Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Reading 'Emma' as a Lesson on "Ladyhood": A Study in the Domestic 'Bildungsroman.'

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Reading 'Emma' as a Lesson on "Ladyhood": A Study in the Domestic 'Bildungsroman.'

Article excerpt

Emma can be a problematic novel for the modern reader - especially for the feminist reader. On the one hand, feminist critics have lauded Jane Austen for her critique of the marriage market and exposition of the problems of female independence in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (Green, Johnson, Kirkham, Poovey). The growing emphasis on creating a canon of women writers has led many feminist readers to latch onto Austen with fervor because she is a woman writer who has long enjoyed a fine critical reputation despite the sentimental and damaging myth of "gentle-Janeism" (Trilling 29). On the other hand, feminist readers have also raised disturbing questions about Austen (Booth, Company 420). While Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar find that her novels are subversive in nature, they also believe that her novels depict "the necessity of female submission for female survival" (203).

Ironically, one way for the modern reader, feminist or not, to deal with the problems of reading Emma is to approach the novel as a lesson on manners - more specifically - as a lesson on "ladyhood." Modern readers, of course, are not usually interested in instruction on the characteristics of a "lady."(1) But this becomes a problem in reading Austen because she was writing to a population of readers in a time and a place for whom the attributes of a lady were important. Another problem in reading Emma is that modern readers often eschew didacticism in literature; Austen, however, expected that a novel could "gratify the cravings of the imagination and provide moral instruction" (Poovey 182). To do justice to Austen, modern readers must be willing to meet her at least halfway on her own territory. If readers are willing to extend their hands to Austen - white gloves are not necessary - and politely pretend interest in the notion of "ladyhood," then they may develop a fuller understanding of Austen as an artist. One of Austen's greatest achievements in Emma is that she writes a novel of education - a bildungsroman - that instructs her readers to deconstruct the pervasive images of "ladyhood" created by her period's conduct-book writers.(2) Austen resists the view of a "lady" as passive and selfless and redefines the highest ideals of "ladyhood" as self-assurance, strength, and compassion through the depiction of her heroine, Emma.(3) Such a reading of the novel, however, not only shows how Emma redefines female ideals but also how the novel redefines the bildungsroman within the context of early nineteenth-century domestic values.

In The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer, Mary Poovey defines the ideal lady in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a "demure young woman, with eyes downcast and lips pressed into a faint and silent smile" (47). Both male and female authors of popular conduct books of the period define a lady primarily through what she must lack: personal agency, ambition, desire, and vanity (Poovey 4-36).(4) Indeed, women's self-denial and self-sacrifice were crucial elements in the emerging ideal of the Victorian house angel. While in the early eighteenth century a lady was defined as "a woman of superior position in society," by the nineteenth century the term was used to denote a "woman whose manners, habits, and sentiments have the refinement characteristic of the higher ranks of society" (qtd. in Sangari, 715). In other words, the term "lady" moved from one that described only class to one that described behavior. In the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century world of a rising middle class and declining upper class, social status and survival often depended not only on money but also on manners - those culturally constructed markers that define community membership. The problems of shifting social classes exist even in Emma's home of Highbury. The Coles and Mrs. Elton are purchasing prestige while Miss Bates, who as daughter of the former rector was a "fringe" member of the upper class, is losing prestige to poverty. …

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