"In the secret of every body's feelings"- relationships and the world of Highbury in Jane Austen's "Emma"

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  • Relationships and the world of Highbury
    • The small cast of characters living in Highbury are Emma's whole world
      • "Time will generally lessen the interest of every attachment not within the daily social circle"- Emma seems only to want to interact and have relationships within this microcosm
      • This seems likely to be due to her superior status here- in Highbury Emma is generally looked up to as the most powerful woman in the town
        • "I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband's house as I am of Hartfield"- although we may laugh at Emma, her control of the house, her father and their finances seems quite progressive for a 19th century woman.
        • Emma quotes Shakespeare in Chapter 9- mirrors her manipulation of the characters in the novel, who she sees merely as players on a stage?
    • Relationships in Highbury are largely class based
      • Emma makes the (perhaps) feminist argument that "a woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked", but she is only really able to do this because of her wealth and social standing, unlike other women such as Jane and Harriet.
        • Although Emma tells Harriet that to marry Martin would be beneath her, the voice of reason that is Knightley claims the marriage is a suitable one for her, and the moral summing up of the novel in the final chapters agrees
      • Although Emma is set on "improving" Harriet, she does seem to look down upon her, describing her as "the natural daughter of somebody."
        • This seems at least partially mirrored in her use as a plot device to bring Emma and Knightley together, and her unhappiness is often the sacrifice needed to advance Emma's moral development
        • Harriet has very little agency in comparison to Emma, who decides early on that "she would form her opinions and her manners"
        • Harriet often seems demeaned by the use of diminutives towards her- "your pretty little friend" and references to her being stupid or simple. There is irony in that she collects riddles but cannot understand them
      • Emma's visiting of the poor seems both gratuitous and ironic given her cruelty to other characters she considers of lower status than herself
        • This condescension can be seen  in Emma's treatment of Miss Bates, whom even Austen's narrator ridicules through her long monologues and free indirect discourse. Emma gets away with being rude to Miss Bates in the Box Hill episode, though Knightley suggests that because she is poor Emma should be kind to her rather than teasing in the same way she does with people of a higher class
      • Emma marries Knightley, the most socially superior man in the novel, rather than the far more exciting Frank Churchill who may represent social and political change
    • Highbury epitomises the 19th century English genteel idyll
      • Knightley, the classic English gentleman, dislikes Frank for not being so- "he can have no English delicacy"
        • This may have political undertones- the novel was published in 1816, not long after the French Revolution, when people are afraid of the anarchy and social disruption spreading England. In the same way, Frank brings disruption to Highbury
          • His condemnation by Knightley, the moral voice of the novel, mirrors Austen's lack of acknowledgment of of the class struggle in the real world  at the time.


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