In our first week of discussion on Emma, we talked about how Jane Fairfax may be regarded as the novel’s shadow heroine. Despite the ways in which Jane is portrayed as a prudent, respectful young woman who endures and overcomes more real conflict than any other protagonist, it seems she is unable to leave her place as the shadow heroine. In fact, I think of Jane as the damsel in distress of Emma’s Gothic Romance sub-plot, with which Austen aims to ridicule a genre that produces stock characters “exhausted by habit, …stale and familiar, …introduced until they [cease] to interest” (Scott 417). Such a plot reads as being tiresome and cliché when set against the wittier realism of Emma, until the reader realizes it is satire. One could argue that the reason for the absurdity of Emma’s secondary Romantic narrative may have been to bring more of the reader’s attention to the restricted outcomes of Jane Fairfax’s vulnerable situation as a “single woman with no money or family” (Samuelian 27).
Within the detailed realism of society in Emma, Austen’s narrative around Jane Fairfax outlines how and why Jane’s aforementioned position in society is problematic from a feminist perspective. As a near penniless orphan, Jane must find a means to support herself through life, but as a woman, she has limited choices with limited independence. At the time of writing Emma, Austen’s England was shifting towards an increasing segregation of men and women into separate public and domestic spheres of life. Men who must earn their living can become involved in a reputable public profession, like Mr. John Knightley, who works as a lawyer in London. However, Emma shows that one of Jane’s only viable options in life is to become a governess, perhaps due to her limited repertoire of accomplishments.
While a position as governess would ensure that a woman’s place was in the domestic sphere, it would also entail “engaging in the very unladylike practice of work for pay” (Samuelian 29). That is to say, Jane’s semi-independence would come at the risk of lowering her respectability. Jane acknowledges this likelihood when she assures Mrs. Elton that she will have no trouble seeking employment through “Offices for the sale – not quite of human flesh – but of human intellect” (Austen 271). The mention of ‘sale[s]’ suggests a mercenary and potentially disreputable nature, and along with Mrs. Elton’s erroneous presumption that Jane is referring to the slave trade, the governess-trade is seen as something that is morally reprehensible and inappropriate.
Furthermore, Austen has long been understood to be of the school of feminist thought that condemned trivial accomplishments. If Jane were to become a governess, she would be perpetuating the type of frivolous education that produced foolish ornaments in place of practical and rational women, while working in a barely respectable position. Jane is only saved from this fate by her marriage to someone who is “So unlike what a man should be!” giving the reader the impression that this “solution” is perhaps just the “lesser of two evils” and is not felt to be wholly satisfactory (Austen 342).
From a feminist viewpoint, this Gothic Romance plot provokes feelings of frustration about the standards of society for women who were not well off. Neither of Jane Fairfax’s options provides her with true independence or complete control over her own destiny. I think Austen has pigeonholed Jane as a Romantic archetype into a “stale and familiar” storyline of Gothic Romance, so that the reader will also realize that the pigeonholing of a “single woman with no money or family” should also “cease to interest,” and should cease to be the standard treatment of women (Scott 417, Samuelian 27). It is critical that Jane Fairfax is recognized as Emma’s shadow heroine because her situation offers its evils that are not unique to her alone and consequently, she represents a collection of societal concerns that beg reform. Jane is less in the shadow of Emma’s brilliancy as heroine than she is in the shadow of the patriarchy that directs her progress through life.
By Audrey Ling
Austen, Jane. Emma. Edited by Kristin Flieger Samuelian, Broadview Press, Ltd., 2004.