characters are uneducated in the novel, which is an indicator of the educational status of women. The limited opportunity for women in the early 19th century is reflected with Lucy Snowe. A working woman had no chance to work except for being a governess, a teacher, a nurse, or a person who takes care of an old lady at that time. Similarly, as an orphan who had to work to survive, Lucy Snowe starts her career as an old lady’s helper and becomes a governess and teacher in Madame Beck’s school and points out her changing position by saying: “Yes, I’m raising character, once an old lady’s companion, then a nursery governess, now a school teacher” (289). As seen, this comment of Lucy is quite ironic because she makes fun of her working life by referring to herself as a “rising character” by moving from being a nurse to be a governess and then a school teacher. Although there is not a gap between these jobs in terms of status, she calls it “raising” which shows the hopeless position for a woman who wants or has to work at that time.
Like her author Charlotte Bronte, the character Lucy Snowe does not like having to work as a governess. Lucy explains her position as governess with these words: “It appeared my place was to be a hybrid between governate and lady’s maid” (Bronte 63). Lucy describes her position as governess with these words because although she is employed as a governess to Madame Beck’s three children, when she was on duty, she was also ordered to do lots of things which are not related to her profession by Madame Beck including dressing her. In addition to the workload of the profession, there are also social reasons behind why she does not like working as a governess because it offers no right for her to educate herself; excludes her from social life, imprisons her to domestic affairs and thus limits her potential as a human being.
Lucy only stops being a nursery governess when she becomes an English teacher because teaching was another important position for which women could earn money in early 19th century England. She tries to be happy by dedicating herself to her profession which enables her to polish her faculties and have something positive, creative, and productive in her life.
Since professional opportunities were limited for a woman in 19th century England as the novel indicates, many Victorian women preferred marriage to working. Therefore, marriage was a very important institution in the society. It was considered to be not only the only solution for a girl to avoid being an outcast, but also the only way for freedom. Young girls were encouraged to view marriage as a route for liberation where they would achieve acknowledgment of adulthood and freedom to control their own lives. Actually, freedom was largely illusionary, for most young women exchanged the control of a father for the control of a husband and passed straight from childhood to the responsibilities of being a wife or mother. Lucy Snowe is portrayed as different from a typical Victorian woman who mostly preferred marriage to looking for a job for survival and independence. Contrary to most Victorian women, Lucy is not pursuing marriage. She does not want to be dependent on anyone, especially on a man for financial means. For her, not being poor, but being dependent on someone is disgraceful as these words indicate:
Rather for the proof of shelter I am thus enabled to keep over my head; and for the comfort of mind it gives me to think that while I can work myself, I am spared the pain of being a burden to anybody.” (266)
The ideas of Lucy stand in contrast to the ideas of a typical Victorian woman. Later Lucy realizes her ambition and starts her school with the help of M. Paul’s financial contribution and does a good job on her own as a woman. By doing this, Lucy proves that marriage is not the only way for a woman to stand on her own two feet. With such a rebellious character like Lucy with her ideas and actions, Bronte reflects the social position of women in society.
In Villette, contrary to Lucy Snowe the desire to marry a rich man is the ambition of most of the female characters. For instance, Ginevra Fanshaw wants to marry to be rich, so her purpose is to attract a rich man and marry him. Similarly, as a dutiful Victorian woman, Pauline’s only aim is to please and serve Graham who is her future husband. It can be said that both Polly’s and Ginevra’s marriages reflect the Victorian conception of marriage because neither of them can be independent outside marriage. They both are financially and emotionally dependent on their husbands.
Since the early 19th century, women were not given a chance to develop themselves, so they could not develop an identity of their own. Society and prejudices used to deprive women of a useful and absorbing field of activity. The educational system founded on an erroneous idea of woman’s nature and the role and the fact that the fathers, the brothers, the men of England do not treat their sisters, daughters, and wives as adults capable of playing part in the society prevented women from developing an identity. Victorian women suffered from a lack of personal fulfillment and did not know their true identity. In Villette, Lucy Snowe has the same problem, but she tries to solve it. She always wants to be aware of her true identity. Unlike typical Victorian women, she questions herself and the people, men, and women in the society she belongs to. Lucy breaks her limitations by not accepting the roles assigned to women by men. Therefore, she is in the process of finding emotional and financial fulfillment throughout the novel.
As a positive character, Lucy is constantly contrasted with Ginevra Fanshaw, a rich heiress. One of the roles of Lucy in Villette is to dig down to the truth of the female characters and in particular to those who are socially and materially privileged. Lucy Snowe is an orphan who has to make money and thus is humiliated by those who are socially nobler than themselves. She is humiliated by Ginevra Franshaw who is very beautiful and vain but has no connection with reason and spiritual beauty. Lucy sees Ginevra as young, pretty, rich, but selfish, mindless, and conventional, incapable of deep feeling or genuine behavior. For Lucy, Ginevra is only interested in her physical appearance and beauty. Despite these negative qualities of Ginevra, she humiliates Lucy. The effects of social position and class distinction between Lucy and Ginevra can be revealed from the conversation between Ginevra and Lucy, which reminds Lucy of their different positions:
… just listen to the difference of our positions, and then see how happy am I, and how miserable are you … in the first place, I am the daughter of a gentleman … I have had a continental education … I am pretty … you are nobody’s daughter … You have no attractive accomplishment …, no beauty … you never were in love. (133)
With these words, Ginevra means to let Lucy know she is inferior. Although Lucy does not deserve to be humiliated just because she is not of noble blood and she is deprived of pretty appearance, she is humiliated by a woman whose social position is higher than herself. Therefore, it can be concluded that social position not only causes problems in marriage but also in the relationship between women.
In sum, Villette serves as a mirror for the social position of women in Victorian society with its reflection of society’s expectation of a woman concerning sexuality, society’s reaction to intellectual women, as well as limited educational and job opportunities for women. With her character Lucy Snowe who is drawn as a subversive woman throughout the novel, Bronte points out the reactions to a woman who does not accept the social roles assigned to women.
Social position of Victorian women: ‘Emma’
Emma is a novel by Jane Austen published in 1815 mainly concerned with relationships among the residents and the events they experience especially focusing on the protagonist Emma in the fictional country village of Highbury. The novel is mainly concerned with the significance of marriage in society especially for females, which sets forth that it is seen as a vehicle for having a social status. Through the events and character portrayal of the novel, Emma holds a mirror to the social position of Victorian women reflecting limited job opportunities, the significance of marriage for a woman, most of which are the common problems with Villette.
Emma and Villette point out similar social concerns, one of which is limited and unsatisfactory job opportunities for women. Like Villette, Emma points out the difficulty of the profession of a governess. In Emma, there is a character named Jane Fairfax who is an orphan like Lucy. She lives with her aunt and her grandmother until she is eight and a friend of her father named Colonel Campbell makes her part of his household. He provides her with education, but he cannot provide Jane with heritage as it is restricted by laws. Therefore, Jane becomes obliged to accept the profession of governess as a means to live.
Like Lucy, Jane does not like the profession of a governess. It is difficult for Jane to be limited under the constraints of the job after enjoying the pleasures of pleasant society in London. Therefore, she speaks against the “governess trade.” For Jane, “governess trade” involves “the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect” (215). Jane makes it clear that the life of a working woman is in no way preferable to the idleness of human nature. She even asserts that “offices that advertise for governess position are less morally deplorable than slave traders.” She adds that “as the greater misery of victims, I don’t know where it lies” (215). From these words, it is clear that she does not like the profession like Lucy in Villette. Therefore, she tries to refrain from the profession as much as she can. This is the reason why she refuses the recommendation of governess given by Mrs. Elton. However, the society insists on her accepting it. Therefore, as a girl deprived of social and financial opportunities, Jane is forced into a work which is a kind of work that amounts to an almost complete loss of freedom. Toward the end of the novel, Jane accepts the recommendation given by Mrs. Elton.
Both Lucy and Jane Fairfax are orphans deprived of economic and social freedom. Therefore, both of them are obliged to accept the position of governess reluctantly. And so it can be concluded that for the women who have to work to survive like them, being a governess is one of the commonest means to live to continue their lives no matter how bad a treatment they are being exposed to in early 19th century England.
The significance of the marriage market in the Victorian society is another common social issue with Villette. However, while Villette points out a woman’s feeling of obligation to survive via marriage, Emma draws attention to marriage as a vehicle for obtaining a social status. The novel is structured on a number of marriages and the protagonist’s continual attempts at matchmaking. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist Emma expresses her wish to remain single, but she marries at the end of the novel like many other female characters. Emma emphasizes the importance of social status in the marriage market, which is seen in early 19th century England. In 19th century England, social status was determined by a combination of family background, reputation, and wealth and marriage was one of the main ways a woman could raise her status since a woman’s possibility of improving her social status through hard work or personal achievement was denied. Emma attracts attention to these facts of the society. The novel emphasizes the hardships resulted from the relationships between marriage and social status. For instance, Emma encourages Harriet to reject the marriage proposal of Robert Martin who is a farmer because she thinks the Martins are beneath Harriet whom Emma considers to have noble blood. However, when it is revealed that Harriet is the daughter of a tradesman, Emma believes Robert Martin is a suitable match for Harriet. Furthermore, Emma decides to put distance between herself and Harriet after she learns Harriet is socially beneath her, which shows us social position not only affects marriages but also friendships as well. Social position also causes problems for Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax because they have to keep their engagement secret. It is because Jane Fairfax is a poor orphan while Frank Churchill is the nephew of a wealthy aunt. With the idea that Churchill’s aunt would disapprove of their marriage if she learned about the engagement, they keep it secret. On the other hand, since Emma and Mr. Knightley are socially suitable, they are considered to be well-matched in society. With these matches between the couples, Austen seems to give the idea that happiness in a marriage depends on the couple’s being approximately matched in early 19th century England. Therefore, it can be concluded that since the early 19th century in England the institution of marriage was generally based on social status, a woman deprived of social status had little chance to improve her standards of living through marriage.
The novel also points out the significance of marriage for women by revealing the position of unmarried women. In the 19th century, owing to male migration, there were many middle class spinsters deprived of education, professional training with no financial support from family or a husband. Unmarried women were the real victims of the society and they were the objects of humiliation. In the early 19th century, a gentlewoman who was not able to marry and who did not inherit enough wealth to support herself was threatened not only with a loss of social privilege but also with a fall in material comforts. In Emma, Miss Bates is a good example to reflect the condition of spinsters in Victorian society. Miss Bates is a single and poor woman, so she is not respected in society. Contrarily, she becomes the object of humiliation. For instance, Emma humiliates her in front of many people during the Box Hill trip. Frank Churchill demands a piece of cleverness from each member of the party asking them to produce either “one thing very clever” or two things moderately clever or two things very dull indeed (266). When Miss Bates comments that she will have trouble meeting the second requirement, Emma implies that Miss Bates is dull with these words: “Ah ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number only three at once” (266). As seen, Emma does not refrain from humiliating Miss Bates who is a poor single woman. Therefore, it can be concluded that an unmarried woman deprived of economic freedom like Miss Bates is generally considered as a creature without an identity, an object of sarcasm or pity in early 19th century England.
Like Villette, Emma points out the limited education and job opportunities for women. In early 19th century England, parents treated their boys and girls differently. The families limited women’s freedom by not allowing them to act as freely as men. Therefore, sexual differences changed parents’ attitudes toward their children. The situation for girls and boys was entirely different since their families believed that it is not necessary for girls to be educated and earn an income. The daughter who remained at home would help with running the household. Thus, daughters were completely dependent on their parents. In Emma, Emma’s quarrel with Mr. Knightley in chapter 18 gives some clues about the difficulties of daughters’ dependence on their families. The quarrel also implies social treatment of gender by contrasting Emma’s and Knightley’s views, which reveals different opportunities that society made available for women and men in Victorian society. The narrator contrasts Emma’s insistence on the “difficulties of dependence” and the powerful influence that family obligations can have upon one’s freedom with Knightley’s insistence that men who think rightly should act resolutely and will not encounter real opposition if they do so. It is clear that Emma’s vision and understanding of family dependence resulted from her observations and experience as a female. On the other hand, Knightley’s vision of insistence upon resolute action resulted from his observations and experience in male society. Therefore, it can be concluded that in the early 19th century English society, girls would suffer from extreme family dependence which limited their freedom.
The novel also implies that 19th century society attributes childbearing as primary female duty. They thought entertaining children, understanding, and training them were considered well-suited to women’s capabilities, especially with the character Isabella who may be considered a typical affectionate Victorian woman whose only concern is her children.
To sum up, like Villette, Emma draws attention to the social position of women such as the hardships of working as a governess because of limited job opportunities for a woman, the importance of marriage for a woman. What makes Emma different from Villette is that it reflects the social problems of women with the reflection of submissiveness.
In conclusion, in early 19th century England, women were deprived of social, economic, political, and educational rights. They were seen as social inferiors, and society imposed this idea by using socially accepted descriptions of women such as angel in the house or guidance of virtue. They were not given a chance to develop their own identities or improve themselves for the respectable professions. All these are reflected and satirized in Emma and Villette. While Bronte reflects it via the portrayal of a subversive woman, Austen does it via the reflection of submissive ones. However, in both cases, women are unhappy due to limited social opportunities. Through their works, English women writers like Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen tried to make the reader think that a woman is also capable of being successful if she is given a chance.
- Austen, Jane. Emma. London: Wordsworth Classics, 2000. Print.
- Bronte, Charlotte. Villette. London: Wordsworth Classics, 1999. Print.
- Bronte, Charlotte. Selected Letters. Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
- Dillman, Caroline Matheny. Southern Women. New York and London: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 1998. Print.
- Hellerstein, Erna Olafson. Victorian Women. Sandford, California: Sandford UP, 1981. Print.
- Hoeveler, Diane Long, and Deborah Denenholz Morse. Time, Space and Place in Charlotte Bronte. London and New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2017.
- Jeffreys, Sheila. Women’s Source Library Volume VI: The Functions and Disorders of the Reproductive Organs. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.
- Kaufman, Heidi. English Origins Jewish Discourse and the Nineteenth Century British Novel. Purdue University Press, 2006.
Originally published by Comparative Literature: East & West 4:2 (2020, 143-155) under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.