In Jane Austen's Emma, the titular character is shown to spend a lot of time and effort thinking about class, rank, and station in society. She's worried about mixing with the lower classes, and maintaining proper distance and respectability. For instance, she's worried about teaching the Coles a lesson:

Their love of society, and their new dining-room, prepared every body for their keeping dinner-company; and a few parties, chiefly among the single men, had already taken place. The regular and best families Emma could hardly suppose they would presume to invite—neither Donwell, nor Hartfield, nor Randalls. Nothing should tempt her to go, if they did; and she regretted that her father's known habits would be giving her refusal less meaning than she could wish. The Coles were very respectable in their way, but they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them. This lesson, she very much feared, they would receive only from herself; she had little hope of Mr Knightley, none of Mr Weston.
Emma, chapter 25

Is this something that particularly reflects on Emma as a character, or is this something that was considered normal for the time period when the book was written (and set)?

  • 1
    Obsession with class is profoundly characteristic of nearly all English literature from Caedmon's hymn down to today's Guardian, but especially novels. Aug 15, 2023 at 14:07

2 Answers 2


Class has long been and remains a preoccupation of English society. For example, here is an exchange from a novel written more than a century after Emma:

"Tell Ellen she is not to have holes in her stockings when she waits at lunch."

"Is her name Ellen or Helen, Miss Viner? I thought —"

Miss Viner closed her eyes.

"I can sound my h's, dear, as well as anyone, but Helen is not a suitable name for a servant. I don't know what the mothers in the lower classes are coming to nowadays."

Agatha Christie, The Mystery of the Blue Train, chapter 30. London: Collins, 1928.

Like Miss Viner in Christie's novel, Emma is overly concerned with keeping the "lower classes" in their place. And like Christie, Austen exploits this concern for comic effect. Emma's reaction to the Coles tells us more about herself than about them. They are the richest family in Highbury after her own, but she is very conscious of their being "of low origin, in trade, and only moderately genteel." She claims to believe that they share this consciousness, such that when they throw a dinner party, they would not "presume to invite" those from the "regular and best families" whose background is land ownership rather than trade, such as Mr Knightley, Mr Weston, or herself.

The rest of the chapter proceeds to overthrow Emma's assumptions not only about the Coles, but also about her own reaction to them. She assumes they would not invite the Westons or Mr Knightley to dinner—and they do. She claims that if they do invite herself and her father, she would refuse—and then is disappointed not to receive an invitation. She says that her father's known disinclination to dine elsewhere would mean that her refusal would not come across as the pointed insult she would like it to be—but when the invitation arrives after all, she makes arrangements for her father to have other visitors so she can attend the party herself. And yet she remains conscious that she is slumming, as it were:

She meant to be very happy, in spite of the scene being laid at Mr. Cole’s; and without being able to forget that among the failings of Mr. Elton, even in the days of his favour, none had disturbed her more than his propensity to dine with Mr. Cole.

Emma, Chapter 26

Emma's obsession with social class, then, is part of her vanity. When the Coles couch an invitation in flattering enough terms, humbly beseeching the presence of the Woodhouses at their party, her desire to maintain class distinctions gives way to her desire to enjoy good company. And it must be noted that while it's presumption for the Coles to invite the Woodhouses to dinner, the Woodhouses are always able to summon Mrs Goddard to babysit Mr Woodhouse when needed. Emma believes that by inviting Mrs Goddard, the Woodhouses bestow an honour; by inviting the Woodhouses, the Coles seek one.

Yet Emma as a whole does not treat class itself as merely a vain preoccupation. The clash between class and wealth is a central theme of the novel. Jane Fairfax, for instance, is from a very respectable family, and her absence of an equally respectable fortune is much lamented. By contrast, Augusta Elton, née Hawkins, is portrayed as wealthy but vulgar beyond belief; not incidentally, her fortune, like the Coles', comes from trade.

Perhaps the complexities of class, wealth, and marriage as they play out in Emma are most clearly seen in the situation of Harriet Smith. Harriet is "the natural daughter of somebody" (Chapter 2), and her father is able to provide well for her. Emma's grand plans to marry Harriet off to (initally) Mr Elton and (later) Frank Churchill rest on her assumption that this unknown father must have been "a gentleman—and a gentleman of fortune" (Chapter 8). She even claims that Harriet would have made Mr Elton a better wife than Augusta does, because "if not wise or refined herself, she would have connected him with those who were" (Chapter 32). After Harriet's engagement to Robert Martin, her parentage is revealed:

She proved to be the daughter of a tradesman, rich enough to afford her the comfortable maintenance which had ever been hers, and decent enough to have always wished for concealment.—Such was the blood of gentility which Emma had formerly been so ready to vouch for!—It was likely to be as untainted, perhaps, as the blood of many a gentleman: but what a connexion had she been preparing for Mr. Knightley—or for the Churchills—or even for Mr. Elton!—The stain of illegitimacy, unbleached by nobility or wealth, would have been a stain indeed.

Emma, chapter 55

On the one hand, the theme of Harriet's parentage shows how Emma always makes whatever assumptions flatter her ego. Since she wants her protégée to marry into an established family, she assumes Harriet's father too must be from such a family. When Harriet's parentage is revealed, Emma's snobbery takes over; since it is now indisputable that Harriet is not of noble blood, Emma thinks of her as being tainted by illegitimacy, and not a suitable match for anybody from an established family. All of this reflects poorly on Emma. On the other hand, though, the arc of the novel gives us no reason to question Emma's final attitude toward Harriet or her marriage. Emma begins with the heroine's breaking up a match between Harriet and Robert Martin, much to Mr Knightley's chagrin; it ends with Harriet and Robert Martin married, much to the satisfaction of all parties—including the reader's.

In the universe of the novel, it would be difficult to imagine Robert Martin's marrying, say, Jane Fairfax. But why not? He is presented as an attractive personality, certainly more solid, trustworthy, and levelheaded than the slick Frank Churchill. He is wealthy enough to rent a considerable amount of land from Mr Knightley, and to be able to marry a penniless woman. Throughout the novel, Mr Knightley is the one character who is consistently right in his judgments. He has a high opinion of both Jane Fairfax and Robert Martin, and a low one of Frank Churchill. Readers have often complained that Jane Fairfax is wasted on Frank Churchill, yet the thought of pairing her with Robert Martin does not arise. This pairing is even more unthinkable than one between Mr Knightley and Harriet—after all, both Emma and Harriet do in fact think of the latter.

The point, however, is that Mr Knightley does not marry Harriet, any more than Robert Martin marries Jane. He does not even contemplate marrying her. He takes notice of her only to evaluate her suitability as a wife for his tenant. He may be the moral center of the novel, but Mr Knightley's assumptions about class are not ultimately all that different from Emma's. Where class is concerned, all the pairings are endogamous: Jane and Frank, Harriet and Robert, Emma and George. Even the Eltons are suitably matched. Emma's musings on Mr Elton's social status vis-à-vis Harriet's are transferable to his situation with his eventual wife:

Mr. Elton’s situation was most suitable, quite the gentleman himself, and without low connexions; at the same time, not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet.

Emma, chapter 4

Mr Elton does himself object when he discovers that Emma thinks he could ever stoop to marrying Harriet. He would gain nothing from such a marriage. But with Augusta Hawkins, the gains are on both sides: her considerable wealth is a fair exchange for his social status.

Mrs Elton, the Coles, and Harriet together show the complexities of class relations in Regency England. At a time when many families were newly enriched by trade, class status was still dictated by whether or not one's family origins included land ownership. Newly rich families such as the Coles could buy land and hope to use their wealth to cultivate friendships with the established landowning classes. They could hire governesses from impoverished upper class families to give their children, particularly their daughters, the kind of education that would enable them to fit in with those established classes. Those children in turn could marry into the upper classes, and having owned land for a generation, could achieve the respectability of the established families. The Coles' assiduous invitation to Emma, the Eltons' marriage, and Mrs Elton's eagerness to send Jane Fairfax off as governess to the children of her acquaintances, show these dynamics at work. Mr Weston's own rise into becoming one of Highbury's "best families" has followed precisely this trajectory (Chapter 2): his family has slowly become prosperous, his first wife was from an established family, he augmented his income through trade, he has purchased property, and now he has married Miss Taylor, who like Jane Fairfax was a gentlewoman with no fortune of her own.

Harriet's situation, as someone whose father is neither from a landowning family nor quite wealthy enough, shows the limits of such social assimilation. She can make a respectable enough marriage to a yeoman who rents rather than owns farmland, but she cannot hope to consort on equal terms with the likes of Mr Knightley, Frank Churchill, Mr Elton, or even Emma. Mr Knightley rightly points out to Mrs Weston that Emma's intimacy with Harriet will bring both of them to grief (Chapter 5). And after their respective marriages, Harriet and Emma see very little of each other (Chapter 55). They have found their own level as naturally as water does.

Through Emma's reactions to the Coles, Austen does display the snobbery and vanity that underlie class distinctions. But the novel's overall trajectory, particularly in the story of Harriet Smith, show that such distinctions continue to have force. Emma takes their existence as a given; so does Emma.

  • "Is Emma's preoccupation with class and station typical of the time period or an aspect of her character?" TL;DR: both :-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Sep 14, 2023 at 14:25

A bit of both, I think.

Differences in social status were certainly something that was taken for granted in past centuries. For instance, in various novels we read of an orphan girl being taken into a household with the intention of bringing her up to be a servant, which seems heartless to modern readers but was not intended that way.

Examples supplied as requested: Mr and Mrs Meagles in Little Dorrit take in Harriet from the Foundling Hospital as a companion/maid for their only daughter. They rather tactlessly give her the silly nickname Tattycoram, but their intentions are kind. In George Eliot's Mr Gilfil's Love Story, a wealthy childless couple bring home an orphaned baby girl from Italy, intending that she should be brought up to be an upper servant, but because she has a fine singing voice she is treated more like a daughter, leading to complications when she falls in love with their nephew and heir.

However, the last sentence indicates that the easygoing Mr Weston would not have shared Emma's attitude to the Coles, and she thinks it possible that Mr Knightley won't either.

  • It would have been heartless to raise an orphan girl as a daughter. She would be grow up with the daughters of the household, but no man would marry her on equal terms with them, and she would not have learned to live as the wife of a man who would marry her.
    – Mary
    Aug 11, 2023 at 1:01
  • @Mary - Yes - but modern readers don't always understand that. Aug 11, 2023 at 7:12
  • @Mary except in Emma, the Campbells do take in the orphaned Jane Fairfax into their household and raise her on an equal footing as a daughter.
    – verbose
    Aug 12, 2023 at 2:29
  • 2
    @KateBunting this would be a better answer with citations. For example, can you cite any novel of Austen's era where an orphan girl is taken in to be raised as a servant? Also, if there were such a girl, she would have been from the "servant classes" to begin with. Nobody would take a "gentleman's daughter" who was orphaned and raise her up to be a servant.
    – verbose
    Aug 12, 2023 at 2:31
  • @verbose Then Jane has to find a job when she loses her place there. Her escape by marriage is shocking.
    – Mary
    Aug 12, 2023 at 17:32

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