Emma Woodhouse: Poverty, Marriage & Pedestals!

Illustration by Edmund H. Garrett, Emma, Roberts Bros, Boston (1892)“Dear me! it is so odd to hear a woman talk so!”  

“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.”  

“But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!”  

“That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly — so satisfied — so smiling — so prosing — so undistinguishing and unfastidious — and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. But between us, I am convinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried.”  

“But still, you will be an old maid — and that’s so dreadful!”  

“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable, old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls; but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Harriet Smith and Emma Woodhouse, Emma, Chapter 10 

Miss Emma Woodhouse is such a prig! She proclaims that only poverty makes an old maid contemptible. Oh really? She need not marry because it offers her nothing that she does not already possess: fortune, employment or consequence. Arrogance! The first time a read Emma, I scowled so much my face hurt. 

Some readers complain that they can not identify with Emma. Jane Austen has certainly created “a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like.” It is difficult for a reader to sympathize with her struggles, because her arrogance is her biggest fault, and who can feel empathy with that? When I think of other literary heroines we love to hate, I think of Scarlet O’Hara, that smug southern belle in Gone With the Wind. Even though we want to give them both a swift kick in the rear, we are mesmerized over the prospect of what silliness they will do next and who will eventually knock them off their self appointed pedestals. It’s along fall, but worth the wait! 

*Illustration by Edmund H. Garrett, Emma, Chapter 10, Roberts Bros, Boston (1892)

Vintage flourish urn

8 thoughts on “Emma Woodhouse: Poverty, Marriage & Pedestals!

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  1. I am inclined to think of Emma as a little more practical. If we think of Mr. Darcy as almost incomparably wealthy, Mr. Woodhouse is still better off. With marriage primarily an economical beast to the gentry, she would likely be demoting herself by marrying anything but of a Darcy / Knightley standard.

    I think arrogance implies a confidence in a faux-station, but – when all that REALLY matters is fortune and consequence-by-birth-and-association – Emma has a pretty good finger on what she’s worth.


  2. I couldn’t stand Emma the first time I read the book, but upon re-reading it struck me how young she was and how she lost her mother at an early age. We only see the young Emma, whereas with Scarlett we see a woman who doesn’t lose the arrogance, lack of compassion and selfishness as she grows older. Given her reaction at Box Hill, I think there’s hope for Emma.


  3. I agree with Bluestocking! Scarlett is one character in literature I loathed. I despised her. She was mean, selfish and a bully.

    Emma wasn’t like that. Emma was teachable, she might have been proud and independent, but she listened when Mr. Knightley admissioned her. She changed when she saw her error.

    She still listened to her conscience, Scarlett didn’t.

    Scarlett only wanted Rhett when she realized she couldn’t have him anymore. I loved no line in that book more when he said “My dear, I don’t give a damn” after she wanted to reconcile. I not even sure she saw her error then.

    Can you imagine what it took for Rhett to come to this point? Walking to the marriage, he wasn’t blind to Scarlett’s character, but his love for her was so strong he ‘overlooked’ it. I can’t help but think that she not only distroyed herself, she distroyed him (among others).

    Sorry, I’m bitter over Scarlett!


  4. I’ve actually loved Emma since the first time I read the novel. Unlike other Austen heroines, she doesn’t need to marry to avoid being dependent on others for her food, clothing and shelter.

    She is naive in her belief that it is against her “nature” to fall in love, and true, she can proclaim that she will only marry out of love because she is rich, well-situated, with a doting, overindulgent father and a non-entailed estate. Her position in her society at so young an age with so scant an education (at least a practical one) encourages her to be snobby, arrogant and downright rude to the other characters. I still like her though.

    But, I like Scarlett, too: that she’s a horrible mother, a horrible wife, a really horrible sister, and a horrible friend . . . but she’s good company on a summer’s day.


  5. “Emma has a pretty good finger on what she’s worth” – this is a good way to sum it up, but it doesn’t make me like her any more until she actually grows and changes in the last part of the novel! Having confidence in your ‘station’ or ‘value’ in society is frightening to me. It’s like playing god, which she does by trying to match make.

    Scarlet O’Hara knew her value on the marriage market too. She marries multiple times in the novel, though never for love, only for social position, money or her own amusement. Emma and Scarlet are definetly two separate characters with their own faults and final outcome. in the end, I like Emma Woodhouse far better, though Scarlet is more famous.


  6. I first read Emma when I was about 16 or 17, and I really didn’t like her at all. The next time I read it, I was about 20 and liked her a bit more. The trend has held–every time I read Emma, I like the heroine more. Perhaps as I get older, I can appreciate her naivete more and smile indulgently as she experiences those painful experiences that mature her.

    However, after reading Dickson’s chapter on Emma, I now think that Austen was sharply undercutting with irony the naivete of Emma. Much as it goes against the grain to say this, Emma is right in that poverty, rightly or wrongly, can be demeaning. The irony is that Emma never realizes how precarious her situation is. According to Dickson, Emma really has no choice but to marry, and for all Emma’s arrogance, as it has been deemed, that is really a sad commentary on the role of women and their ability to make choices about how to live their lives.


  7. I never disliked Emma. And I tell my brothers to beware: girls are really like that. Please! Don’t be insulted. But what girl didn’t contrive to set up her friends, and imagine attractions that weren’t there, and get involved in intrigues and secrets and flirtations, feeling important by being a part of the romances and fights around them. It is a failing indeed, and I cannot laugh at it, but when Emma is irritated by the slight from the Eltons, a moody out of spirits girl tries to make herself feel better and look more popular to those around her by saying something witty at someone else’s expense. And we all have such an experience, even if it was in our childhood.

    I sympathize with Emma’s inconstancy, with her questions. What is love? How do you know if you’re in love? What makes a worthy man? How do you respond when you don’t return a man’s love? When you are in love, how hopeless it is to try not to think about him! How unsupportable, to imagine him happy with one of your friends, or unhappy without her. Emma doesn’t want change, but she wants to change. Growing up is hard. How does a woman of her standing, rather alone in the community for being so young and so wealthy, reconcile that with her need for guidance and society? What are the risks of depending too much on male friendship and conversation?

    Then take a look at the other characters in Emma. None of them are without fault, either. In fact, a large part of Emma’s failures and sufferings is due to the foolish and selfish and confused actions made by the men: Mr. Elton, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Churchill, Mr. Weston, even Mr. Knightley.

    Finally, I think that whereas most of Jane Austen’s novels are examples of the charm of the polite regency society, Emma may be a complaint against it. Everyone is so restricted by social expectations that no one can simply be themselves and say what they mean, leaving ample room for assumption and misunderstanding. That’s a frustrating way to live life!

    To God be all glory,
    Lisa of Longbourn


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