Emma is the first of Jane Austen’s novels to feature a heroine who is free from financial concerns. While other Austen heroines view marriage as a financial necessity, Emma expresses no interest or desire to marry for the majority of the novel. Her fortune assures her of independence and security. In fact, her chief concern is that marriage will prevent her from maintaining that independence. Emma is also a unique Austen heroine because of her lack of romantic sensibilities. While Marianne Dashwood of “Sense and Sensibility,” Anne Elliot of “Persuasion,” and Jane Bennet of “Pride and Prejudice” have each of their actions qualified by their love, Emma is remarkable self-possessed and views love only from a detached and almost masculine standpoint.
It is only after Emma discovers her true feelings for Mr. Knightley near the end of the novel that Emma transforms into a standard “romantic” heroine. The reader discovers that Emma’s detached view of love was nothing more than a naïve misconception. She was proud to play matchmaker in Highbury but served only to give proof of her poor understanding of the emotion. Significantly, once Emma discovers the meaning of love, she is more than happy to abandon her rule against marriage. Yet, even then, Austen assures the readers that Emma’s newfound love will not interfere with her independence: Mr. Knightley already has a fortune of his own and even agrees to move into Hartfield after the marriage.
Although Emma is clearly a departure from typical Austen heroines, the supporting female characters in the novel still highlight the difficulties facing women without financial independence. Miss Bates, Jane Fairfax, and Harriet Smith exemplify three possible scenarios for women who lack Emma’s high social status. Miss Bates never married and is dependent on her mother’s minimal income. With each passing year, her poverty increases, as does the amount of derision that she must endure from those around her. Harriet is equally poor and dependent on those around her. The daughter of a tradesman, she has few prospects until Robert Martin, and, thanks to Emma’s influence, is always in danger of stretching beyond her social capabilities. Jane Fairfax serves as a foil to Emma, and, in many ways, seems to be more appropriate as an Austen heroine. She possesses all of Emma’s grace, beauty, and intelligence but lacks the income of a gentleman’s daughter, a fact that seems to doom her to a life as a governess.
Through the characterization of Emma and her financially insecure counterparts, Austen offers a sharp critique of a society that gives so few options to women. Emma has the best opportunities and the brightest future as a result of her wealth and independence. Yet, despite all of her skills, she still only has two possible paths: marriage or spinsterhood. In the end, Austen gives her heroine the more appropriate choice but still ensures that Emma only marries a man who will allow her to maintain her independence.
Harriet and Jane Fairfax also receive their portion of contentment: Harriet marries Robert Martin, the male figure most suited to her, while Jane Fairfax ultimately marries Frank Churchill and achieves the high social status that she deserved all along. For both of these characters, marriage is the only possible option to prevent poverty and social stigma. Whether or not the marriages end happily, Austen assures her readers that the characters will at least have some financial security.
Only Miss Bates remains the perpetual spinster, serving as a warning to those women who are unable to achieve matrimony during their youth. Ironically, this is the path that Austen herself was forced to follow. Neither she nor her sister ever married, and Austen was dependent on the charity of her brothers for most of her adult life. Because of Austen’s personal financial difficulties, it is not surprising that almost all of her heroines struggle with similar issues (all of which are typically resolved by marriage at the end of the novel). Emma then becomes a sort of idealized vision of the best possible scenario for an intelligent woman to maintain her independence. Yet, as Austen notes by the end of the book, even a woman like Emma cannot help but get married in the end.