Emma - Understanding Jane Austen's World

Jane Austen



…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.112)

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 the novel, Emma.

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..57)
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 but 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. At Mr Woodhouse’s death  Hartfield would most likely be inherited by his elder daughter’s eldest son, so family connections ensured Little Henry his position in society.

 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 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.18) – 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 Coxe family who are country attorneys. They dine with the Coleses, go to Mr and Mrs Weston’s ball and Emma considers whether William Coxe might be a possible husband for Harriet (I,Ch.16, p.113). 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”. 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. ...

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