Jane Austen deliberately confined herself to the realistic portrayal of a segment of contemporary English life-upper middle-class society. The heroine, Emma Woodhouse, lives on her father's estate at Hartfield which is in effect an adjunct of the village of Highbury 'in spite of its separate lawns and shrubberies'. Mr. Weston's estate of Randals is in the parish of Highbury, and Mr. Knightley's Donwell Abbey is situated in the neighbouring parish, within comfortable walking distance. Here life is concentrated within itself and separated from London which although only sixteen miles away was 'much beyond...daily reach'. Significantly, Emma has never visited London, never been to the seaside, never visited Box Hill (all of seven miles away!)
The outside world of early 19th century England does not impinge on this essentially self-sufficient society, of which Emma Woodhouse is the central figure. Here is no mention of contemporary historical events such as the Napoleonic Wars; the war between Britain and America; the assassination of the British Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, the Industrial Revolution. The only historical allusion is a fleeting reference to the slave trade (centred on Bristol) in an exchange between Jane Fairfax and Mrs. Elton. Otherwise the real world of the early 19th century is totally ignored. Jane Austen deliberately selected and limited herself, even declining the Prince Regent's request to write an historical novel.
The humdrum nature of daily life in the village of Highbury is captured in the scene where Emma stands at the door of Ford's shop, seeking amusement while she waits for the dithering Harriet to make her purchase.
'Much could not be hoped from the t...
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...ass-barriers of society and experiencing upward social mobility. Mr Elton is determined to improve himself by marrying Emma Woodhouse, his social (and financial) superior. However, he fails and settles instead for Miss Augusta Hawkins, the daughter of a Bristol merchant, with a fortune of £10,000 and a useful social connection. For her the marriage represents a significant step up the social ladder. Through marriage to Robert Martin, a respectable yeoman farmer, Harriet Smith rises from relative poverty and illegitimacy to find a comfortable niche in society. Miss Taylor and Jane Fairfax are elevated through marriage from being governesses (actual and intended) to becoming wives of prosperous, propertied gentlemen.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R.W Chapman. Rev. Mary Lascelles. 3d ed. Vol. 4 of The Novels of Jane Austen. 6 vols. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1966.
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