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)

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