Emma

Hierarchy and Privilege in Jane Austen

Jane Austen novels tend to exhibit a certain kind of life: parties, walks in the park, trips to London or Bath, posturing for a particularly advantageous marriage - in a word, privilege. In addition, this world is structured according to a relatively stringent code of hierarchy. Of Austen's six novels, they all are set in this relatively small, elite social microcosm of eighteenth century British society, and, for the most part, all of the players are insiders. Austen spends little time discussing the lower classes. Indeed, the only times those of lesser rank are introduced are to stand in counter-distinction to the landed class who are the central figures in all of her works. Nevertheless, Austen herself was not of this class. Irene Collins writes: "Jane Austen [. . .] was on visiting terms with the local gentry: but visiting is not living. She depended a good deal on observation in the early stages of her novel-writing" (ix). And, indeed, all of her heroines, who in the course of establishing a secure future for themselves through marrying well, eventually come to embody what it means to be an informed and aware woman, are likewise outsiders: Emma Woodhouse, thought at the zenith of Highbury society, is not...

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