Emma Woodhouse: An Unexpected Heroine

Mar 31, 2014 by

Emma Woodhouse: An Unexpected Heroine

Like Cecilia Gray, I really love Emma, and for many of the same reasons (you totally stole my thunder, Cecilia, by saying several things I was planning to say):  Emma is unfailingly kind to her father and never seems to lose patience with him.  She genuinely wants to bring happiness to those she cares about. And to top it all, she is a strong female lead who refuses to be intimidated by anyone.

Now I’m aware that Emma isn’t exactly Miss Popularity when it comes to JA heroines. I suspect that one of the main reasons for this is that she undermines the concept of a conventional heroine, making it quite difficult for us as female readers to identify with her. It’s much easier to empathize with Elizabeth Bennet, for example, who fits very well into the expectations of the quintessential romantic heroine (after all she’s the blueprint). Emma doesn’t. Who could possibly empathize with a female character who says, quite confidently and without irony, “I always deserve the best treatment, because I never put up with any other.” There is no vulnerability to Emma.

But why does a romantic heroine have to be vulnerable, you might ask? It’s easier to explain what I mean by looking at it from a different angle; by seeing Emma, not as a person, but as the role she plays in the novel. From this perspective, despite Emma’s role is to challenge the status quo. Through her, stereotypical social roles are probed and questioned.

To start with, Emma is cast in the role of a powerful, wealthy figure. She’s the equivalent of a male hero in a romance plot. She’s rich, she’s powerful and accordingly she tries to control everyone around her. Plus she’s “handsome”.

If you look at that sentence and substitute masculine pronouns, you’ll see what I mean. “He’s rich, powerful and tries to control everyone around him. Plus he’s handsome.” Sounds familiar?

My point isn’t just to say that what we tolerate in men we don’t tolerate in women, even now, two hundred years later (though that is important) but that there is a role reversal here. Emma is in that sense a romantic hero, one prefers to go it solo, who has no reason at all to bow to the conventions or to feel any need for romance in her life.

Unfortunately – and it says a lot about us as female readers – we can’t identify with a heroine who already has it all. We can identify better with a heroine who is in a vulnerable position to start with – in one way or the other (not pretty enough, not rich enough, has a bad dress sense, etc.). We all know how romances work: the arrogant male protagonist who does not have any need for romance in his life is brought to his knees by a woman who may not be as powerful as he is, but because of her (insert qualities here, let’s say, intelligence and charms) teaches the superior/independent/emotionally underdeveloped male a thing or two about life and as a result, he becomes her devoted slave.

In the novel, effectively, we have two “powerful” lead characters, but it is up to the male figure to teach the emotionally underdeveloped lead how to empathize with those around her. A fascinating switch in roles, wouldn’t you say?

The constant tension in the novel between Emma and Knightley is not simply a romantic one – it’s also a refusal on Emma’s part to allow him to imposition of social constructs on her. The novel appears to be about Emma’s education and “socialization,” and by the end Knightley’s proposal appears to give her the nod of approval, particularly since she responds to the proposal as “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”

But her response doesn’t end there. The next day she declares that she cannot leave her father. The choice is clear. If Knightley wishes to marry her, he must leave Donwell Abbey and live at Hartfield.

It’s a fanciful interpretation but I feel the names are no accident. Bearing in mind that JA’s father and brothers were Oxford men, the word Oxford Don refers to a tutor or teacher. “Abbey” also implies conventional religious teachings – or at the very least an enclosed space where monks or nuns were expected to give themselves up in the service of a higher power. Northanger Abbey, too, is a place where General Tilney asserts his uncompromising tyranny over his children.

Hartfield, on the other hand, suggests both an open space – a field—and matters of the heart. By implication, Knightley is to abandon his position as educator and join Emma in a more open relationship. Am I going too far by reading into those names Emma’s rejection of social conventions?

There are other ways in which Emma seems to break with social conventions and accepted norms.

Take Harriet Smith, for example, whom she chooses as a protégée. She could have had the pick of any young lady at that seminary, yet she chooses one who is the natural daughter of an unknown father. A truly snobbish person would not wish to be associated with a person who is, after all, according to the conventions of the time, a social outcast. Emma sees herself as Harriet’s champion. Harriet becomes a “project” to her. She refuses to accept that a bastard child such as Harriet cannot expect to make a good marriage. She wants her to have higher aspirations. Since aspirations for well-bred young ladies of the time were almost always focused on contracting good marriages, that is what Emma wants to do for her. Society would say marrying an uneducated farmer and living a life of drudgery is as much as Harriet could hope for, but Emma refuses to put up with that limitation. (Later, Mr. Martin is revealed to be better educated and more suitable than Emma would have expected).

Snobbish? Yes, but what a different life Harriet would lead if she were to marry Mr. Elton!

Of course, the very idea that Emma can think of marrying off the daughter of an unmarried woman to a clergyman is deluded and deliciously ironic. There is something almost slapstick about it, particularly since Mr. Elton is not the type of person who has charitable impulses. However, Mr. Elton is eventually punished for his higher aspirations. He is reduced to being Mr. E., the caro sposo, and to playing second fiddle to Mrs. Elton, who thinks she is the one who is giving him consequence.

And then there is her friend/governess Miss Taylor. Again, Miss Taylor does not fit the stereotype of the conventional marriageable type. She’s been with Emma for many years, so she’s not young and she’s a governess. At the very least she is a mother-figure to Emma. She is certainly a very close companion. Yet Emma is quite happy to facilitate a marriage between her and Mr. Weston, a well-established gentleman with a large property, since she knows Miss Taylor would prefer a house of her own.

I could go on about this – how Mr. Woodhouse is more of a child to Emma than a father, how Emma highlights the snobbery and superficiality of women who assume that being married gives them a certain status in society, but I think I’ve run out of space.

I’d love your thoughts on Emma – is she a rebel in other ways?


Monica Fairview is an ex-literature professor who abandoned teaching criticism about long gone authors who can’t defend themselves in order to write novels of her own. Monica can be described as a wanderer, opening her eyes to life in London and travelling ever since. She spent many years in the USA before coming back full circle to London, thus proving that the world is undeniably round.
Monica’s first novel, An Improper Suitor, a humorous Regency, was short-listed for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Joan Hassayan prize. Since then, she has written two traditional Jane Austen sequels: The Other Mr. Darcy and The Darcy Cousins (both published by Sourcebooks) and contributed a short sequel to Emma in Laurel Ann Nattress’s anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It (Ballantine). Originally a lover of everything Regency, Monica has since discovered that the Victorian period can be jolly good fun, too, if seen with retro-vision and rose-colored goggles. She adores Jane Austen, Steampunk, cats, her husband and her impossible child. You can find Monica online at her website and on Facebook.

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  1. Oh, thank you very much for this article! I’m so sick of all the Emma-bashing that goes around and I’m glad that I’m not the only one who sees Emma as smart, strong, kind, compassionate, patient, etc. and a heroine worthy of her status as a mistress of Hartfield and the first lady of consequence of Highbury (I think a lot of people actually forget of her rank and what is due to her, what she can expect from others and the power and the freedom that she enjoys as a result). Just today I was thinking about writing a piece on “Vindicating Jane Austen’s Emma” but you did such an excellent job that I won’t even try!

    • Farida — like you I have often thought that Emma is misunderstood, so I grabbed this opportunity. I am sure you will have some excellent points to make vindicating Emma. I’d love to see your piece.

      Meanwhile, do feel free to let people know it’s here so they can see a different perspective.

  2. Stephanie Carrico

    So glad someone is defending Emma so eloquently…I very much agree with you but have very little talent with words..so couldn’t express myself as well as you.
    Thank you for putting my thoughts and feelings into words.

    • A great pleasure, Stephanie. You’re right that it’s actually quite difficult to express what’s different about Emma. I struggled with it when I was writing the blog, so I’m happy that it came across clearly enough.
      Thank you.

  3. Patty Marq

    Thank you so much for writing this, I noticed things about my way of thinking about Emma I hadn’t noticed before and completely changed my perspective.

  4. Jan Hahn

    Excellent post, Monica! I’ve always loved Emma, and now you’ve explained why I do. Thank you!

  5. Ceri

    Wonderful piece! I have always been very fond of Emma, she means so well, and to me that outweighs a lot of her bad points but I would never have managed to find the words so well as you did here!

    • Very kind of you to say so, Ceri.

      Sometimes her “bad” moments actually reveal her goodheartedness as well. Though she behaves badly in specific situations (Box Hill and the episode with Miss Bates is an example)she cares enough to feel genuinely ashamed of herslf and really makes an effort to make up for it.

  6. No thunder stolen at all as your article takes everything to the next level – I LOVE IT – a case study of Emma as the quintessential romantic hero!!!!!

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