“I cannot rate her beauty as you do,” said he; “but she is a pretty little creature, and I am inclined to think very well of her disposition. Her character depends upon those she is with; but in good hands she will turn out a valuable woman.”Mr. Knightley on Harriet Smith, Emma, Chapter 8
Ah, Harriet Smith, that dear docile creature. So willingly amenable to Emma’s advice and guidance. Sweet natured and supple. Putty, ready to be sculpted into the woman that Emma thinks she ought to be.
Some say that she is a sop, but I LOVE Harriet. Pure of heart, even tempered, and truly artless. Jane Austen has given us a treasure to cherish and root for.
Harriet certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to. Her early attachment to herself was very amiable; and her inclination for good company, and power of appreciating what was elegant and clever, shewed that there was no want of taste, though strength of understanding must not be expected. Ch 4
Even Mr. Knightley, the voice of reason and authority in the novel, who was at first opposed to Emma’s choice of companion, later thinks very highly of her. So why do some misguided souls dislike her?
I have heard/read shocking slander about her character. In the introduction to the novel in the Dover (1999) edition of Emma, Harriet is described as “pretty but dreary“; from the on-line article The Modern Sorcerer, author Scott Horton thinks Harriet is “the naïve and rather simple illegitimate daughter of a somebody“; and in The Enigma that is Harriet Smith, further debasement by Ivor Morris ensues.
The question arises whether Harriet’s moderate mental powers would be a hindrance. Emma sees the want of cleverness as adverse; and our own early impressions are of a thoughtlessness and indecision implicit in the “‘Oh, dear, no'” and “‘Oh! dear, yes!'” of Harriet’s hasty assents during their first walk (87), the see-saw response to Emma’s inference that Mr. Martin does not read – “‘Oh, yes! – that is, no – I do not know – but I believe he has read a good deal – but not what you would think anything of'” (29) – and the agonising at Ford’s as to the destination of the purchased muslin and ribbon.
Ok, enough already. If her greatest faults are that she uses short sentences to express herself, and has difficulty choosing ribbon colours, then I think her critics as snobbish as Emma herself. Honestly, I think that poor Harriet is a target and easy prey to those who choose to place her beneath them because of her social position “the natural daughter of somebody“, her scrambled education at Mrs. Goddard’s School, and her inexperience of the ways of the world. Geesh, give her a break, she’s only 17!
For further reading in defence of the amiable Miss Harriet Smith, you will enjoy General Consent in Jane Austen: A Study of Dialogism, by Barbara Karolina Seeber, published by McGill Queen Press (2000), where an entire chapter entitled “Exactly the something which her home required“: The “unmerited punishment” of Harriet Smith, is devoted to the author’s opinions and others, of Miss Smith and how she is solely and undeservedly maligned in the novel. Bravo Babs!
*Image of watercolour portrait of poet Sara Coleridge, and Edith May Warter, by Edward Nash (1820) National Portrait Gallery