Written and set during a period of great social change in Europe, Jane Austen’s Emma (1815) and Charlotte Smith’s Emmeline (1788), engage intuitively with questions concerning female subjectivity and autonomy as well as the capacity for independence within marriage. I will consider how much independence is portrayed by different women in these texts and how much freedom of mind and character they convey before and after marriage. Certainly for many women, marriage and independence was mutually exclusive; however, this was not always the case. Indeed, the extent of women’s sovereignty within marriage was determined by the nature of the man they married, the age at which they entered matrimony, how far they had matured as individuals prior to marriage and the availability of external resources such as female friendship, books or music which would make them companions rather than just subordinate wives. Closely comparing and contrasting Emma with Emmeline, I will show how the former’s marriage to Mr.Knightley will provide less opportunity for female independence than the latter’s union with Godolphin.
Female friendship is very important in both Emma and Emmeline. The influence of a female companion is extremely significant to the actions and countenance of the other women characters. While “true friends, so conduct books declared, helped one another to live up to domestic ideology’s vision of womanhood” (Kaplan 64), the friendships within these novels do not serve the same purposes. Indeed, the friendship between Emmeline and Mrs Stafford helps to increase the physical independence of the heroine as they travel together. It also strengthens Emmeline’s character as Mrs.Stafford mentors her on how to make independent choices when it comes to marriage. Also, Emmeline’s company provides Mrs.Stafford with comfort and companionship, things she does not receive from her “capricious and unreasonable” (Smith 286) husband. Therefore, within this female bond, Mrs.Stafford also gains as she is given a safe zone to exist as a valued and respected individual, as well as a private space to voice her opinions if she needs to. Indeed, “the affectionate bonds of the women’s culture provided a respite from such prohibitions on expression, freeing women to express about themselves what they might ordinarily suppress” (Kaplan 69).
However, in Emma, female friendship is hindered by and is a hindrance to marriage. The superficial friendship between Emma and the ingenuous Harriet Smith is more of a platform for Emma to exercise her individual power of matchmaking rather than an opportunity to openly advise another woman on an appropriate marriage. Compared with Mrs.Stafford’s honest advice to Emmeline, Harriet merely serves to confirm Emma’s own sense of superiority among the people of Highbury. Indeed, despite Harriet’s genuine feelings for the amiable and eloquent farmer Robert Martin, Emma steers her towards Mr Elton, the local vicar who has his mind set firmly on Emma herself.
By retracting Harriet’s own independent thinking, Emma dominates and suppresses another woman’s autonomy in order to gain supremacy. Still, Austen shows how Emma’s genuine friendship with the former Miss Taylor now Mrs Weston, who “had fallen little short of a mother in affection” (1) is a far more positive one, “between them it was more the intimacy of sisters” (1). However, Mrs.Weston had to leave Hartfield once married and is confined more rigorously to her own domestic sphere, thus demonstrating the more transient and limited nature of female friendship in Emma. Conversely, Emmeline and Augusta benefit from the maturity and wisdom of their friend Mrs Stafford. She helps Emmeline in particular to discover what represents a good marriage by conversing with her about the contrasting characteristics in Delamere and Godolphin.
While I recognise it is important to resist placing too much emphasis on biographical connections between an author and their text, I believe that examining Jane Austen and Charlotte Smith’s own views on marriage, is essential in my investigation of female independence within marriage. Fletcher too has argued that this is “the right approach to Charlotte Smith, and one she herself invited by her frequent use of autobiographical material” (3) to which women could relate and learn from. Indeed, many critics have argued that Smith’s own life is reflected in Emmeline which is a “critique of early and family arranged marriage of the sort the author’s had been” (Fletcher 12-13). Like Smith, Adelina and Mrs Stafford are both “married at a very early age” (Smith 80) and are “caught between traditional ideals of duty to their husbands and families and their longing for freedom and autonomy” (Fletcher 13). Forced to marry Benjamin Smith at the age of sixteen, a man who would go on to become a gambler and serial womanizer, then giving birth to twelve children over the course of her union, meant that Charlotte Smith knew a lot about limited independence when it came to young marriage. In Emmeline, the Stafford’s journey to Normandy reflects Smith’s own experience of visiting her husband intermittently between 1783 and 1784 at the King’s Bench Prison in France.
Entering marriage too early in a woman’s life greatly reduced the amount of independence in her life. “Early marriages are, in my opinion, a stop to improvement” (496) stated Wollstonecraft in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787). For those who did enter matrimony young and unsuited, their prospects were often similar to Mrs Stafford and Adelina, “two melancholy instances of the frequent unhappiness of very early marriages” (Smith 235). Adelina admits she “gave away [her] person before [she] knew [she] had a heart” (Smith 222), whereas Emmeline is able to work through her relationship with Delamere and realise what she does and does not want from a marriage partner.
Adelina is even seduced by the “elegant and attractive” (Smith 68) Fitz Edward due to her marital unhappiness. While pregnancy outside of marriage was severely frowned upon, Smith’s more liberal mind is demonstrated by Adelina not dying at the end of the novel which was traditional in Romance novels containing similar circumstances. Moreover, she is allowed to marry Fitz Edward who she truly loves and with whom she has a child. Even Wollstonecraft saw this as a bad example for young women showing what a daring choice this was for Smith’s narrative. Therefore, the message with Smith’s text is not condemnation for Adelina’s sexual misconduct or female sexuality but instead a criticism of the corrupt marriage and unloving husband that led her to stray.
Interestingly, up until The Marriage Act of 1753, “couples were considered legally married by simply declaring themselves to be so in front of a witness” (Jones 77) and boys of fourteen and girls of twelve could be married without parental consent. Therefore, we can see how physical independence for some women was taken from them at an age when they were neither sexually nor mentally mature enough to deal with the pressures of running a household or bearing children. Like Mrs Stafford, Smith’s husband was often away from home and they did not have a particularly good relationship, both women placed their unconditional love of their children above their own desires for independence, largely because in 1788 when Emmeline was published, a woman had no legal rights to her children, they were solely the property of the father.
Fletcher has noted that many women enjoyed Smith’s text because of “its optimistic sense that by waiting until they were old enough to negotiate their own marriages, women could gain some control over their lives” (9) as Emmeline does. So, rather than a conduct book, Smith’s novel serves more as a demonstration of the different circumstances of women in marriage and how women can enhance their independence within such a patriarchal society through female friendship and a resistance to young marriage.
Austen too, was familiar with conduct manuals which were very popular is this period of social turbulence. The marriages depicted in her fiction serve as platforms where such precepts can be tested and played out for the reader to judge what constitutes a happy union. In fact, Jane Austen turned down a proposal of marriage from Harris Bigg-Wither in 1802 and decided to be a writer and never a wife. However, Austen herself wrote in one of her Letters that “single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor which is one very strong argument in favour of matrimony” (qtd in Schorer 101) and “with few opportunities for earning money, women ignored the necessity of marrying men with reasonable prospects at their peril” (Jones 11).
Although love and respect were crucial to a happy marriage, many conduct book writers suggested that this was not enough to make a union wholly successful and that an income was absolutely necessary. Since employment opportunities for women were hard to come by outside the areas of teaching, governessing, needlework and as a lady’s companion, women’s dependence on marriage was relatively heavy. Indeed, economic security played a large role in what could be gained through marriage and it is true that “wives had much more social repute than unmarried women” (Kaplan 116). “In a society where marriage and not a writer’s career, is every woman’s expected path to success” (Bradbury V) one can see that for Austen perhaps marriage and independence was mutually exclusive. Yet the reality for most women without a dowry was that they would not be overtly sought out for marriage in the first place, and would therefore need to earn a living themselves which meant economic independence but by no means an easy life.
As a single woman who was able and willing to earn a living, Austen’s writing offered her “a freedom from some of the constraints of domestic femininity” (Kaplan 116) or to go much further, escape from “legal prostitution” (qtd. in Taylor 230) as Wollstonecraft labelled marriages where the woman only entered the union for a husband’s support. However, “writing and marriage were not necessarily mutually exclusive” (Kaplan 116) as they seemed to be with Austen, indeed Smith published many times during her marriage. Yet the pressures of writing combined with her husband’s unscrupulous behaviour probably did not provide a particularly healthy or relaxed environment for marriage. Still, Smith and Austen both managed to earn money and find a public voice as novelists. Despite the former being married for twenty two years and the latter never marrying at all, their impact on women then and now gives them a form of independence through their great influence on literary tradition.
Wollstonecraft was arguing for the destruction of mutual exclusivity when it came to marriage and independence. She wanted women to lead satisfying lives as wives and mothers while simultaneously allowing them to function as free, economically independent agents. For her, the power to “earn their own subsistence…[was the] true definition of independence” (qtd. in Taylor 229), maintaining that the independent woman is not a free-floating, disconnected individual but “an equal working partner in a common family enterprise” (Taylor 229). She says “it is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men… for whilst they are absolutely dependent on their husbands they will be cunning, mean and selfish” (qtd in Taylor 227). This relates very well to Emma in that the reader is not wholly convinced that the heroine will completely mature from her selfish and supercilious state of mind once she is married.
Wollstonecraft asked “how can a being be generous who has nothing of its own? Or virtuous, who is not free” (qtd. in Taylor 229) and Emma has neither of these things. She is “introducing no change” (Austen 375) by staying at Hartfield with her controlling father Mr Woodhouse and her father substitute, Mr Knightley; she is not increasing her independence at all. By contrast, Emmeline learns how to judge situations for herself as Smith’s novel goes on and she moves geographically and learns from those around her. She is strong and courageous in dealing with Delamere and Lord Montreville and shows kindness and compassion when it comes to Adelina and “her unhappy indiscretion” (Smith 222). Therefore, I think the confidence and experience Emmeline has gained before her marriage to Godolphin will support her ability to be independent within their relationship.
Nevertheless, Both Emma and Emmeline are strong characters before they marry. We are told Emma “was no feeble character” (Austen 12) and she “had sense and energy” (Austen 12) while Emmeline “possessed this native firmness in a degree very unusual to her age and sex” (Smith 46) as well as “a king of intuitive knowledge” (Smith 46). Strength of character was not something all men admired in a woman. Edmund Burke declared in 1757 that “an air of robustness is very prejudicial to beauty… the beauty of a woman is considerably owing to their weakness, or delicacy and if even enhanced by their timidity” (489). By contrast Emma and Emmeline are attractive, but they are far from weak. Although they both make occasional errors in judgement, they do learn from their mistakes and gain experience. However while Emma’s strength and power is largely gained through manipulation of others, Emmeline’s is more of an inner strength which is enriched throughout the course of Smith’s novel.
Both Smith and Austen argued that the nature of the man affected the happiness of the marriage and the level independence a woman was able to exercise within that marriage. They also felt that “affection, friendship and respect were fundamental elements of any workable relationship” (Jones 5), we can see how these qualities are displayed by Godolphin in Emmeline but not by Mr Elton or Mr Churchill in Emma. Both Emma and Emmeline say they never want to marry at all if it is not for love, Emma says to Harriet “were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing… and without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine” (Austen 67). Therefore some affection must be present with Emma and Mr Knightley, but the authenticity of the union is questionable. Emmeline’s genuine feelings are revealed when she finds out she is the heiress to Mowbray Castle and could have the choice of any suitor she wished, but her love for Godolphin never wavers.
Emma is unique among Austen’s heroines, as someone “whom [she fears] no one but myself will much like” (qtd. in Schorer 98). She is “handsome, clever and rich” (Austen 1) and lives in a “comfortable home” (Austen 1) with her father at Hartfield throughout the novel. She is financially secure and therefore does not need a husband to exist properly in society. On the other hand, Emmeline’s financial future and therefore independence is unpredictable at the start of Smith’s novel whereas Emma “had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress her” (Austen 1). Emmeline is supposedly illegitimate and therefore “outside the social hierarchy” (Fletcher 15), forced to move from her childhood home of Mowbray Castle and travel to other residences in England, France and the Isle of Man throughout the text, Emmeline eventually goes from being “the indigent dependent on the bounty of a relation…to be heiress to an extensive property” (Smith 354). Even though she marries Godolphin after saying she will never marry at all, they are well matched and have both been tested by more hardship than Emma and Mr Knightley.
Wollstonecraft, Austen and Smith all maintained that companionship was very important in marriage. For a woman to exercise a level of autonomy in her marriage and maintain a sense of control over her own individual life then she needed to be compatible with her husband. A Mothers Advice to her absent Daughters claimed that marriage to the right person “constitutes the highest satisfaction of human life” (qtd in Kaplan 20) and Jones argues that “marriages based on love and esteem were more likely to endure the test of time than those contracted for material gain” (1). Emmeline “questions contemporary patterns of courtship and marriage” (Fletcher 94) through the heroines ability to stand up to her uncle over arranged marriage. However, marriages of convenience were still taking place and parents still played a decisive role in such procedures. Moreover, “a man that combined the ability to inspire the necessary degree of love and esteem with the essential qualification of a good income was not easily come by” (Jones 5).
However, Godolphin and Emmeline are very well matched because they both feel genuine affection for one another but are willing to quell their emotions when they think it could offend the other. They both illustrate a strong sense of virtue and modesty resulting in a mutual match. “Clever” (Austen 1) Emma is well matched with the “sensible” (Austen 4) Mr.Knightley, but I could not help but feel that the instigation of the marriage was based on their individual desire to control the other. When Emma discovers Harriet’s feelings for Mr Knightley, she is prompted into pursuing him for herself. All of sudden she cannot bear the thought of Mr Knightly marrying anyone else and is even content for him to stay single if it means him not pledging himself to another woman.
This desire to control those around her is also seen in Emma’s manipulations of Harriet, showing less of an independent woman and more of an immature and interfering young girl. However, Emma and Mr Knightley do seem to respect one another in their own particular way and despite Emma’s insecurities, they seem to convey a sense of companionship throughout the text. Emma is attracted to Mr Knightley’s “firm, upright bearing as well as his intelligence” (Jones 15) and there is flirtatious humour in their conversational debates alongside meaningful conversation. Yet, I do not believe Emma possesses enough personal confidence away from match-making to be a truly autonomous and independent married individual.
By contrast, Emmeline is happy in her own skin, “solitude was to her always a luxury” (Smith 242), unlike with Emma who has a constant desire to be socially present and superior. Emmeline demonstrates her independent spirit despite Lord Montreville insisting she is “entirely dependent” (Smith 66), she “delighted to wander among the rocks… among the wildest mountains…simply dressed and with no other protection than Providence” (48). We are also told that Godolphin has “one of the best tempers in the world” (Smith 271) and “a heart of extreme sensibility” (Smith 271). He shows this sensibility and self-assurance throughout the text, therefore Emmeline’s autonomous disposition will most likely flourish within her marriage to him. If she had married the overly dramatic Delamere, she would have benefitted from his high rank and fortune, but would have lived in “perpetual apprehension lest the subsiding fondness of her husband should render her the object of his repentance and regret” (Smith 105). Delamere’s “ungovernable violence” (Smith 105) and possessive, dominating nature would have been incompatible with Emmeline and I believe her independence would have been mutually exclusive to this marriage. Moreover, Emma does not have to overcome persistent suitors as Emmeline with Maloney, Mr Rochely, Bellozane and of course Delamere.
The affection she believes Frank Churchill has for her is only imagined as he had been secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax all along. Therefore, while Emma “continued to entertain no doubt of her being in love” (Austen 210) with Frank Churchill for most of the novel and then only admits to loving Mr.Knightley when she feels her pre-eminence threatened by Harriet, her emotions are revealed as superficial and unstable. By contrast, Emmeline’s affection for Godolphin seems far more genuine as she discovers her feelings much more progressively and naturally, eventually feeling grateful for having “the tenderest of husbands” (Smith 476).
Women also required “independent resources” (Austen 68) such as a good education, music and books in order to make their marriage a space of creativity and ensure the home was a stimulating environment in which to bring up children. Mrs Elton claims that “my resources made me quite independent” (Austen 220) before her marriage and she is afraid her ability to practice music will diminish due to her union with Mr Elton. However, not everyone agreed on the level of independence a woman should or could possess in marriage. Some conduct writers such as Hannah More, who was fairly traditional, advocated female submission to men in intellect and imagination claiming “they should be led to distrust their own judgement…while they should be anxiously aspiring to do well, they must not expect always to obtain the praise of having done so ” (152-3).
However, More along with Mary Wollstonecraft who published Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), highlighted the importance of women’s education in making them more suitable for successful, companionable marriage. Catherine Macaulay also asserted that women should be educated, yet she still felt that husbands had the right to “expect obedience from their wives, but that they should in their turn treat those wives as their best friends” (Jones 3). Hester Chapone asserted that women deserved to be educated but also advised in Letter to a Married Lady, that women should make the home a peaceful environment for the husband (Kaplan 18). Thus, More, Chapone and Macauley illustrate a slightly more hesitant approach with radical undertones; however, this was still progress. Wollstonecraft attacked conduct book writers such as James Fordyce and John Gregory who still maintained the backward view that women did not need a decent education.
While she recognised that women and men had different duties in life, women still required the same rights as men to display “independence of character” (Taylor 228). Wollstonecraft and Mary Hays did not believe women needed to obey their husbands to the point where it hindered them from leading fulfilling, independent lives. They argued for “female rationality rather than physical and mental frailty; for vocational female education in place of superficial accomplishments… [and] for conjugal companionship rather than wifely subservience” (Jones 3). Wollstonecraft also argued that a “tractable, repressed woman rarely made a good companion, while wives with minds of their own were better able to understand and befriend their husbands” (Jones 122). In Emmeline, Mrs Stafford is an example of a woman who “had read a great deal” (Smith 80) and then influences Emmeline to apply herself “incessantly to books” (Smith 79) because she has been “ignorant of everything beyond its (Mowbray Castle) walls” (Smith 69). Emmeline’s subsequent desire to self-educate is an example of the employment of external resources that Wollstonecraft urged for in marriage, something necessary in order to avoid the potentially limiting experience of being a wife with no additional means of expression or edification.
Indeed, traditional and narrow notions of femininity were very prominent during the time these novels were published and served to limit women’s independence inside and outside of marriage. Emma’s sister Isabella, who “might have been a model of right feminine happiness” (Austen 112) is presented as “a true conduct book paragon” (Jones 122). She is described in overtly feminine laced language, as a “pretty, elegant little woman, of gentle quiet manners and a disposition remarkably amiable and affectionate, wrapped up in her family, a devoted wife, a doting mother” (Austen 73). Indeed, her husband is juxtaposed against this description as a “tall, gentlemanlike and very clever man, rising in his profession; domestic and respectable in his private character” (Austen 73). By associating the man predominantly with his work and intellectual ability against the women as outwardly delicate and wholly dedicated to fulfilling her role as a wife and mother, it is a prime example of Austen critiquing traditional roles of women within marriage. By deliberately juxtaposing their descriptions, we can see the sort of notions that served to re-enforce women into culturally constructed stereotypes which reduced their physical and mental independence as wives.
Indeed, Emma reflects how her sister passes her life “with those she doted on, full of their merits, blind to their faults and always innocently busy” (Austen 112), therefore never thinking of herself and her needs. In Emmeline, Mrs Stafford seems to lead a similar existence, possessing “the purity of unaffected virtue” (Smith 89), yet she is not so blind to the faults of her husband, despite her reluctance to admit her unhappiness to Emmeline at first. At one point Mrs.Stafford tells her that “others have, in their husbands, protectors and friends, mine only throws me on the burthen of affairs which he has himself embroiled, but adds to their weight by cruelty and oppression” (420), she can neither depend on her partner nor be independent of his problems, much like Smith herself.
While Emmeline makes more decisions by herself and for herself, Emma is obsessed with pleasing her father Mr Woodhouse. Moreover, with Mr Woodhouse constantly praising his daughter, the inflation of her ego is inevitable and she feels empowered by his idolisation. By deterring her from marrying at the same time as he compliments her virtues, Emma associates marriage with displeasing him who is “so truly beloved and important” (Austen 67). She subsequently sees marriage as a threat to their close bond and her favoured position in his heart. Indeed, she reflects how she has “very little intention of ever marrying at all… I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry… I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield” (Austen 67). Emma’s father, who Wilson calls a “silly old woman” (38), manipulates her through a complex combination of dependency and praise which in turn renders her enslaved and frozen in the part of motherly care-taker and perfect daughter, thus a woman very detached from herself and her independence.
This leads me to question the independence of her thoughts on initially remaining single, for it is easy for her to declare she “will never marry” (Austen 30) because she does not need marriage to remain socially and economically mobile. She already has a good position in the Highbury community, enough money and a beautiful home. It is possible to see her reasons for not marrying as entirely related to her father’s dissatisfaction with the idea, for it is only when she knows they can stay at Hartfield that Emma becomes genuinely accepting to the idea of marriage to Mr Knightley. So, I would argue that Emma is far more dependent on others even before she marries, compared to Emmeline who resists Lord Montreville’s authority demonstrating great independence. Furthermore, Mr Knightley is another father figure to Emma, he has “checked and rebuked her… presided over her social development” (Wilson 38) and she accepts his lecturing much like she tolerates her father’s neurotic anxieties concerning marriage.
Emma will most likely continue in this manner after her marriage, therefore her transition to Mrs Knightley “signifies not so much an entrance into maturity as a regression to childish dependency” (Paris 65). Wollstonecraft criticised parental rule, particularly in regards to young girls who are “taught slavishly to submit to their parents… and prepare for the slavery of marriage” (qtd in Taylor 226) which traps women into “lifelong subservience to men” (Taylor 226). With Knightley criticising her when necessary, as he is “one of the few people who could see faults in Emma” (Austen 5) and her continual respect for him, there is the possibility of her sliding into “childish compliance” (Taylor 226) and dependency when married, however this is only speculation.
For me, Emmeline is a real story of female independence. The heroine moves around un-chaperoned and overcomes overpowering male pressures, she geographically explores, undergoes kidnapping, leaves home, makes genuine friendships, falls in love and undergoes rejected by the only people she knows to be her family. Therefore, we are given a chance to see Emmeline’s independence before marriage in her determination “on no account to marry Lord Delamere… and never to marry at all” (Smith375) to her gradual relationship with Godolphin who helps her to increase her sense of identity while she simultaneously matures herself. Therefore, Smith’s text is more of a bildungsroman style novel, whereas Emma’s journey to realisation over her feelings for Knightley and the mistakes she has made especially with Harriet, depict a far more static, straightforward and linear journey.
While Emmeline gradually grows up, Emma is only slightly reformed by her humiliation over the treatment of Miss Bates. Moreover, if we compare the scenes of declaration between Emma and Mr Knightley with Emmeline and Godolphin, we see that the former is dealt with almost satirically and very quickly, it is the work of “a moment” (Austen 344) and Emma becomes tongue tied, whereas with the latter, the desire to tell each other of their passion had been brewing for some time. In Emma, the narrator teasingly withholds specific details, “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does” (Austen 346). By comparison, Smith “breaks the novelistic etiquette that a virtuous heroine must marry the first person she seriously considers as a husband” (Fletcher 98) as Emmeline has to overcome Delamere’s unfaltering advances for the first half of the novel. Emma’s sudden realisation that “Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself” (Austen 328) simply arises because of the “needs and anxieties which arise when her pride is broken” (Paris 91). With Mr. Knightley being such a figure of superiority to Emma, I think it would be extremely hard for her to outgrow her childish dependency on him.
“The perfect happiness of the union” (Austen 390) in Emma is undercut by the uncanny ending and we are left wondering how blissful their marriage will be in reality. I believe it is Austen’s way of critiquing how women were expected to conform to social convention through marriage. The great silence we experience on those last few pages followed by the image of the stolen chickens, conveys the sense that there is something unsaid and a cold “shade” (Schorer 109) looms over the scene. However, it has been argued that Austen is “aware of the limitations of her heroine’s growth and happiness and that she does not really mean for us to see Emma’s character and situation at the end as ideal” (Paris 63). I am not wholly convinced Emma will be happy in her role as Mrs Knightley. While there are some reasons why they are a good match for each other, I think they would need to move out of Hartfield and start their own life in order for Emma’s reformation of character to be fully realised and to ensure marriage and independence did not become mutually exclusive due to her continual confinement in the family home.
Although she retains some power by persuading Mr Knightley to move to Hartfield, the lack of change is claustrophobic and conveys a sense of isolation. On the other hand, I believe Emmeline and Godolphin’s marriage will have more chance of success because they are independent as individuals, therefore Emmeline will have the opportunity to be an independent woman as well as loving wife. Her female friends such as Mrs Stafford and Adelina can visit Mowbray Castle as often as possible, thus leaving that space for female bonds within marriage and a strong female presence in the home, unlike Emma’s isolation at Hartfield. Compared to Mr Woodhouse, whose presence still presides over Emma, Lord Montreville has not determined Emmeline’s future as he had initially wished to do so. For me, Emmeline comes full circle and the long journey Smith’s heroine goes on is physically and mentally testing, thus enhances her own sense of identity and female independence. By contrast, I felt Austen was depicting a far more limited journey of female progress, one which is perhaps not big enough for Emma, and was not challenging enough for many women who at that time experienced a similar cross over into matrimony.
Both Emma and Emmeline end with conventional marriages of the heroine, but I think the reader has a contrasting sense of how independent the women will be once they become Mrs. Knightley and Mrs.Godolphin. Emmeline’s achievement is that “she finds a mid-way point between sense and sensibility, between adjustment to society’s standards and to her own feelings” (Fletcher 15) whereas Emma’s sudden decision to marry after so long maintaining that it is against her very nature to enter such a union, seems superficial as it is instigated by jealousy rather than pure love and affection. For me, female independence within the marriage between Mr Knightley and Emma is far more likely to be mutually exclusive than in the marriage between Godolphin and Emmeline. Emmeline’s physical journey has in turn allowed for a mental one. She has gone from a vulnerable young girl to a strong and resolute young woman and these qualities will most likely increase her sovereignty and self-determination in her ensuing marriage. On the other hand Emma’s previously unstable sense of identity will be stifled by remaining at Hartfield where there is no chance of progress.
Bradbury argued that “no one lives independent of her social context” (IX) in the period in which both Emma and Emmeline are set. However, though it was the road less travelled, economic independence was possible for women in the late C18th and early C19th society, as both Austen and Smith demonstrated in their writing careers. Furthermore, the capacity for female independence within marriage was only mutually exclusive if women did not have external resources such as female friendship, education, books or any other cherished pastime in which to direct their thoughts and exercise their independence of mind and individual skills. Also, the amount of independence a woman felt within her marriage varied extensively depending on the character of the husband. Essentially, marriage needed to be a companionship, not merely an institution or means to an end; it must not be entered into lightly or too young. Otherwise, as is the case with Emma, the woman may find it difficult ever to escape dependence on male authority resulting in marriage and independence being mutually exclusive.
A woman must have matured as an individual and have a strong sense of herself and her interests, in order for marriage and independence co-exist. I believe this to be the case for Emmeline who progresses throughout the text to the point where her marriage and independence as a woman are not mutually exclusive.
This essay was published on Litro on 30th January 2017.
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