skip to Main Content

Marriage and the Marketplace in Jane Austen’s Emma and Mansfield Park

Marriage And The Marketplace In Jane Austen’s Emma And Mansfield Park

This chapter explores the adverse effects that the marketplace mentality has on social relationships in Jane Austen’s Emma and Mansfield Park.[1] With the ideology of the marketplace introduced into society, relationships are perceived only as commoditized goods to be transacted, resulting in harmful consequences for those characters who adopt this perspective. The dynamics of family, marriage, and the community are significantly altered where cooperation and care are replaced by self-interest and competition. This chapter therefore shows not only the problems that the marketplace mentality brings to Austen’s characters and their worlds but also how the heroines of Emma and Mansfield Park are able to navigate this marketplace to find happiness in their own lives.[2]

What is remarkable is not that both heroines arrive at the same conclusion of matrimony at the end of the novels, but that each protagonist adopts a different strategy to achieve their ends. Fanny Price is often perceived as passive, principled, and insipid, while Emma Woodhouse is regularly observed as active, ironic, and imaginative. Should one accept the religious convictions and seemingly Christ-like suffering of Fanny to resist the marketplace offers of marriage by the likes of Henry Crawford? Or should one approve of Emma’s inventive speculations, ironic observations, and meddlesome match-making to find a marriage apart from the marketplace? Given that both heroines at the end of their respective novels achieve happiness in marriage, it is difficult to assess what Austen may be telling us, if anything, about these questions.

Contrary to the common interpretations of the two heroines, I contend that both Fanny and Emma fundamentally share the same character and values that enables them to resist the marketplace mentality: the reduction of relationships to commensurable goods in order for them to be transacted like commodities. Although they exist in different social and economic circumstances, both understand relationships consist of multifaceted, incommensurate goods: family, friendships, and marriage should not be reduced to a type of commercial transaction but rather should include non-commoditized values, like imagination, irony, and empathy. All relationships, but especially marriage, should include both corporeal and incorporeal goods that remain distinct from each other. The problem that Fanny and Emma confront is a world where relationships have been reduced either to corporeal or incorporeal goods. When this situation transpires, both types of goods become susceptible to commodification.

The result is a reality where appearances are the only things of importance because the marketplace allows one to buy, sell, or trade these types of goods. If marriage does not possess anything beyond the material, a woman only can evaluate a prospective partner by his appearances, such as physical beauty or financial wealth. Likewise, if marriage consists exclusively of the immaterial, a woman is forced to assess a suitor only by his reputation in the hope that it corresponds to his character. In both cases, the reduction of the marital relationship to either corporeality or incorporeality creates a situation where appearances become the currency of the marketplace, regardless of whether the exteriors of appearances actually match the interiors of character.[3]

Thus, Austen’s novels are attempts to discover a marriage based on multifaceted, incommensurate goods in the world of the marketplace. Both Fanny and Emma must find a way to push past appearances to discover genuine human relationships for their families, friendships, and marriages. It may be even the case that women are especially suited for this task. Although in Austen’s novels women are often portrayed in lower positions of authority when compared to men, they possess unique qualities that enable them to better resist the marketplace mentality. In some sense, Fanny and Emma do not even need matrimony to provide them a meaningful existence in their lives, in spite of their differences in status, power, and esteem. Marriage is a preoccupation for them but it does not provide ultimate meaning.

Yet Fanny and Emma do marry at the end of their stories, with their lives being enriched because marriage can be a source of politics and education that differ from the marketplace.[4] By uniting disparate families into a single community and by wedding both corporeal and incorporeal goods together, matrimony becomes a type of politics. It is also a type of education for its participants, leading them to move from self-interest and competition to cooperation and care through imagination, irony, and empathy. Marriage forces Austen’s characters – and hopefully the reader – to recognize that all relationships, but particularly marriage, require incommensurate goods for them to succeed. With these new types of relationships, heroines like Fanny and Emma are able to find happiness in their new marital and communal lives.

The Marketplace of Mansfield Park

Fanny Price is often portrayed as socially passive, religious principled, and utterly unironic, leading critics to characterize Mansfield Park as either supporting or parodying conservative nineteenth-century England.[5] But what is absent in these interpretations is an examination of the commodification of relationships, the marketplace mentality, and its adverse effects on people. On the one hand, there is a set of characters that perceive relationships solely in corporeal terms – Mrs. Norris, Maria Bertram, the Crawfords – and consequently pursue their self-interest in order to satisfy their desires. On the other hand, there are those who see relationship only incorporeally, like Edmund, and, as a result, are skewed in their discernment of what actually transpires. It is only the heroine, Fanny, who is able to recognize the value of relationships based on both the corporeal and incorporeal goods and therefore able to act effectively to achieve a meaningful and lasting happiness for herself and the loved ones around her.

Mrs. Norris is the enforcer of Sir Thomas’ command to maintain Maria’s and Julia’s superiority in rank, fortune, and rights over Fanny. As Wallace observes, Mrs. Norris’ unpleasant behavior towards Fanny becomes comprehensible once it is recognized that she is the older sister of Lady Bertram.[6] After waiting for a fortunate match, she had to “obliged herself to be attached to the Rev. Mr. Norris,” thereby becoming dependent on her younger sister and continually reminded of her lower status (3).[7] It is her lowly status that motives Mrs. Norris to bring Fanny into Mansfield Park so someone else can be “lowest and last” in the family (173).

By claiming credit for bringing Fanny into Mansfield Park as an act of charity but offloading the expenses to Sir Thomas, Mrs. Norris is able to assert a type of parity with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram in the decisions of Mansfield Park without incurring any of the costs.[8] When Sir Thomas is away, Mrs. Norris fills his role of authority by approving affairs at Mansfield Park, such as allowing Lovers’ Vows to be performed, in the attempt to claim a type of equality with her sister and husband. This attempt at parity is also manifested in Mrs. Norris’s role in the education of the Bertram sisters and Fanny. But unlike Maria and Julia, Fanny is reduced to an object of exploitation by Mrs. Norris, who treats her almost as a servant, employing her to “carrying messages, and fetching what she wanted” (16). This abusive treatment of Fanny is another attempt to disguise Mrs. Norris lowly status in order to maintain the appearance of equality with Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram.

Underlying Mrs. Norris’ behavior is her reduction of relationships to a type of materiality where everything can be quantified. Not only are money and the price of items most associated with Mrs. Norris throughout the novel – shifting the monetary burden of raising Fanny to Sir Thomas, moving her residence to Mansfield during Lovers’ Vow to save on living expenses, scrutinizing servants so they do not take too much – but this quantification of relationships enables Mrs. Norris to manipulate and transact relationships in order to achieve a type of parity with her sister and Sir Thomas in the authority at Mansfield Park: Fanny is treated as an inferior to raise the status of Mrs. Norris, who, in turn, looks after the education of the Bertram sisters, a role that should belong to Lady Bertram and Sir Thomas.

Mrs. Norris’ relentless and ruthless pursuit of self-interest ultimately fails, as her character is finally revealed to be an “hourly evil” (365). She is forced to leave Mansfield Park to be with Maria in another county where they grate on each other’s nerves. It should come to no surprise that Maria, the favorite of Mrs. Norris, suffers a similar fate as her aunt’s because of the same flaw. With the arrival of the Crawfords, both Maria and her younger sister, Julia, become engage in an intense sexual competition for Henry’s affections.[9] The satisfaction of Maria’s eventual triumph over Julia is not only the winning of Henry Crawford’s favor but also seeing her sister suffer: “Maria’s countenance was to decide it; if she were vexed and alarmed – but Maria looked all serenity and satisfaction, and Julia well knew that on this ground Maria could not be happy but at her expense” (107).

By reducing the marital relationship as a type of materiality of sexual desire and financial independence, Maria, like Mrs. Norris, initially is successful at achieving her goals of winning Henry Crawford’s affections and marrying Mrs. Rushworth. With the former, she satisfies her sexual desire; with the latter, she attains financial security and independence. But perhaps even more impressive, Maria is able to achieve both of these objectives simultaneously. Compartmentalizing her desires and thus the relationships that satisfy each one enables Maria to have an affair with Henry Crawford while still being engaged to Mr. Rushworth. These types of transactions are possible only if the marital relationship is not seen as an integrated whole but is split into separate components that satisfy different desires.

However, like Mrs. Norris, Maria at the end of the novel fails to find happiness by eloping with Henry Crawford who only later refuses to marry her. This failure can be partially explained by the societal restrictions on female propriety, the patriarchal oppression of her home, and her poor calculation in managing relationships.[10] But, as Sutherland notes, it is Maria’s education, focusing on accomplishments rather than self-knowledge, that is responsible for her unhappy fate.[11] This type of education reinforces the perception that relationships are monist rather than multifaceted in character. Given her education, Maria could not conceive the possibility that relationships consist of incommensurate goods.

The lack of education to include these types of goods also characterizes Mary Crawford’s upbringing, who, as an orphan, was raised by a debauched admiral and his embittered wife in the corrupt environment of London. As Auerbach argues, Mary could have been “truly admirable had she been given a moral education to counter the inescapable corruption around her.”[12] But, as influenced by their surroundings, Mary and her brother embody the metropolitan values of London: commerce, autonomy, and the marketplace.[13] When Mary and Henry visit Mansfield Park, they introduce these values openly. Whereas the values of the marketplace were hidden under the appearance of propriety with Mrs. Norris and Maria, they are fully uncloaked in the words and actions of Mary Crawford, whose “true London maxim” is “that every thing is to be got with money” (47).

Although Mary is attracted to Edmund, her materialistic values make it incompatible for her to marry him, as he will become a clergyman. For Mary, “A large income is the best recipé for happiness I ever heard of.” (167). Unable to divert him into another profession, Mary admits Edmund’s attentions “without any idea beyond immediate amusement” (179). But Mary’s attitude later changes with Tom’s illness. When there is a strong possibility that Edmund will inherit Mansfield Park, Mary thinks that “Edmund would be forgiven for being a clergyman; it seemed, under certain conditions of wealth” (343). The recovery of Tom negates this possibility; and, at their last meeting, Mary terminates her relationship with Edmund by mocking his vocation. She remains the same at the end of the novel as she was at the beginning: “Selfishness must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope for a cure” (54).

By flattening relationships into monetary currency, Mary perceives people simply as means to satisfy her desire for wealth. Not only is her change in attitude towards Edmund representative of her character and values but her blaming of Fanny for Henry’s role in Maria’s extramarital affair is indicative of her monist perspective of relationships. According to Mary, Fanny’s refusal of Henry’s proposal of marriage equates into Henry’s affair with Maria, after Maria had married Mr. Rushworth (358). Of course, this is specious reasoning: the relationship between Fanny and Henry is fundamentally different from one between Henry and Maria in terms of affection, character, and social status. Nevertheless, Mary is able to craft such a connection because of her perception that all relationships are monetary in nature and, like money, can be bought, sold, and transferred. This homogenized conception of relationships evades any moral understanding or responsibility except for self-interest.

The introduction of the marketplace mentality creates a condition where relationships are reduced to a type of materiality and therefore can be traded like commodities. The value of the commodities can differ – whether social status, sexual desire, financial independence, or wealth – but they are all one-dimensional and commensurable with one another. The initial success of Mrs. Norris, Maria, and Mary in navigating the marketplace is due to this reductive perspective. Unfortunately for them, this success is not lasting, as these characters end up unhappy.[14] The strategies of inviting and exploiting inferiors to raise one’s own status, the compartmentalization of desires and relationships, and the pursuit of money at the expense of morality all ultimately run aground for these three.

Reputational Goods

If there were a model of correct judgment and behavior in Mansfield Park, it would appear that Edmund would fit that role: “he was not pleasant by any common rule, he talked no nonsense, he paid no compliments, his opinions were unbending, his attentions tranquil and simple” (52). He is kind and considerate to Fanny when she first arrives at Mansfield Park and later befriends, advises, and protects her as they both mature. At first glance, Edmund would appear to be the antithesis of Mrs. Norris, Maria, and Mary with his commitment to virtuous principles and Christian ethos of caring for others.[15] Yet a closer reading reveals that Edmund suffers from the marketplace mentality, too, in reducing relationships to a monist character. The only difference between Edmund and Mrs. Norris, Maria, and Mary is that he favors the incorporeal at the expense of the corporeal.

This reductionism is first shown by Edmund’s blindness to Mrs. Norris’s greed for money, not to mention her constant exploitation of Fanny. When Fanny is informed that she would have to live with her aunt because of Sir Thomas’s “recent loses on his West India Estate,” Edmund’s positive reaction exhibits his ignorance about Mrs. Norris’s true character (19). Knowing that she had never received any kindness from Mrs. Norris, Fanny immediately turns to Edmund for counsel and comfort. Instead of accurately evaluating the situation, Edmund sees only the benefits of the move, believing that his aunt’s “love of money does not interfere” with the proposal (21). He mistakenly believes that Mrs. Norris will change her conduct “when [Fanny is] her only companion, [she] must be important to her” (21). In fact, Edmund views this move as an opportunity for Fanny to shine: “Here [at Mansfield Park], there are too many whom you can hide behind” (21). Although Mrs. Norris adroitly avoids having to take Fanny into her residence, Edmund’s reaction reveals his ignorance about the true relationship between Mrs. Norris and Fanny.

Edmund’s disregard of corporeal concerns also accounts for his love for Mary, although he repeatedly has been informed of her disdain for the clergy and desire for her husband to have a large income. It is important to note that Edmund falls in love with Mary when she is playing the harp, which adds “to her beauty, wit and good humour” (51). Edmund falls in love not with Mary as she truly is, a person who perceives relationship in terms of monetary self-interest, but the appearance of Mary as the embodiment of incorporeal goods.[16] The neglect of the material dimensions of Mary as a person leads to Edmund’s inattention of Fanny’s genuine physical need of exercise when he trades Fanny’s horse for winning Mary’s favor: Fanny’s mare is to be given to Mary “for a longer time – for a whole morning in short. She has a great desire to get as far as Mansfield common” (55). In order to impress Mary with his generosity and expose her to the grandeur of Mansfield Park, Edmund must engage in a type of transaction that is similar to his aunt’s and sister’s but uses the currency of reputational goods.

Edmund’s concern for reputation is such that he decides to participate in Lovers’ Vows in spite of his earlier objections to the theatrical being performed at Mansfield Park. In his rationalization to participate in the play, Edmund tells Fanny that the situation would become a public scandal if an outsider, such as Charles Maddox, were to join the cast: “It does appear to me an evil of such magnitude as must, if possible, be prevented” (121). He further decides to assume the role of Anhalt, who plays opposite of Mary’s character, citing that “nothing else will quiet Tom” (121). Although he may not be conscious of it, Edmund is pursuing his own corporeal desires under the appearance of reputational integrity, for even if he did want to avoid public scandal, Edmund does not have to play Anhalt. There is no reason why he could not exchange roles with Tom, Yates, or Mr. Rushworth.

When Edmund departs, Fanny reflects about him: “Could it be possible? Edmund so inconsistent! Was he not deceiving himself? Was he not wrong? Alas, it was all Miss Crawford’s doing” (123). Edmund was deceiving himself but he was not inconsistent. Because he perceives relationships in terms of reputational goods, he is able to rationalize his self-interest behavior as a series of transactions. The price of his reputation among his family is the cost to avoid a public scandal, even though the actual motive behind it is to pursue Mary Crawford’s favor. Whereas the currency of material goods for Mary is money, the currency of immaterial goods for Edmund is reputation. Although they both appear fundamentally different in their values, Mary and Edmund actually share the same underlying understanding of relationships as one-dimensional and commensurate.

Edmund eventually recognizes that this monist approach to relationships is futile and turns to Fanny for refuge: “Fanny’s friendship was all that he had clung to” (361).[17] However, Edmund only reaches this conclusion after Tom’s illness, Maria’s elopement, and Mary’s callous and insulting behavior towards him. But after a prolong period of unhappiness and suffering, Edmund is restored to his normal temperament and finally is aware of his love of Fanny. Although Austen does not delve into the details of Edmund’s transformation from unhappiness to happiness, she suggests that Fanny had a morally restorative effect on him, with Edmund “after wandering and sitting under trees with Fanny all the summer evenings” (363). Characterizing the domestic bliss of Edmund and Fanny as “true merit and true love, and no want of fortune or friends,” Austen discloses the importance of understanding relationships as both immaterial – “true merit and true love” – and material goods – “fortune and friends” (372). Under Fanny’s tutelage, Edmund understands that relationships consist of multifaceted and incommensurate goods rather than monist and commensurate ones.

Imagination and Irony

Seeing Fanny as a moral teacher of Edmund, much less playing an active role in the novel, is contrary to most interpretations, as scholars portray Fanny as passive and insipid, albeit principled and religious.[18] For feminist interpretations, like Poovey’s, the best one can hope for is that Fanny embodies the principle of feminine service: Lady Bertram claims she cannot do without her; Edmund feels guilty when he neglects her; Sir Thomas discovers her beauty and values; and Henry Crawford admires “the deep interest, the absorbed attention” with which she listens to her brother talk about himself” (184).[19] But, as Wallace observes, the success of this type of feminine service is limited with authority figures unreliable in judgment and quickly finding substitutes when she disappears: Sir Thomas embraces Fanny only after his own daughters utterly disappointed him and Lady Bertram adopts Susan Price as Fanny’s replacement.[20]

A closer look at Fanny uncovers a more active character than initially perceived. Fanny is the only one to resist participating in Lovers’ Vows on the principle of decorum and even withstands the requests of Edmund who had asked her to play the cottager’s wife.[21] Fanny’s steadfastness stands in stark contrast to Edmund’s behavior, who is often portrayed as the model of principle and virtue. More revealing is Fanny’s refusal of Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal in spite of pressure from Edmund and Sir Thomas, the latter who removes Fanny from Mansfield Park not so she could see her family but to make her realize that the luxury of living at Mansfield is dependent on Sir Thomas’s good will. No other member of the Bertram household directly defies Sir Thomas except Fanny.[22]

Fanny also plays an active, facilitating role in the promotion of her brother’s career as well as soliciting her sister, Susan, to stay at Mansfield Park; and she consents to Edmund’s marriage proposal, a union which Sir Thomas initially feared at the beginning of the novel but now recognizes that “Fanny was indeed the daughter that he wanted” (371). By being shown that her decisions ultimately were correct, Fanny’s principled behavior changes the mind of Sir Thomas to the point where he permits her into his immediate family. Such a change is not possible if Fanny were passive and insipid as critics claim. Although Fanny does engage in a form of feminine service, she is also an active participant in resisting wrong when no one else does and facilitate the fortunes of her immediate familial members when possible and deserving.

When compared to the other female characters in the novel, Fanny’s behavior falls in the middle between those who are entirely passive (e.g., Lady Bertram, Mrs. Grant) and those who are too active (e.g., Mrs. Norris, Maris, Mary). In contrast to Lady Bertram and Mrs. Grant, the former who submits to Sir Thomas in all matters and the latter who defers to Mary, Fanny’s resistance to Sir Thomas’s commands is certainly not passive. But, unlike Mary or Maria, the former who speaks too directly about the heir of Mansfield Park and latter who elopes with Henry Crawford, Fanny refrains from directly defying Sir Thomas and therefore does not overshoot the mark in her actions. Rather than functioning as a template of feminine service, Fanny is a model of feminine resistance that acts as the situation demands: neither too active nor too passive but just right.[23]

As a woman in nineteenth-century Britain, Fanny is restricted in her behavior when compared to her male counterparts. But this constraint is not necessarily morally limiting as Fanny must rely upon her imagination and irony to navigate her way in the world of Mansfield Park. Almost all the ironic moments in the novel are portrayed from Fanny’s perspective, such as Edmund’s participation in Lovers’ Vows or the duplicitous behavior of Henry Crawford towards the Bertram sisters and herself. Fanny’s ability to see the discrepancy between explanation and action – her irony – is due to her rejection of monist relationships. By recognizing that relationships consist of multiple, incommensurate goods, Fanny is able to adopt an ironic stance to evaluate situations accurately and correctly.

However, the irony of these scenes for the reader is modified by Fanny’s imagination which often empathizes rather than judge people’s motives and feelings. For instance, when Julia is unhappy because Henry has selected Maria over her, Fanny has sympathy for her cousin, even though “Julia made no communications and Fanny took no liberties . . . [but they were] connected only by Fanny’s consciousness” (128). Fanny’s imagination, to speculate about what could be possible as opposed to merely observing what is, makes her empathic to other people’s perspectives. Instead of adopting a stance of satire, Fanny’s irony becomes soften by her imagination, thereby making her, and the reader, empathic for them. In fact, with the exception of the early scenes that involve Mrs. Norris, Fanny is the only perspective that permits irony and imagination to be recognized by the reader in the novel.

This ability to imagine and consequently to empathize with people permits one to recognize the faults of monist relationships. Fanny is the only one who is able to perceive past the appearances of Henry Crawford because her imagination and irony comprehends that Henry’s values do not correspond to his proclamations of love. Whereas Henry, Mary, Sir Thomas, and others see marriage as a commodity that can be transacted like any other currency, Fanny views marriage as a relationship that cannot be transacted because matrimony consist of multifaceted, incommensurate goods. From a monist perspective, Fanny should accept Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal as it would guarantee material security in exchange for Fanny’s reputation of virtue; but from Fanny’s imaginative and ironic perspective, material security and virtue are not exchangeable goods, although both are required for a successful marriage. The failure of Henry Crawford to understand this difference accounts not only for Fanny’s refusal to marry him but also explains his affair with Maria as a type of transaction that equates Fanny’s honorable denial to a satisfaction of his sexual desire.

Like Henry Crawford, Edmund perceives relationships one-dimensionally, too, but in terms of reputational goods; unlike Henry Crawford, he is able to change his perspective under the guidance of Fanny. Austen does not delve into the details of this moral education of Edmund, but it clear that Fanny had a positive effect on him over the summer when Tom was regaining his health. But even before the shock of Tom’s illness, Maria’s elopement, and Mary’s callousness, Edmund recognizes Fanny’s correct judgment: she is the model of principle and right judgment that his reputation claims him to be. Edmund possesses imagination but it is stunted by his marketplace mentality. He requires the corrective education of both the example and words of Fanny.

Thus, Fanny is not as passive and unironic as critics claim. Fanny’s imagination, irony, and empathy allow her to perceive past the appearances of characters to their actual values. Because of this capacity, Fanny is able to see beyond Henry Crawford’s appearances to discover his true character, Edmund’s misplaced love for Mary, and Maria’s and Mrs. Norris’s selfishness. It is not by accident that Fanny is the only character in the novel that correctly diagnoses people’s relationships. Unlike the male characters, who lack both imagination and irony but nevertheless are placed in positions of authority, Fanny presents an alternative perspective of family, community, and politics that is based on imagination, irony, and empathy. This community and politics would be based on both corporeal and incorporeal values that are incommensurate with one another, thereby voiding any transactions of relationships. Although such a vision is only alluded to at the end of the novel with Fanny and Edmund moving to the Mansfield Parsonage, it plays a more central role in Austen’s other novel, Emma.[24]

Feminine Politics

As both her defenders and detractors observe, Emma is unique among Austen’s heroines as a woman “handsome, clever, and rich” (5).[25] She also differs from her counterparts in that she has a tender love for her father who is dependent upon Emma’s strength and judgment. She has autonomy in her affairs – “I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house, as I am of Hartfield” (68). But, unlike other independent women in Austen’s novels, she is young and not a widow: “Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want” (68).[26] As Johnson argues, “its willingness to explore positive versions of female power” is what makes both the character and the novel exceptional in Austen’s works.[27]

Because of her privileged position, Emma plays a leading role in the affairs of Highbury. After believing that she has successfully married Miss Taylor to Mr. Weston, she takes up the task to improve Harriet Smith to marry someone better than Robert Martin. Although she is ultimately unsuccessful in her undertaking, Emma’s superintendence of Harriet is noteworthy for befriending an illegitimate girl and ignoring the social stigma attached to it. Because of the social strictures of the period, it would be too much to read Emma’s venture as a reflection of democratic values.[28] But such an attachment is a reflection of her imagination that Harriet is the daughter of the “blood of gentility,” although there is no evidence at this point to make such a claim (379). Within the confines of British class structure, Emma’s imagination permits the possibility of class mobility based not only on wealth but also on merit, character, and other incorporeal values.[29]

Whereas in Mansfield Park Sir Thomas seeks to solidify class structure by reminding Fanny of her inferior status to Maria and Julia, Emma provides opportunities for social mobility if people demonstrate their worth.[30] The fact that Harriet fails in exhibiting good judgment throughout the novel does not negate Emma’s efforts for improving her. By marrying Mr. Martin at the end of the novel, Harriet actually reveals the social and political correctness of Highbury: the appropriate marriage of people with similar character and values in spite of, or because of, the opportunity of class mobility caused by Emma’s imagination.

Emma’s imagination also speculates why Jane Fairfax prefers to spend three months with the Bates as opposed to going to Ireland with Mr. Dixon and his wife. Critics have interpreted this scene as Emma having only too quickly forgotten her mistake of trying to marry Harriet with Mr. Elton.[31] However, what is neglected is the similar situation of both women: although they differ in education and character, both Harriet and Jane are orphans, have modest resources, and possess poor prospects for the future. Emma wishes that she could find a suitable husband for Jane, but “lament that Highbury afforded no young man worthy of giving her independence; nobody that she could wish to scheme about for her” (132). Unlike Harriet, Jane’s elegance, talent, and beauty not only “softens” Emma’s previously tepid feelings towards her but also make Emma realize that there is nobody in Highbury worthy of Jane.

Thus, Emma’s imagination is not the rampant speculation of fantasy that Austen satires in Northanger Abbey but is calibrated to the social and economic realities of her society.[32] Directed at those who are less fortunate than her, Emma’s imagination seeks to provide social mobility if partners are suitable in character and values. Although in the end Emma is mistaken about both Harriet’s and Jane’s love interests, the former partially out of vanity and the latter somewhat out of envy, Emma’s imagination allows her to help those in need when possible.

The one person who matches Jane in character in Highbury is Mr. Knightley. When Emma inquires about Mr. Knightley’s interest in Jane as a potential marital partner, she had “Little Henry” in her thoughts with “a mixture of alarm and delicacy” (224). Emma’s concern about a marriage between Mr. Knightley and Jane Fairfax could leave her nephew, Henry, deprived of Donwell Abbey. This worry undercuts scholars’ criticism that Emma’s imagination is overly-speculative. In this situation, Emma’s imagination exhibits her ability to address material matters, such as her nephew’s inheritance, as well as immaterial ones like character and values. Her imaginative faculty creates a flexibility to address these incommensurate but connected concerns.

Mr. Knightley’s answer about his admiration but not attraction to Jane Fairfax – “She is reserved, more reserved, I think than she used to be – And I love an open temper” – satisfies Emma (226). However, Emma fails to recognize her own love Mr. Knightley until Harriet confesses her aspirations to marry him. This is a shock for Emma, for “Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!” (320). Although Emma’s imagination constructs a flexibility in the social fabric of Highbury, it is guided by matching people of similar characters and values. It is the incongruity of character and values between Mr. Knightley and Harriet, “Was it a new circumstance for a man of first-rate abilities to be captivated by very inferior powers?” that prompts Emma to turn her imagination inward so she can recognize her own love for Mr. Knightley (325).

The eventual marital union between Emma and Mr. Knightley appear to conservative critics to support the established order: it puts an end to Emma’s singular reign and brings her back into the fold of patriarchal society. But, as Johnson notes, Mr. Knightley moves to Hartfield is extraordinary considering his own independence and wealth: “How very few of those men in a rank of life to address Emma would have renounced their own home for Hartfield!” (367).[33] Earlier Mr. Knightley vows, “A man would always wish to give a woman a better home than one he takes her from” (336). But, while Donwell Abbey is a superior home to Hartfield, Mr. Knightley defers to Emma’s wish to stay indefinitely at Hartfield until her father’s death. By sharing in her home, Mr. Knightley is not a superior but an equal with Emma in their governance of Hartfield, Donwell Abbey, and Highbury.

Mr. Knightley’s Education

Whereas Emma possesses an imagination that permits a fluidity in the social relations in Highbury, the men appear to lack this capacity and consequently reinforce rather than reform society’s social structure. For instance, Mr. Knightley is portrayed as the voice of moral probity at various scenes in Highbury: the portrait party at Hartfield, the Cole’s dinner, the Box Hill excursion. He constantly lectures and admonishes Emma in the hope to improve her: “I have blamed you, and lectured you, and you have borne it as no other woman in England would have borne it” (338).[34] However, unlike Fanny, Emma is a social equal to Mr. Knightley and often defends her actions as well as ignores Mr. Knightley’s advice.

Unlike Emma’s imagination, Mr. Knightley reinforces the established social order by narrowing rather than enlarging the range of goods required for happiness. He sees the marital union between Harriet and Mr. Martin as one would benefit Harriet who has no claims of “birth, nature, or education” (49). For Mr. Knightley, the marriage between Harriet and Mr. Martin is one of commensurate goods that can be exchanged – Mr. Martin’s economic security for Harriet’s beauty and good temper – and would support the social hierarchy at Highbury. While Emma’s imagination perceives relationships as multifaceted and incommensurate goods, Mr. Knightley flattens these distinctions in order to transact marriages for the sake of preserving the traditional social structure.

Mr. Knightley also errs about his thoughts about Harriet. After claiming that Harriet is “not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information . . . no experience, and with her little wit, is not very likely ever to have any that can avail her,” Mr. Knightley later changes his evaluation of her, making concession to Emma, “Harriet Smith has some first-rate qualities, which Mrs. Elton is totally without” (49, 260). When it is revealed that Harriet is the daughter of a rich tradesman, Emma’s speculation about Harriet’s heritage of “blood of gentility” is closer to the truth than Mr. Knightley’s claims. Mr. Knightley’s mistaken impression about Harriet is also underscored by his initial rejection of the match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, the latter who “is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation” (49). But, as later is revealed in the novel, Harriet is actually the superior to Mr. Elton in character and values, as he married Miss Hawkins whose ten thousand pounds cannot disguise her and husband’s vanity and vulgarity.

With regards to Frank Churchill, both Emma and Mr. Knightley are unable to see past his machinations to discover his true character. Mr. Knightley originally denounces Frank as an “Abominable scoundrel” only later to call him a “very good sort of fellow,” when he learns that Emma never loved him (334, 340). For her part, Emma believes that Frank was in love with her, although she “for some time past, for at least these three months, cared nothing about him” (312). When it is revealed that Frank has been secretly engaged to Jane, Emma’s immediate reaction is to think about Jane and Harriet. Unlike Mr. Knightley, who thinks about himself, Emma’s mind is directed towards Jane’s ill-judgment of her and Harriet’s distress. While Mr. Knightley accepts Frank’s behavior when it aligns with his self-interest, Emma only tolerates it for the benefit of Jane, for “Emma’s feelings were chiefly with Jane” (377).

The failure of both Emma and Mr. Knightley to discern Frank’s true intentions shows that imagination or self-interest alone cannot allow one to see past appearances. Emma needs irony to balance against her imagination, while Mr. Knightley requires both. Mr. Knightley’s blindness to his own self-interest leads him to denounce Frank as “the trifling, silly fellow” after first meeting him; and his admiration for Jane Fairfax prevents him from considering her of conducting a clandestine affair (162). If Mr. Knightley had possessed imagination and irony, he may not have reached the wrong impression of them.

Emma consequently is not only about the moral education of the heroine but also of her hero, Mr. Knightley. This education about balancing imagination with irony transpires in both of them. For Emma, it is the possibility of Harriet marrying Mr. Knightley that prompts her to reflect seriously upon her own feelings for him; for Mr. Knightley, it is Frank’s attentions to Emma that provoke him to recognize his own love for her. The change in both of them is equal, dramatic, and lasting:

Her change was equal. – This one half hour had given to each the same precious certainty of being beloved, had cleared from each the same degree of ignorance, jealousy, or distrust. – On his side, there had been a long-standing jealousy, old as the arrival, or even the expectation, of Frank Churchill. – He had been in love with Emma and jealous of Frank Churchill, from about the same period, one sentiment having probably enlightened him as to the other” (339-40).

The politics of female authority therefore does not need a Mr. Knightley, as he himself requires both imagination and irony, whereas Emma only lacks the latter.[35] While Mr. Knightley wishes to find matches to reinforce the established social order, Emma’s imagination seeks to reform it with opportunities of social mobility. Although her match-making fails, Emma provides a template of social and political reform while being anchored in the corporeal concerns of wealth. While Mr. Knightley sees both corporeal and incorporeal goods as commensurable and consequently transferable, Emma recognizes the need for both types of goods but retain their distinctiveness. Thus, the marketplace mentality of marriage is modified by Emma’s imagination to make it more humane, open to reform, and access new possibilities.


This need for social and political reform is indirectly addressed by Austen with poverty manifested in the gypsies attack on Harriet, the theft of Mrs. Weston’s turkeys, and the life of hardship as a governess for Jane Fairfax. This theme is more explicitly attended in Mansfield Park with discussion of the slave trade, the poor state of the Price household, and the financial problems of Sir Thomas.[36] In both societies, poverty hovers continually in the background and occasionally looms forward to center stage, showing the need for reform. But this fear of poverty, combined with the introduction of the ideology of the marketplace, creates a condition where relationships turn into a type of commodity based on appearances. In this world people reduce relationships to either corporeal or incorporeal goods, commoditizing them so they can pursue their own self-interest at the expense of care and cooperation.

What Fanny and Emma provide is not only a different understanding of relationships but an alternative form of politics. Fanny’s and Emma’s imagination, irony, and empathy perceive relationships as multifaceted, incommensurate goods with care, cooperation, and social mobility as characteristic of their communities. It invites a politics that is opposed to the self-interest and competition of the marketplace and assumes a different form of action than the scolding of Mr. Knightley, the unaware hypocrisy of Edmund, and coercion of Sir Thomas. Emma employs persuasion to improve Harriet, while Fanny actively resists when her principles are threatened. This form of politics is more encouraging to cultivate a community based on care and cooperation compared to the marketplace where actors are placed in zero-sum game situations.

Although Emma and Fanny are different in their social and economic circumstances, they still are able to discover happiness in their marital lives and in their respective communities. In some sense, they are both orphans, with Fanny abandoned by her immediate family for the austere life of Mansfield Park, and Emma’s mother dying long ago and whose father is more like a younger sibling rather than a parent. The vulnerability of women without husbands or inheritance in early nineteenth-century Britain was enormous, and especially more so for orphans.[37] But instead of adopting a marketplace mentality, both Emma and Fanny look towards imagination, irony, and empathy for a better possible world.[38] By sharing the same character and values, they are able to resist the marketplace of mentality and discover true happiness in their lives.

These lessons should not be lost to us, for in our own world, which has adopted the marketplace mentality, we see friendship reduced to technological “likes” and marital partners traded in for better ones whether out of wealth, beauty, or reputation. What we can learn from Austen’s Emma and Mansfield Park then is not a return to nineteenth-century patriarchal society or to read back into Austen’s novels a type of radical feminism but rather draw upon the protagonists’ imagination, irony, and empathy to shape a better understanding of family, friendship, and marriage. Austen’s novels allow us to reconsider relationships based on a different set of goods and therefore create a different type of politics other than self-interest and competition. This alternative vision recognizes the needs of the corporeal goods and the role the marketplace plays in them but it does not reduce everything to materiality or commoditizes the immaterial. It does not spell out a political program but a personal call for reconsideration of our own relationship to the world as multifaceted rather than monist. Such a vision reminds us of our own human condition and what role the market plays – and does not play – in it.



[1] Benedict examines the commodification of objects but not of characters in Austen’s novels, while Miles surveys the economic background of Austen’s period and how it affects her characters. Solinger’s study is similar to Miles’ but with a focus on the novel, Persuasion. Michie’s account of commerce in Austen’s novels is closest to my own. She explores how commerce corrodes Austen’s female characters’ psyches and therefore they require Smith’s theory of moral sentiments to correct them. On this point I concur with Michie but enlarges her argument it by pointing out that the psychology of the marketplace is adopted by all characters except the heroines Fanny and Emma and that this psychology reduces all relationships to either material or immaterial matters to be commoditized. I disagree with Michie that Emma requires Smith’s account of sympathy to be morally restored and advocate that imagination and irony instead of Smith’s theory of sympathy as the cure to the marketplace mentality. Finally, I contend that the women in Austen’s novels, especially the heroines, provide an alternative set of values to the marketplace, as opposed to being objects of satire, as Michie claims. For more about the role of economics in Austen’s works, refer to the thirty-sixth endnote for the citations.

Elsie B. Michie, “Austen’s Powers: Engaging with Adam Smith in Debates about Wealth and Virtue,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 34.1 (Autumn 2000): 5-27; Robert Miles, “’A Fall in Bread’: Speculation and the Real in ‘Emma,’” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 37.1/2 (Fall 2003-Spring 2004): 66-85; Jason Solinger, “Jane Austen and the Gentrification of Commence,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 38.2/3 (Spring-Summer 2005): 272-90; Barbara M. Benedict, “The Trouble with Things: Objects and the Commodification of Sociability,” in A Companion to Jane Austen, ed. Claudia Johnson and Clara Tuite (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 343-54.

[2] Besides the scholars mentioned in the first endnote, Brown contends that marriage acts as a type of social change in Austen’s novels; Newman investigates feminist scholars’ problem with Austen’s novels concluding in matrimony; Evan and Cohen explore the relationships among men, women, property, and the state; Walker investigates Austen’s understanding of marriage in the context of the Romantic movement; and Burgess and Jones examine Austen’s ideas of romance and marriage in the social, economic, and cultural context of eighteen-century Britain.

Julia Prewitt Brown, Jane Austen’s Novels: Social Change and Literary Form (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979); Karen Newman, “Can This Marriage Be Saved: Jane Austen Makes Sense of an Ending,” ELH 50.4 (Winter 1983): 693-71; Mary Evans, Jane Austen & The State (London: Tavistock Publications, 1987); Monica F. Cohen, “Persuading the Navy Home: Austen and Married Women’s Professional Property,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 29.3 (Spring 1996): 346-66; Miranda Burgess, British Fiction and the Production of Social Order, 1749-1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Hazel Jones, Jane Austen and Marriage (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2009); Eric Walker, Marriage, Writing, and Romanticism: Wordsworth and Austen After the War (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2009).

[3] The problem of appearances or initial misimpressions is a common theme in Austen’s work. For example, refer to Daniel Cotton. “The Novels of Jane Austen: Attachments and Supplements,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 14.2 (Winter 1981): 152-67.

[4] Conservatives, feminists, and other schools of thought argue for a certain type of politics in Austen’s novels, all of which will be cited later. For two works that explicitly address this issue, refer to David Monaghan, ed., Jane Austen in a Social Context (Totowa: Barnes & Nobles, 1981) and Edward Neill, The Politics of Jane Austen (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1999).

[5] Trilling and Tanner sees Fanny as an unattractive heroine because of her lack of wit and irony. By contrast, Tarpley, Scheuermann, Ruderman and Duckworth praise Fanny’s morality as “representative of Jane Austen’s own fundamental commitment to an inherited culture” (Duckworth, 73). Amis, Mudrick, and Mansell point to Mansfield Park’s rejection of wit as a betrayal of Austen’s own instincts, while Johnson and Wallace interpret the novel as a parody or demystification of conservative England. Finally, Wing-chi Ki offers a dialectical paradigm where the conservative Austen alternates with a radical version that yields an ongoing critique of misrecognition.

Marvin Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952); Amis Kingsley, “What Became of Jane Austen? Mansfield Park,” Spectator 199 (1957): 339-40; Lionel Trilling, “Jane Austen and Mansfield Park,” in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, Vol. 5, From Blake to Bryon, ed. Boris Ford (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957), 112-29; Tony Tanner, “Introduction to Mansfield Park,” in Mansfield Park (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics Edition, 1966), 7-36; Alistair M. Duckworth, The Improvement of the Estate: A Study of Jane Austen’s Novels (Baltimore: John Hopkins Press, 1971), 73; Darrell Mansell, The Novels of Jane Austen: An Interpretation; Claudia Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Anne Crippen Ruderman, The Pleasures of Virtue: Political Thought in the Novels of Jane Austen (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995); Tara Ghoshal Wallace, Jane Austen and Narrative Authority (London: St. Martin’s Press, 1995); Madeline Wing-chi Ki, Jane Austen and her Family (New York: Lang, 2005); Mona Scheuermann, Reading Jane Austen (New York: Palgrave, 2009); Joyce Kerr Tarpley, Constancy & The Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (Washington D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2010).

[6] Wallace, Jane Austen and Narrative Authority, 60-61.

[7] Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). All subsequent, in-text citations are from this book.

[8] Meyer Spacks, Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 222.

[9] The hostilities between the sisters is so great that they even make each other their enemies and risk public scandal: “The sister with whom she was used to be on easy terms was now become her greatest enemy . . . Maria felt her triumph, and pursued her purpose carless of Julia; and Julia could never see Maria distinguished by Henry Crawford, without trusting that it would create jealously, and bring a public disturbance at last” (127-28).

[10] My interpretation is compatible with both feminist and rational choice criticisms of Austen. Although the women are constrained in their choices by the social context of patriarchal society, they are free to perceive relationships as multifaceted, incommensurate goods or as commodities to be transacted. Likewise, my interpretation is compatible with rational choice theory to the extent that some characters do perceive relationships as commensurate goods. However, as I argue, this understanding of relationship is a form of the marketplace mentality that ultimately is unsatisfactory for Austen’s heroines.

Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen: Feminism and Fiction (Totowa: Barnes & Noble,1983); Johnson’s Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel; Alison Sulloway, Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989); Michael Suk-Young Chwe, Jane Austen, Game Theorist (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[11] Kathryn Sutherland, A Memoir of Jane Austen and Other Family Recollections (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), xxi.

[12] Emily Auerbach, Searching for Jane Austen (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 182.

[13] Sutherland, A Memoir of Jane, xxxiii; Tanner, “Introduction to Mansfield Park,” 442, 446-48.

[14] Although Mrs. Norris and Maria are unhappy at the end of the novel, Mary’s fate is unclear: Mary was “long in finding among the dashing representatives, or idle heir apparents, who were at the command of her beauty, and her 20,000l any one who could satisfy the better taste she had acquired at Mansfield” (369).

[15] Some scholars have interpreted Austen’s novels as a form of virtue ethics and advocating religious principles and sentiments. My interpretation is compatible with these schools of thought, although it does rely upon them for my argument.

For Austen’s account of virtue, refer to Duckworth, Improvement of the Estate; Allan Bloom, “Austen, Pride and Prejudice,” in Love and Friendship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 191-208; Ruderman, The Pleasure of Virtue; Michie, “Austen’s Powers,” Sarah Baxter Emsley, Jane Austen’s Philosophy of Virtues (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005); Tarpley, Constancy & The Ethics of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. For the role of religion in Austen’s works, refer to Irene Collins, Jane Austen and the Clergy (London: Hambledon Press, 1993); Michael Giffin, Jane Austen and Religion: Salvation and Society in Georgian England (Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Laura Mooneyham White, Jane Austen’s Anglicanism (Surrey: Ashgate, 2011). For more about the Enlightenment’s influence in Austen’s novels, refer to Peter Knox-Shaw, Jane Austen and the Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) and E.M. Daldez, Mirrors of One Another: Emotion and Value in Jane Austen and David Hume (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

[16] Edmund recognizes this only later when he turns to Fanny for moral guidance: “I had never understood her [Mary] before, and that, as far as related to my mind, it had been a creature of my own imagination . . . And what an acquaintance has it been! How have I been deceived! Equally in brother and sister deceived!” (360-61).

[17] Edmund ,“Even in the midst of his late infatuation [of Mary] . . . had acknowledged Fanny’s mental superiority” (370).

[18] For more about Fanny’s passivity constituting a type of authority, refer to W.A. Craik, Jane Austen: The Six Novels (London: Meuthen, 1965); Marilyn Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975); Bernard J. Paris, Character and Conflict in Jane Austen’s Novels: A Psychological Approach (Detroit: Wayne State University, 1978); Marylea Meyersohn, “What Fanny Knew: A Quiet Auditor of the Whole,” in Jane Austen: New Perspectives, ed. Janet Todd (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1983), 224-30; Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer: Ideology as Style in the Novels of Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley, and Jane Austen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984); Paula Marantz Cohen, “Stabilizing the Family System at Mansfield Park,” ELH 54.3 (Fall 1987): 669-93; Paul Pickrel, “Lionel Trilling and Mansfield Park,” SEL 27.4 (Autumn 1987): 609-21.

For those who challenge this interpretation of Fanny as a form of passive moral authority, refer to Avrom Fleishman, A Reading of Mansfield Park: An Essay in Critical Synthesis (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967); Nina Auerbach, Communities of Women: An Idea in Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978). Fleishman sees Fanny simply as a weak woman, while Auerbach views Fanny’s silence as a type of “obstructive power” of “potent control over action” (45 and 211 respectively).

[19] Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, 217-18. Johnson alludes to the same principle when she writes about Fanny as the “heroine ideologically and emotionally identified with the benighted figures who coerce and mislead her” (Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, 96). Wallace sees Fanny’s service as embracing the social system, “to catch the best manner of conforming,” because she wants a secure position in the Bertram family (Jane Austen and Narrative Authority, 17).

[20] Wallace, Jane Austen and Narrative Authority 73-74.

[21] Julia also does not participate in the play but out of spite, envy, and jealousy, as Henry Crawford has picked Maria over her for his affections.

[22] Tom is the only other one who directly defies Sir Thomas. However, his fate is less uncertain at the novel, whereas Fanny’s happiness is assured.

[23] The critics who subscribe to Austen as a writer of virtue ethics contend that various characters exhibit virtues like prudence. I agree with their interpretation except that I argue it is the female characters, like Fanny, that demonstrate these traits and not the male characters, as they claim.

[24] Another example of this alternative form of politics can be found in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Auerbach, Communities of Women, 38-54. Also refer to Anna Despotopoulou, “Fanny’s Gaze and the Construction of Feminine Space in ‘Mansfield Park,’” The Modern Language Review 99.3 (July 2004): 569-83.

[25] All subsequent in-text citations are from Jane Austen, Emma, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003). For criticism of Emma because she assumes male authority and therefore poses a threat to the male sexual hierarchy, refer to R. W. Chapman, Facts and Problems (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1948), 134; Jane Austen, Emma, ed. Lionel Trilling (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1957), xxv-xxvi; Sutherland, Memoir of Jane Austen, 157; Paris, Character and Conflict in Jane Austen’s Novels, 69, 73; Duckworth, Improvement of the Estate, 148; Mudrick, Jane Austen: Irony as Defense and Discovery, 181-206; Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, 121-24. For more about the criticism of Emma, refer to Paula Byrne, ed., Jane Austen’s Emma: A Sourcebook (New York: Routledge, 2004); and for more about gender roles during Austen’s time, refer to Robert B. Shoemaker, Gender in English Society, 1650-1850: The Emergence of Separate Spheres? (London: Longman, 1998).

[26] There are women who have a similar status of Emma in Austen’s novels but they are widows, e.g., Lady Catherine in Pride and Prejudice. Not being a widow with wealth makes Emma unique among Austen’s female characters. For more about widows, refer to Laura Fairchild Brodie, “Society and the Superfluous Female: Jane Austen’s Treatment of Widowhood,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34.4 (Autumn 1994): 697-71.

[27] Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, 126.

[28] Walkley argues that Austen supports of democratic values, while Roberts explores how democratic ideology impacts Austen’s fiction, although he does not go as far as to claim that her writing represents them. Arthur Walkley, “Jane’s Prejudices,” in More Prejudice (London: Heinemann, 1923); Warren Roberts, Jane Austen and the French Revolution (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1979).

[29] For more about social mobility in Austen’s other works, refer to Melissa Sodeman, “Mobility in ‘Persuasion’ and ‘Sanditon,” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 45.4 (Autumn 2005): 787-812.

[30] It is also worth noting that when compared to Emma’s use of imagination and persuasion to influence people, Sir Thomas relies upon coercion, such as removing Fanny from Mansfield Park so that she will change her mind about Henry Crawford’s marriage proposal. Mansell, The Novels of Jane Austen: An Interpretation, 129; Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, 101-8; Spacks, Desire and Truth: Functions of Plot in Eighteenth-Century English Novels, 219; Wallace, Jane Austen and Narrative Authority, 67-72.

[31] Refer to the twenty-fifth endnote for the citations.

[32] Butler, Jane Austen and the War of Ideas, 178-79; Kenneth L. Moler, Art of Allusion (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1977), 38-40; P.J.M. Scott, Jane Austen: A Reassessment (New York: Barnes & Noble, 1982), 37-39.

[33] Johnson, Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel, 143.

[34] My argument that Fanny and Emma morally educates Edmund and Mr. Knightley respectively is consistent with scholars who subscribe to the idea that Austen engages in virtue ethics; but I reverse the roles with the women educating the men.

[35] When compared to Fanny, whose perspective the reader shares for most of the novel, Emma’s viewpoint is limited to what she sees and the reader therefore knows more. This discrepancy in perspective accounts for why Emma does not experience irony but the reader does.

[36] For more about the role of economics in Austen’s works, refer to the first and second endnotes as well as Paula Marantz Cohen, “Stabilizing the Family System at Mansfield Park,” ELH 54.3 (Autumn 1987): 669-93; Edward Said, “Jane Austen and Empire,” in Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives, ed. Terry Eagleton (Boston: Northwestern University Press, 1989), 150-64; Cy Frost, “Autocracy and the Matrix of Power: Issues of Propriety and Economics in the Works of Mary Wollstonecraft, Jane Austen, and Harriet Martineau,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 10.2 (Autumn 1991): 253-71; Fraser Easton, “The Political Economy of Mansfield Park: Fanny Price and the Atlantic Working Class,” Textual Practice 12 (1998): 459-88; Jonathan H. Grossman, “The Labor of the Leisured in Emma: Class, Manners, and Austen,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 45.2 (1999): 143-64; You-me Park and Rajeswari Sunder Rajan, eds., Austen in the World: Postcolonial Mapping (London: Routledge, 2000); George E. Boulukos, “The Politics of Silence: ‘Mansfield Park’ and the Amelioration of Slavery,” NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction 39.3 (Summer 2006): 361-83; Gabrielle D. V. White Jane Austen in the Context of Abolition (Houndsmill: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

[37] The women who are in some sense orphans are numerous in both novels: Fanny and Susan Price, Mary Crawford, Emma, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith, and possibly Miss Taylor, who was Emma’s governess. But instead of acting selfishly, Emma willingly seeks to help people, like Harriet Smith. Interesting the orphans in eighteenth-century literature enjoyed affluence at the end of their plotlines, while in the nineteenth century they were depicted more accurately as living in the poorhouse. Cheryl L. Nixon, The Orphan in Eighteenth-Century Law and Literature: Estate, Blood, and Body (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2011). For about Austen’s own life and period, refer to Deidre Le Faye, Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels (London; Frances Lincoln, 2002).

[38] The marriages of Fanny and Emma are unconventional in the sense that Fanny has persuaded Sir Thomas to approve of her nuptials to Edmund while Mr. Knightley agrees to live at Emma’s Hartfield. One can imagine that neither Fanny nor Emma would need marriage to fulfill their lives: they could have a meaningful existence without a marital partner. However, their imagination makes a different type of marriage, as well as an altered form of politics, possible.


This excerpt is from The Free Market and the Human Condition: Essays on Economics and Culture (Lexington Books, 2014)

Lee TrepanierLee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

Back To Top