Gentlemanly Ideals in Emma and Reflections on the Revolution in France

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Gentlemanly Ideals in Emma and Reflections on the Revolution in France

The last two centuries have been full of drastic changes in the human condition. Today, we tend to overlook just how drastic those changes were. Britain during the late 18th Century provides an excellent example because both the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution were chipping away at the established social order. In Britain, the aristocracy had ruled in relative stability since the medieval period. There were power struggles but the ideology of privilege remained untouchable. British society considered privilege a reward for refinement and expected a gentleman to distinguish himself by following a specific code of conduct. However, his duty and honor depended on more than a code; he also had to feel sympathy for the weaker sex and the lower classes and know when to act accordingly. This sensibility made him “gentle” and a just participant in the governing process. In the 1790’s and 1800’s these gentlemanly ideals were eroding. Yet, while the British did not guillotine their nobles like the French did, many still said that rapid change could unravel the delicate balance of society perpetuated by a refined nobility. The rise of merchants and industrialists into the ranks of the upper class graphically illustrated a shift toward individual success and the selfish ideology of capitalism. Gentlemen through birth and education were losing ground to these nouveaux-rich and consequently the ruling class disconnected further from their communities.

In 1790, Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament, made an impassioned plea in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” to avoid letting the radical changes occurring around the world cause B...

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... Jane Austen. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 87-108.

Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event: in a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris 1790.” Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches. Ed. Peter J. Stanlis. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1963. 511-608.

Frohnen, Bruce. “Burkean Virtue and the Conservative Good Life.” Perspectives on Political Science 21.1 (1994): 4-15.

Johnson, Claudia L. “’Not at All What a Man Should Be!’: Remaking English Manhood in Emma.” Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 191-203.

Waldron, Mary. “Men of Sense and Silly Wives: The Confusion of Mr. Knightley.” Studies in the Novel 28.2 (1996): 141-158.

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