Following Footpaths in Emma: Actual and Metaphorical. (the Country and the City)

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I BEGIN WITH A QUOTATION from Mr. Knightley:

"But John, as to what I was telling you of my idea of moving the path to Langham, of turning it more to the right that it may not cut through the home meadows, I cannot conceive any difficulty. I should not attempt it, if it were to be the means of inconvenience to the Highbury people, but if you call to mind exactly the present line of the path. . . . The only way of proving it, however, will be to turn to our maps. I shall see you at the Abbey to-morrow morning I hope, then we will look them over, and you shall give me your opinion." (106-07)

Why does Mr. Knightley want to move the footpath, and what is entailed in such a maneuver? Is it legal? And is it fair to the local villagers for him, even as magistrate, to consider such a change?

The footpath appears as a central motif in Emma. It is featured in this early scene, in which Mr. Knightley's actions with regard to the movement of a footpath illustrate both his character and his role in the community of Highbury. But while Mr. Knightley concerns himself with moving the footpath through his meadow, Emma concerns herself with the manipulation of the people who surround her. Other Austen scholars have referred to the hidden calendar game that Austen plays in Emma. (1) I would suggest another game--that the references to the footpath are so persistent that it seems an almost calculated choice on the author's part. The characters in Emma guide, lead and follow; they improve, arrange, and finesse; they follow the way, the course, and the direction, until the recurrent metaphor becomes a subtext for the novel: everything is underscored by the resonance of the footpath image.

In my reading of Emma, I trace the historical context and background of right of way and footpaths, some of which were in use before Roman times. I explore the specifics of Mr. Knightley's act of moving the footpath, and show how his actions shed light on the character of the responsible landlord. And I contend that the footpath appears as a metaphor for the characters, their actions and attitudes, and their ultimate fates.

The French historian Elie Halevy reminds us that "the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century did not involve the division of the great ecclesiastical domains. All that took place was the substitution of aristocratic for clerical" authority (218). In those early years, the lands around the former monasteries (as Mr. Knightley's Donwell Abbey once was) were generally open as common land or waste. That land was available to the villeins to pasture the cow, to cut the wood, and to dig the turf. Before the Enclosure Acts, English Common Law offered some protection, for example, to the right of easement across property for access to water sources, because "the villein and his lord had an equal need to take logs for their houses and hearths . . . to pasture their pigs on the waste ground and their cattle in the common meadow" (Harding 96). But by dint of the Enclosure Acts, the common wastes became the private property of the individual owner. "It was then systematically improved and transformed int o a meadow or into a field of arable land" (Halevy 218). By the eighteenth century, enclosure of the once-open common lands had secured the landlord-tenant relationship; by the time Emma was published, many great estates in Surrey, such as Mr. Knightley's Donwell Abbey, would have long been enclosed.

In Jane Austen and the English Landscape, Mavis Batey points out that Austen's brother, Edward, "was already in 1811 considering re-routing a footpath through his meadows from Farringdon [to Chawton]....Jane Austen was asked to look for an old map, which she found and sent to him" (108). Jane Austen recorded the actual event in a letter to Cassandra on 31 May 1811: "I got up here to look for the old Map, & now can tell you that it shall be sent tomorrow;--it was among the great parcel in the Dining Room. …