Signet Essay Contest 2012
Anastasia Noel Gottschalk-Fielding
In Jane Austen’s Emma, many of the main characters have been raised in unusual family configurations. These include two of Emma’s female acquaintances, Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax, who were both left parentless at a young age. Harriet is an illegitimate child who has spent her life as a pupil at a small boarding school with no contact with her family. Jane is an actual orphan who from early childhood has been under the care of an old friend of her father who has provided for her education. However, although both Harriet and Jane have similar backgrounds involving providing for themselves and accepting others’ charity, they react in opposite ways. Harriet becomes extremely dependent on others, Jane extremely self–reliant. These character traits influence their actions throughout the book, at first causing them many problems, but in the end giving them what they need to succeed.
Harriet’s troubles start when she meets Emma. At the beginning of the book she is in love with Mr. Martin, a young farmer who is the brother of two of her schoolmates. Upon seeing Emma’s strong disapproval of him, however, she allows herself to be convinced that she does not care for him, and when he eventually sends a letter proposing marriage, she lets Emma write her refusal. Next, she is guided by Emma into “falling in love” with Mr. Elton, the vicar, a man to whom she has paid no attention before. This brings her much heartache as she soon realizes Mr. Elton cares nothing for her. Despite this she still trusts Emma’s judgment completely and, on mistakenly concluding that Emma wants her to marry Mr. Knightley, promptly “falls in love” again. Upon realizing that Emma has never even considered a match between her and Mr. Knightley, she is shocked, exclaiming that she would not have fallen in love “but for believing that you [Emma] entirely approved and meant to encourage me in my attachment.” (p. 349)
Notwithstanding all she has suffered through Emma’s counsel, Harriet’s trusting nature remains unchanged. Emma finally gives up her matchmaking plans, declaring that it is too much to hope “that she [Harriet] could be in love with more than three men in one year.’ (p. 385) Thus abandoned, Harriet depends on others for guidance, including Mr. Knightley who, believing his friend to be the right man for her, talks to her frequently about the advantages of farming and in other subtle ways seeks to encourage her to look more favorably again on Mr. Martin. The Martins themselves are very kind to her even after she rejects Mr. Martin, and continue to remain on friendly terms and to visit her. These combined influences cause Harriet to reconsider her previous decision and finally — trusting Mr. Knightley and the Martin family’ opinions as much as she had trusted Emma’s before — she is reunited with Mr. Martin, the man she has loved all along.
Jane, meanwhile, confides in no one about her secret engagement to Frank Churchill, not even her guardians with whom she appears to be very close. Upon arriving in Highbury she continues to be extremely reserved, going to the utmost lengths to ensure no sign of her attachment to Frank is noticed. While she succeeds in this, she also becomes the subject of malicious gossip from her neighbors due to her odd behavior and avoidance of questions about her past. Emma, in particular, becomes convinced that Jane must be involved in an illicit romance with a recently married acquaintance, saying to Frank that she is “perfectly convinced” (p. 199) that this alone explains Jane’s secretive behavior. In addition to this, Jane also suffers silently through Frank’s flirtation with Emma. Instead of showing any anger, she ignores Frank, preferring to retreat further inward rather than publicly display her feelings.
Jane does privately reprimand Frank for his behavior and, on seeing this brings no change, writes to him breaking their engagement which she describes as “a source of repentance and misery.” (p. 378) Now knowing that she will have to provide for herself, she secures a position as a governess. In the early nineteenth century women rarely broke engagements, and Jane’s friends and relations would presumably have advised her not to give up such a rich match and risk damaging her character. Jane, however, knows what she is doing and, by relying on her own judgment and disregarding social conventions, manages to win back Frank’s love and respect.
To conclude, both Harriet’s and Jane’s personalities have been molded by their difficult backgrounds. Harriet has turned outward, Jane inward. These two extremes of personalities lead them to many challenges, but in the end their “failings” become their strengths. Harriet’s trusting nature allows her to fall in love again with Mr. Martin, and Jane’s self–reliance gives her the courage to stand up to Frank and win his respect. Thus the characteristics they both acquired through their rough beginnings turn out, at last, to be the keys to their happy endings.
For information on the 2012-2013 Signet Classics Essay Contest, click here.
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