The opening words of Jane Austen's Emma (1816) describe the eponymous heroine as follows: "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich ...." The novel shows very clearly how much prestige and power Emma and her father have on account of their wealth. For example, whenever Emma has plans for the evening, she can summon less fortunate individuals to babysit her father: Mrs Bates, Miss Bates, and Mrs Goddard are described as "almost always at the service of an invitation from Hartfield" (Chapter 3).

It is clear that the Woodhouses are not only wealthy, but also the crème de la crème of Highbury society. Emma as well as Austen treat that high social position as a given. For example, Emma is positively "insulted" when Mr Elton, the vicar, proposes to her, because he has "the arrogance to raise his eyes to her" (Chapter 16). Similarly, when she is out for a walk with Harriet Smith and they run across Robert Martin, the lovers Harriet and Robert cannot have a long conversation because "Miss Woodhouse must not be kept waiting" (Chapter 4). Examples abound of the deference Emma both expects and receives from nearly all the other residents of Highbury, with the notable exception of George Knightley, her only equal socially, financially, and intellectually.

The novel provides an exquisitely detailed portrait of class distinctions in the pre-Industrial Revolution era. Mr Knightley is a landowner who farms part of his land and rents out the rest; this places him very high in the class structure of the period. Emma's neighbor Mr Weston has made his money in the army and from the upward mobility of his family (Chapter 2). The Coles are wealthy, but they are "of very low origin" and their money comes from trade; so they are definitely second-class citizens compared to Mr Knightley or Emma (Chapter 25). Yet it is never made clear where Emma's and her father's wealth comes from.

Are they landowners? The impression the novel gives is that Donwell Abbey, Mr Knightley's residence, has extensive grounds and farmland; we hear a lot about his estate manager William Larkins (e.g., Chapter 28) and we also learn that Mr Martin is one of his tenant farmers. We are told also about the apples, strawberries, etc. that Mr Knightley grows, and about the dairy cattle Mr Martin keeps. But we have no comparable data about the Woodhouses. It appears that Hartfield is a residence with no attached farmland.

So what is the source of Emma's and her father's wealth? It does not appear that Emma is wealthy independently of her father (for example, because her mother has left her a legacy); in any case, the opening sentence also tells us she is not yet 21 years old, so she would not have control over any such funds. In fact, as far as I can tell, we are never told exactly what the Woodhouses live on.

Given how important a theme money generally is in Austen's work, Emma would be rather an outlier if we are simply told the heroine is rich, but not given any ready clues about the money's provenance. In every other novel of hers, we know exactly why the protagonists are where they are in terms of money. So: are there any specific textual clues in Emma that point to the source of Emma's money? I am not looking for general speculation on various ways that the Woodhouses might have made their money (e.g., a pirate ancestor, vast possessions in the colonies, the stock market, etc). I am wondering whether there is any particular evidence in the novel itself about where the money comes from.


1 Answer 1


The second paragraph of the book gives us an indication of Emma's financial situation. She is "the mistress" of her father's house, implying that she has some level of access to the family's accounts, from which she presumably pays her personal expenses (he is noted to be "indulgent"), as well being his presumptive heir to £30,000, equivalent to several million pounds in today's money, along with the title to Hartfield itself, which in itself is a fair definition of being "rich". There's no good indication that she has wealth that's not connected to her family's fortune.

She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister's marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.

As to the genesis of the family fortune, their landed properties aren't large but they evidently draw a passive income from the Hartfield estates. Additionally they have 'old money' from other, more nebulous sources, likely inheritances and whatnot but not described in any detail by the author.

He only wanted to aggrandise and enrich himself; and if Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield, the heiress of thirty thousand pounds, were not quite so easily obtained as he had fancied, he would soon try for Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten.


Perhaps it was not fair to expect him to feel how very much he was her inferior in talent, and all the elegancies of mind. The very want of such equality might prevent his perception of it; but he must know that in fortune and consequence she was greatly his superior. He must know that the Woodhouses had been settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family—and that the Eltons were nobody.

The landed property of Hartfield certainly was inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all the rest of Highbury belonged; but their fortune, from other sources, was such as to make them scarcely secondary to Donwell Abbey itself, in every other kind of consequence; and the Woodhouses had long held a high place in the consideration of the neighbourhood which Mr. Elton had first entered not two years ago, to make his way as he could, without any alliances but in trade, or any thing to recommend him to notice but his situation and his civility.


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