What has Austen to say about the position of women in society and how does she convey her opinions on this topic from chapters one to ten?

Essay by Janvie January 2005

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"I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like," were Jane Austen's exact thoughts on her novel 'Emma', prior to writing it in 1816. And that is exactly what she proceeded to do. Jane Austen was influenced by the society at the time when she was writing, which was at the cusp of the Augustan era, where people had very set ways and abided to all rules, and the Romanticism era, where people were learning to develop a new found freedom towards society in general. When writing the novel 'Emma', Austen aimed to put across the point of women in society at that era. She also wanted to depict the different class divisions, showing how she greatly disapproved of them, and how damaging she thought they were towards how people were judged not by their personality, but how much money they had, how big their house was, or such like.

However, the early nineteenth century did not welcome women with attitudes of free will, or those who did not conform to society's expectations of marriage as we are shown with the unfortunate character of Miss Bates. This was much frowned upon, as in those days; women of lower classes were expected to marry, no matter what. In the novel, Harriet was of a lower social class than Emma, and this was shown through how they behaved, and was easy to depict, as the two characters spent so much time with one another so we can see the immediate contrast. The women in society in Jane Austen's life were negatively portrayed as they were always put second best to men, and they were not appreciated for their mind, but more for their looks and ability to be a good wife.

Austen subtly criticised the way society forced women to be reliant on men. We saw this when she talked about Mrs and Miss Bates being single and poor, but still happy. "Her daughter enjoyed a most uncommon degree of popularity for a woman neither young, handsome, rich, nor married... and yet she was a happy woman..." showed that even though Miss Bates was not good looking, wealthy, or married, she was still happy, so it was unreasonable to say it was necessary to marry. Furthermore, because Austen herself did not marry, she showed her disapproval of society's pressure on women to marry for money rather than love. She criticised the negative social stereotype of these unmarried women throughout the chapter, talking about Miss and Mrs Bates, and saying how happy they were, even though they were not married, because marriage was expected to be the only path to happiness for lower-class people in those days. She does this with the language she uses, and the satire. The satire she uses is to undermine the character's she does not like.

Jane Austen showed the marked differences between women of different social backgrounds throughout the whole novel, but particularly in Chapter Four when Harriet and Emma are talking about marriage and Emma is telling Harriet not to marry Mr Weston. Wealthy women with a high social status, such as Emma, didn't feel the need to marry, unless it was for love, as they were wealthy enough to have a secure future for themselves. However, poorer women that had a lower social status, such as Harriet, would need to get married in the near future, as they needed a husband to rely on for financial support. We can see the instant contrast of these two characters, as they were together a lot throughout the novel, so the characters contrast immensely. This is also another example of Austen satirising society at that time, and how it worked, as she did not agree with it.

Austen criticised the education system by satirising it when she talked about how women only went to school to learn things like sewing, and not proper subjects such as science, as it was not seen right for women in those days. Austen herself attended one of those schools, so she was not being judgemental; she had experiences to show that she thought it was useless. She learned nothing from the school she attended from the ages of seven to eleven, as it did not intellectually challenge her mind, but instead, returned home to read her father's large collection of books, and learn a great deal more from them. She thought this educations system was not enough to challenge a women's mind, and just encouraged women's dependency on men. As a result of this constant dependency on men, women were often very naïve as they were not exposed to the real happenings and problems in the world at that time. She shows her feeling about women only being valued for their beauty. This is shown throughout the novel; because everyone is always saying how pretty Emma is so she should get a husband soon. When Austen talks of Mrs Goddard, in Chapter Three, she says, "...not of an seminary, or establishment, or any thing which professed, in long sentences of refined nonsense...where young ladies for enormous pay might be screwed out of health and into vanity..." This shows what Jane Austen thought of those particular types of schools.

The first sentence, "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition..." sounds a bit sarcastic on Austen's behalf, as it is making Emma out to be perfect, and nobody is perfect. Her looks are the first thing mentioned, as this was quite an important thing to most people in the early nineteenth century. Later on in chapter one, Austen gives a clear view of how marriage was seen. It was seen as an acceptable thing to do, rather than if someone wanted to or not, "...how very acceptable it must be...to settle into a home of her own..."

Parenthesis is used by Austen just to give the reader a little bit more information and understanding of the situation, for example, "Ever since the day (about four years ago)..." and "Mrs Martin told her one day (and there was a blush as she said it)..." it is not necessary for Austen to write these sentences, however it gives the reader a greater understanding of the happenings in the novel, and it also provides depth to the storyline. It is a good authorial technique used by Austen as it gives us a bigger insight into the society, emotions, and surroundings of our characters.

In Chapter Seven, Emma says, "a woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter," which, although it applied to Emma, was not altogether true, because only people with a higher social status didn't have the financial need to marry. However, if one was poor like Harriet, she had to marry the first person that asked because she may not get another offer, and she had to get married to be financially supported. This is one of

Austen's authorial techniques of showing that Emma wasn't very aware of what was going on around her, as Harriet was supposedly her best friend, and she didn't realise that Harriet needed to get married to be supported. It shows Austen satirising Emma for being foolish and unaware.

Women did not play a very important role in society in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. Throughout the novel, all it was seen fit for women to do was stay at home and act as the "perfect wife". They had free speech and such like, but were not expected to make any important decisions. Also, once they were married, they had to count on their husband for a lot of things including money; as for a woman to have a job in those days was deeply frowned upon, and seen as a sign of a lower-class household. Once again Austen is satirising society through how she shows her disapproval of the fact that upper-class women could not have jobs.

Jane Austen used her authorial techniques to show how she disapproved greatly of the way that women were treated and the position they had in society in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century. She showed that they were only valued for their beauty and passiveness. She also showed how the education system for women consisted not of strengthening a woman's intellectual capability, but rather how to be the "perfect wife". She used such techniques as satire, wit, and irony to portray these views, which were very effective. Her authorial tone throughout the novel also showed us what she thought about the certain issues depicted, in contrast to what the characters thought.