After its initial publication in 1816, Jane Austen’s Emma continues to entertain and delight readers. Austen herself was well read and as such she would have known how well her readers would have engaged with gothic novels. Emma itself contains some echoes of the gothic, mainly in the character of Jane Fairfax and the confined situation in which she is placed.
Diane Long Hoeveler asserts that the Gothic heroine is a victim to “a series of insults, humiliations, deprivations” and “fatal or near-fatal disasters” (30) and Jane Fairfax fits this description in a certain light. From the very moment we meet Jane Fairfax she is presented as an unfortunate creature, requiring the care and protection of others, a casualty of her circumstances. She depends upon the kindness of Colonel Campbell and his family and is an orphan. Her occupation is predetermined for her since it was the only respectable means of earning a living that was available to a woman of her situation; it is never clear whether Jane Fairfax had any say in the matter and she does not show any enthusiasm to become a governess. She appears to have limited control of her choices; Frank Churchill’s final letter to Mrs. Weston indicates that Jane needed to be coerced to an extent, into agreeing to the secret engagement. Her reduced circumstances call for an extreme level of politeness and gratitude that make it impossible to refuse Mrs. Elton’s inquiry for positions on her behalf. The ingratiating demeanor of her aunt, Mrs. Bates, causes a humiliation that she cannot dismiss at will. Furthermore, she is forced to accept her betrothed making advances upon another woman, because it is a necessary blind and to oppose such advances would expose their secret. Thus, Jane becomes penned in by the multitude of forces inside and outside of her and soon her mental suffering manifests itself as physical suffering, and she reportedly loses her appetite. We are given a glimpse of the level of poverty that threatens her physical well-being and existence; her grandmother, her aunt, and herself depend upon basic necessities such as food from their neighbours: apples from Mr. Knightley’s orchard and meat from the Woodhouses. Therefore, while it may be argued that the deprivations or humiliations that Jane Fairfax suffers are not necessarily fatal, Austen gestures nevertheless that these sufferings are serious.
The gothic heroine is ultimately rewarded for her suffering according to literary tradition (Hoeveler 31) and Jane Fairfax is no exception. Justice arrives in the form of Mrs. Churchill’s death which allows Frank Churchill to disclose his secret attachment to his Uncle. The pairing of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, would ordinarily have been judged severely since it is an attachment formed in secret and hence it would have been speculated upon by the neighbourhood to have been formed out of shame. Yet, the residents of Highbury are quick to forgive Jane because they are conscious of her torment and how they themselves have caused her to suffer. What threatens gothic heroines is the following:
…lustful, tyrannical, and rapacious fathers, corrupt monks, and other diabolical villains work their evil upon forlorn heroines far away from the reach of reason, restraint, or effectual aid, in secluded castles full of trap doors, hidden panels, dank dungeons, where storied spectres disclose in fragmentary pieces truths that can be neither fully spoken nor fully suppressed (Johnson 9).
One must acknowledge that this is neither an accurate description of Jane’s tormentors nor of her physical space that she inhabits. However, it operates as a metaphor for the mental and physical torture that a poor orphaned woman endures in the nineteenth century. There are no real trap doors or hidden panels in Emma, but there are real flaws in the social and political infrastructure that allow people in Jane Fairfax’s situation to potentially fall through the cracks of society.
Jane Austen’s Emma is not a gothic novel and Jane Fairfax is not a gothic heroine. Yet, there is an essence of gothicism about the vulnerability to which Jane Fairfax is subjected. Austen uses Jane Fairfax as a way to highlight the gothic nature of living in a world that leaves the well being of unmarried women to the charity of a few kind neighbours instead of the whole of society.
Image sourced from:
Hoeveler, Diane Long. “The Construction Of The Female Gothic Posture: Wollstonecraft’s Mary And Gothic Feminism.” Gothic Studies 6.1 (2004): 30-44. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
Johnson, Claudia. “Introduction.” Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sandition. James Kinsey et al. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Print.
Miller, Christopher R. “Northanger Abbey and Gothic Perception: Austen’s Aesthetics and Ethics of Surprise.” Surprise: The Poetics of the Unexpected from Milton to Austen. Cornell UP, 2015. 141-70. Web