Is Emma Really the Heroine of Emma?


“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” So begins Emma, one of Jane Austen’s most beloved books. But not everyone is carried away by Emma’s charm. To some readers, her decidedly unhandsome actions—meddling in love affairs and acting like an entitled brat among them—are cause for vexation and distress in and of themselves. And, writes English scholar Barbara Z. Thaden, that could even be the point. “Emma was not intended to be or become a sympathetic character,” she writes—and, she suggests, Miss Woodhouse might not even be her eponymous book’s own heroine.

Unlike Austen’s other heroines, Emma is beloved and seemingly blessed. Well treated by her family and well regarded by everyone around her, she flies in the face of heroines like Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet, who is charming but without social cachet, Sense and Sensibility’s stoic Elinor Dashwood, or Persuasion’s forgotten spinster Anne Elliot. She resembles others in the Austen world, though—but as Thaden suggests, it’s the condescension, pride, and social security of plenty of Austen’s villains that she shares.

. . . .

Thaden dissects Emma’s supposed charm—a quality that, she argues, pulls the wool over readers’ eyes. Meddling, cruelty, and entitlement are interpreted by other characters, and readers, as evidence of her superiority, but unlike other charming and wealthy Austen characters, Emma never has to prove her worth. Instead, she manipulates other people’s lives and romances, and seems unlikely to change her ways after snagging Mr. Knightley, a longtime friend she has encouraged another woman to love.

The enigmatic Jane Fairfax, on the other hand, is given none of her foil’s intrinsic tools. Forced to seek a post as a governess because of her orphan status, she is the only woman Emma envies. But she is nothing like her: Where the richer Emma can do as she pleases, Jane must “endure silently while a flirt of high social standing plays with the man she loves.” Jane Fairfax, argues Thaden, is more like Jane Austen than most of her heroines.

Link to the rest at JSTOR

3 thoughts on “Is Emma Really the Heroine of Emma?”

  1. For Thaden, Jane Fairfax lurks around the edges of Austen’s hard-to-understand authorial decisions, challenging readers with questions Austen never answers. Why isn’t she the book’s heroine? Is she the book’s heroine? What do we actually know about her? What motivates her?

    I never asked those questions. I never wondered this, or found it hard to understand. What makes Thaden think Emma isn’t the heroine of Emma? Honestly, if I’d have heard the term back then — I read Emma because of Clueless — I probably would have thought of Jane Fairfax as the Mary Sue if she were the main character. Emma had flaws to overcome, and those flaws got her into amusing scrapes. She grew.

    But Jane Fairfax was just Little Miss Perfect. In fact, I assumed Jane Austen had named Miss Fairfax “Jane” just to be cheeky, the way Cervantes would insert characters with his own name in Don Quixote. The Mary Sue-ishness was just the cherry on top; it never occurred to me we were supposed to like Miss Fairfax. It’s also not clear to me if there was just a limited number of female names to choose from in Austen’s day, or if Austen was just being sassy every time she gave a character her own name.

    ETA — I don’t mean Cervantes named a character “Miguel.” I mean that he specifically has the barber and the curate talk about himself, and they call him by his second surname, Saavedra. So when I saw “Jane Fairfax,” I wondered if Jane Austen was telling us anything about herself.

    • Jamie, you’re right of course in insisting that Emma is the heroine (though IIRC Miss Austen wrote that she’d created a heroine that few readers would like). And yes, Emma grew, mostly be realising that she really was pretty bad at arranging other people’s lives – or in fact her own.

      I can’t agree with you about Jane Fairfax. She is certainly presented to Emma as “Little Miss Perfect” and an exemplar for Emma to follow; hence Emma inevitably disliking her. The reality is rather different: Jane was conducting a secret – though sexually innocent – love affair with the aim of deceiving her lover’s relations in order to protect his inheritance (and her financial future). As a result she was lying to everyone and standing aside even when Frank Churchill was flirting with Emma and possibly making Emma fall for him. Of course, the story could have been told with Jane Fairfax as heroine but it would have been a very different – and differently titled – book (though it would then have been another Austen romance in the way Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion are but Emma is not).

      I’d be surprised if there are not a few retellings from Jane Fairfax’s point of view up on Amazon (though P&P fan-fiction – sorry “variations” – seems to be the most popular).

  2. Hi Mike! I think you are correct about Fairfax only being *perceived* as Little Miss Perfect, by Emma. It’s been over 20 years since I read that story — obviously I’m due for a re-read — so I probably unfairly slandered her as a Mary Sue at this remove. She obviously had more depth than a Mary Sue would, even if it’s in a more dubious direction.

    I always skip the variations; I’m too skeptical of the ability of modern people to put themselves in the shoes of someone in Austen’s era … but also to deal with the characters as Austen wrote them. Miss Anne de Bourgh is sickly and cross; Mary Bennett is conceited without cause: Go. If a writer can take such characters, get inside their heads, deal with them as-is, and still make them interesting, I might take a look. But that’s not the usual approach.

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