By Audrey Ling
Austen “propaganda” 😉
As the three featured scenes in both the novel and the 2009 BBC adaptation show, it is more than possible to establish Jane Fairfax as a traditional Austen heroine. However, the BBC adaptation provides few contexts besides her romance with Frank Churchill for Jane Fairfax’s suffering and her emotional reaction is frequently portrayed onscreen through tears and a clearly distressed tone of voice. Unfortunately, this reaction is more likely to be interpreted as lovesick sentiment rather than financial distress. Kissane finds Emma “by canons of sentiment and melodrama an unsuitable protagonist. For comedy, however, she is ideal,” and it seems that the creators of this BBC adaptation would agree and treat Emma more as a romantic comedy than a dramatic dialogue on the typically oppressed Austen heroine (Kissane 176).
Who is the real heroine of Emma?
But why does seeing Jane Fairfax in this role matter? Given the heavy evidence drawn from the novel, the reader might question why Austen made Emma the principal heroine instead of Jane Fairfax, when Emma so clearly detracts from Austen’s usual poor middle-class girl or woman with “limited choices and limited independence.”
Jane Austen’s dedication to the Prince Regent in “Emma” 1816.
One possible explanation may lie in Austen’s dedication to the Prince Regent. Through correspondence with James Stanier Clarke, the Prince Regent’s librarian, we see that the Prince Regent has “read and admired all [of Austen’s] publications”, and Austen is urged to dedicate Emma to His Royal Highness (Mr. Clarke to Jane Austen, Carlton House, Nov. 16, 1815). However, as Maya suggests in her blog post on this topic, “Austen attempts to politely refuse this request, to which Mr. Clarke replies “it is certainly not incumbent on [her] to dedicate [her] work now in the press to His Royal Highness; but if [she] wish[s] to do the Regent that honour either now or at any future period [Clarke is] happy to send [her] that permission” (Gal “To his Royal Highness”).”
Perhaps like Jane Fairfax, Austen felt powerless to decline the requests of a socially elevated individual from her unprivileged position in society. In this rationalization, Austen may have felt it impertinent to relegate Emma’s character to the usual caricature she would typically occupy in an Austen novel. “Austen’s social position…made it imperative not to make too many enemies” and perhaps she prudently chose to avoid the criticism or mockery of characters belonging to the Prince Regent’s aristocratic social circle (Thaden 56) by reformulating her plotline. But Jane Fairfax had to exist for Austen to slip in her characteristic social critique as in her other novels, and the inversion of Austen’s usual plot adds an extra layer of oppression that emphasizes Jane Fairfax’s oppressed role.
Are Jane Fairfax‘s experiences of economic dependence and deprivation modelled after Jane Austen‘s own similar experiences?
A second explanation posited in my original blog post is supported by Thaden’s article, in which she writes, “Austen…is satirizing the classic romantic plot of the oppressed heroine…she must have realized…just how romantic these plots were” (Thaden 56). Either Austen herself was simply tired of the traditional romantic plot, or she became aware of the occasion Scott identifies, where “Time and imitation speedily diminish the wonder…[of] a narrative of uncommon events” and decided that it was time to flip the literary status quo, which had thus far defined her fiction (Scott 417-8).
In the novel, the traditional, oppressed romantic figure of Jane Fairfax that Austen paints is almost over the top. While it may reflect the social reality, the surplus of details describing Jane Fairfax’s poor situation renders her situation a parody. It is hard to fathom that any individual heroine could face all the near-tragic qualities set out by Thaden. Even Austen’s other heroines face only some of these traits, but not all, or not all of them to the same extent as in Jane Fairfax’s case. Even Fanny Price finds the strength to defy Sir Thomas, and she is not totally alone when she has Edmund’s emotional support. Despite having lived with the Campbells and their daughter for most of her life, despite having formed an attachment with a socially superior young man, despite having family friends in high places, Jane Fairfax seems completely at a loss for any personal advocate at times. Jane’s lonely, abandoned figure seems exaggerated, only written this way to inspire the clichéd romantic dénouement of marriage that does not feel like a satisfactory solution. But it is precisely this exaggerated portrayal of Jane Fairfax that reveals the “unpleasant social reality” of Austen’s time when readers question the necessity of Jane’s storyline or its superfluous details. (Thaden 56).
In addition to painting a claustrophobic landscape of options presented to women like Jane Fairfax, Austen demonstrates marriage as an customary way in which to gain social elevation and traction. However, at times, it could be only temporary. Most of Austen’s heroines are given marriage as a solution, “despite its consequent loss of legal rights”, but wives can be widowed and returned to a state of financial dependence (Tobin 416). Austen shows this bleak reality in Lady Susan, whose eponymous character is technically a homeless widow relying on family and friends for a roof over her head, and who needs either her daughter or herself to marry up in society in order to support themselves. So while Jane Fairfax’s happiness towards the end of the fourth episode of the 2009 BBC adaptation may appear as the simple bliss of a woman in love, to a reader or viewer deeply conscious of the realities of Jane’s suffering, it can be interpreted as simultaneous joy at having escaped destitution through marriage. But it takes effort to overcome the highlighted romance of the adaptation.
Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill finally reunite in public on Highbury village grounds in the 2009 BBC adaptation.
James Kissane accuses critics of “doing [Jane Fairfax] too much [justice because] Emma does her too little justice,” but even if he sees her as the unoriginal heroine of a melodrama, it does not invalidate the reality of Jane Fairfax’s position (Kissane 178). As Tobin remarks, “Caring for and educating children were the only occupations (other than writing) open to middle-class women that were considered decent and lady-like…Not fit by training or inclination for any work other than writing or governessing, a poor middle-class woman was in a pathetic, sometimes desperate financial situation” (Tobin 416). Because Jane Fairfax is only one example of such a “poor middle-class woman,” one could only imagine the hundreds and thousands of other Jane Fairfaxes suffering a similar fate without always finding a fairy tale ending. The mere inclusion and repeated appearance of her character should have made this disgraceful situation more obvious and more of an issue of social injustice in Austen’s time, but this social archetype seems to have been overlooked. Jane Fairfax could be considered a precursor to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, who appeared in publication just thirty-one years after Emma. Jane Eyre’s more severely oppressed position as a governess at Thornfield Hall evinces the continuing decline in the respectability of governesses later in nineteenth century Britain.
1. Adelaide Claxton, The Daily Governess, 1862
2. James Hayllar, Miss Lily’s Return from the ball, 1866
3. George Goodwin Kilburne, Governess with two girls – 1873
If an Austen fan/Janeite is looking for a well produced, well written, charming, funny adaptation of Emma they will be delighted and satisfied. If they are in search of more serious social or gender themes, they will find there is a lack thereof. Still, this current decade is not only a post-feminist context; it is more of a post post-feminist context. The feminist conflict is no longer solely for gender equality in the sense that only women’s rights should be considered and supported. It is the desire for the rights of gender equality in all senses, the rights of newly emerging definitions of gender, and even of men. It is an overall consideration of all members of society who are marginalized for their sexuality, nationality, ethnicity, poverty, or health. Jane Fairfax’s vulnerable position should be more evident today, and it would be remarkable to see if Emma could be reproduced with a screenplay featuring Jane Fairfax as the heroine.