Feminism and Education in Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Novels by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is a historically significant author who has produced discussion on social issues, as well as spurred the movement for change by bringing about awareness and openness about topics, such feminism and education using her writing as a platform. Though she is the author of six influential novels, as well as short stories, and poems, which are socially important in their own right, Austen’s most significant works are Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

Pride and Prejudice is a romance, as all Austen novels are, seen through the eyes of the main character Elizabeth. She is second oldest of five sisters to a small estate that will be passed on to their male cousin after the eventual death of her father. The novel details the perils of the girls in their quest to acquire a rich husband to care for them involving much misunderstanding, despair, and heart break. Many of the characters settled for the “best that they could expect.” However, Elizabeth is the rebel intellect who refuses to marry unless it is for love.

Emma is about a well off noblewoman in the English countryside who originally opts out of marriage to be mistress of her father’s estate and care for him in his old age. She bores easily, and so chooses to amuse herself by manipulating the minds of those around her. Emma creates these great schemes of romance such as: Mr. Frank Churchill, a young eligible man rushing to save Emma’s poor friend Harriet from the gypsies or imagining that the married Mr. Dixon from Ireland gave Miss Bates’, the poor old woman who is the town charity case, niece Jane Fairfax her piano forte, which always turn out to be false. The biggest importance of these novels involve their protagonists. Each girl is strong, free-thinking, and independent who drive the story forward and embody the themes within the book. Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, and Emma from Emma depict similar traits. Yet perhaps more importantly are some of the traits they do not share in approaching family and education, show the gravity of their social upbringings and how that affected each of them. The weight each lady puts on specific values they look for in other people will also grant some insight into their characters. Diving in further will provide a closer look into how these conditions contribute to both of their personalities in unexpected ways.

As far as family is concerned, both Emma and Elizabeth are quite similar on the surface. Both have a favorite older sister and a father that they’re very fond of. Upon closer examination, the love that is felt by Elizabeth is of a different nature than that of Emma. Elizabeth shows a mature love that understands sometimes others’ happiness doesn’t involve her. This is demonstrated in Chapter 5, “her spirits were in a state of enjoyment; for she had seen her sister looking so well as to banish all fear for her health…” (155). Elizabeth is excited to see her elder sister Jane well again after a nasty cold. There is no personal gain involved, just pure selfless love for her favorite sister. Elizabeth has an understanding that many of the things that go on in others’ lives have nothing to do with her, and therefore she doesn’t get involved unless her curiosity gets involved such as the case between Darcy and Wickham, where Mr. Wickham tried to marry Darcy’s little sister for her fortune. Her curiosity is a negative effect of her intellect and sometimes gets her into trouble.

Emma on the other hand, demonstrates a more selfish form of love. She and her father complain endlessly of Ms. Taylor leaving them. Later they beg sister Isabella to stay longer, and even attempts to persuade her and her husband to move to the countryside to remain closer to Highbury. Instead of being content with others’ personal happiness, Emma wishes to be involved in said happiness. She does this for selfish reasons such as not being bored or alone. It is because of boredom that Emma takes on her new friend and pupil, Harriet. Even with Harriet, Emma’s love is only for her own gain. In an article from the University of California Press called “Point of View and the Control of Distance in Emma” it says:

Her faults are not excesses of virtue. She attempts to manipulate Harriet not from an excess of kindness but from a desire for power and admiration. She flirts with Frank

Churchill out of vanity and irresponsibility. She mistreats Jane Fairfax because of Jane’s good qualities. She abuses Miss Bates because of her own essential lack of “tenderness” and “good will.” (98)

These negative traits that have been associated with Emma, such as her desire for admiration, her vanity, her jealousy, and her lack of tenderness, are consequences of independent-study gone wrong. If Emma were to have taken her books and learning more seriously, she would not require the constant reassurance that she is the shining star of all of Highbury. Another important aspect of her mentoring Harriet, is Harriet’s constitution. Harriet Smith is described in every way as agreeable, but not quite a scholar. Ms. Smith is eager to please and slow to temper. These traits among others appeal to Emma. Emma herself does not wish to obtain those characteristics per say, but she does put immense value on those temperaments in her own friends. Emma likes to have her own way, and in choosing friends like Harriet Smith, she will always be afforded the ability to get what she wants. She would be mature enough to entertain herself without meddling in the drama of others’ lives if she hadn’t been so lucky as to find agreeable people to waste her time with.

She would be unaffected by Jane Fairfax momentarily stealing her spotlight, and she would be content with her life as a whole. However, that doesn’t make for a very interesting read. In an article by Lionel Trilling entitled “Emma” he says,

Snobbery is the grossest fault that arises from Emma’s self-love, but it is not the only fault. We must also take account of her capacity for unkindness, which can be impulsive and brutal as in the witticism directed to Miss Bates at the picnic. (54)

It is important to note that snobbery, in the case of Emma, is not the result of wealth. It is rather the result of boasting her wealth. Emma is more snobbish than Mr. Knightley who has more of a fortune than her because Mr. Knightley is fully educated. He is a humble man and knows that snobbery gets you nowhere fast. One thing that knowledge tends to do is humble people because once you begin to broaden your horizons, you see that the horizon does not have an end. Emma has never taken the time to finish a book let alone get a full education. She has always been rather impatient. This too is a result of her lack of study. Through intensive study, scholars tend become more patient and certainly more understanding of others. Emma’s impatience triggered her to snap and wound Miss Bates.

In the matter of education, Elizabeth is much more dedicated and interested than Emma. As summed up nicely by Mr. Knightley in Emma, “She will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” (33). Throughout Emma, Emma is characterized as being intelligent but less than motivated to continue her education. Though having a governess is certainly an advantage over Elizabeth, Emma is more concerned with her own ideas of fun. “The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much of her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself…” (3). The over indulgence of her father and governess made Emma into a shallow girl more interested in meddling in the business of others than bettering her own mind. A prime example is when Emma and Harriet first meet:

She would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintances, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her

manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly

becoming her own station in life, her leisure, and powers (21).

Instead of being interested in getting to know Harriet as a person, Emma is already scheming up a new life for Harriet. It is because Harriet is not quite as bright as Emma. Emma’s manipulation can sneak in. Emma doesn’t like to be challenged by anyone on an intellectual level, except Mr. Knightley. Consequently, Knightley must take on the moderator role in Emma’s life to help protect her test subjects as well as he can. During a disagreement between Emma and Knightley, he says, “You are very fond of bending little minds…” (138). He directly calls Emma out on her potential as a scholar, and goes on to say how she wastes it on inaccurate matchmaking practice. Having hurt Emma’s pride, the friends part to spend some time in isolation from each other. Showing again, Emma’s selfishness in love.

Right from the start, the reader is told that Elizabeth is intelligent and witty. Throughout the book, she shows us the extent to which she is a self-learner. When staying at Netherfield caring for her sister Jane, Elizabeth chooses to “amuse herself with a book” rather than play cards with the other patrons of the estate. Elizabeth places value on character traits such as intellect and humility. She prefers a reasonably knowledgeable person to chat with, but in her experience with nobility she is turned away by their snobbery. Elizabeth values lie in the subtle mix of brains and reserve.

Instead of using her intellect to manipulate those around her, Elizabeth is rather perceptive in social situations. She is able to pick up subtle cues from others, such as the unrest between Mr. Wickham and Mr. Darcy. In an article dissecting the sentence structure of Elizabeth and Darcy, Amy Baker writes:

Elizabeth consistently uses more prepositional phrases and infinitives than any other

category, though she decidedly favors prepositional phrases to infinitives in each section.

Also, Elizabeth simply speaks more than Darcy. Not only do her sentences outnumber his 31 to 20, she is more likely to compound independent clauses than he is. (171)

The pure understanding of the language in which Elizabeth speaks, declares her superior knowledge of the not only the language, but grammar, word choice, and diplomacy. One downfall to Elizabeth’s studies is her prejudice against nobles. Her knowledge of the world, and perhaps her less-than-ideal situation in life has given her a resentment for those who do not have to marry for money to carry on living in reasonable comfort. Perhaps that is largely why her friendship with Darcy did not skyrocket right from the start.

Her prejudice towards nobles is only heightened by Mr. Darcy’s initial remarks on Elizabeth’s appearance and allure to his friend Mr. Bingley. In response to the cruelty of higher men, Elizabeth is able to shift her diction to fit a higher standard of people. In Amy Baker’s article, “Caught in the Act of Greatness,” she accurately states, “Elizabeth is insecure of the social gap between herself and Darcy. She senses her inferiority and attempts to cover it with intellect, wit, and confidence. These complex structures make her dialogue seem more intelligent and appropriate for high class.” (173) Not to say that Elizabeth is not intelligent when she doesn’t feel the need to use elevated speech, but her value on humility and her confidence in her own intellect push her to respond to snobbery with equally biting remarks. Which is quite different from Emma, who is the one quietly making impolite remarks in the company that she keeps.

Although both of these novels are influential, the young women who star in them are more so. Each girl is intelligent, even if in different ways, as they struggle through a complex world of prejudice and subtlety. They skillfully master their surroundings with time. Each lady was brought up without sufficient supervision and as you can see, independent study can go in multiple directions. This causes different personality traits to shine ahead of others. For her character development, ability to create independent and relatable situations, and using her books as platform to talk about social issues, this is one of the reasons why Jane Austen is a renowned, and historically significant author that has triggered the migration towards change by bringing about attention and acceptence through her way of diction.

Works Cited

  • Austen, Jane. Emma. Fine Creative Media, Inc. 1816.
  • —. Pride and Prejudice. Fine Creative Media, Inc. 1813.
  • Baker, Amy. “Caught in the Act of Greatness: Jane Austen’s Characterization of Elizabeth and Darcy by Sentence Structure in Pride and Prejudice.” Taylor & Francis Group. Vol 72 no. 3. 2014.
  • Booth, Wayne. “Point of View and Control of Distance in Emma.” University of California Press. Vol 16 no. 2. September 2961.
  • Trilling, Lionel. Encounter. Vol 8, no. 6. June, 1957.
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Feminism and Education in Pride and Prejudice and Emma, Novels by Jane Austen. (2022, Dec 05). Retrieved February 2, 2023 , from
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