The Mistress Of The Household: Elizabeth Bennet And Emma Woodhouse

Jane Austen’s female characters each reflect a unique view of the world and what it was like for women in her time. Elizabeth Bennet is often cited as Austen’s most loved heroine. Emma Woodhouse has a similar story in that they both start out as twenty-year-olds and are single. They end up married to rich men who have beautiful and respectable estates. Austen could question patriarchal traditions in the home and society by using the headstrong and independent personalities of her heroines. Emma and Elizabeth are not bound by the same conventions as those found in James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1765), read out loud by Mr. Collins. Fordyce teaches that any woman who hopes to find a man should be quiet, to suppress both her intelligence and wit. Emma and Elizabeth are both submissive, but not to the extent that James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1765) is.

Elizabeth knows that she must marry in order to secure her own future. Her father, an ignorant and foolish man who willfully neglects the responsibility he has for his daughters, detaches himself as much as possible from being a parent. Austen used him as a warning about the costs of not fulfilling one’s role as patriarch and failing to intellectually and morally educate your children. Elizabeth sees Lydia Bennet inviting her to Brighton and deems it a ‘death-warrant’ for both her sister’s parents and common sense. Elizabeth’s request to Mr Bennet that he ‘…check Lydia’s exuberant spirit’ is rejected. This leads her to realise how damaging his failure to be a father has been to her and her sisters. Elizabeth sees marriage as a way to escape her parents’ corrupt home. She rejects Mr Collins’ first proposal, even if it means that she will not be able to make Longbourne her permanent home. Berglund claims that Austen made Mr Collins a patriarchal figure by making him both a potential provider and a depriver. By making him both, Austen gave him both moral and spiritual authority. Elizabeth Bennet also emphasizes the arbitrariness power by describing him as “conceited” and “pompous”.

Austen’s concern to show Elizabeth that she “pays for her freedom of way” at the novel’s beginning is evident in Susan Fraiman’s suggestion. Fraiman asserts that, while Elizabeth was given an active and able mind to make good decisions, she reverted back to the standard, submissive woman role after meeting Darcy. Alistair Duckworth claims that Darcy encourages Elizabeth to give up her individualism in regards to her education by writing her the first letter. This argument is similar with James Fordyce’s belief that accomplished women have a lot of passive qualities, such as temperance and modesty. Darcy is the opposite. He is honourable, respected, and is also a wealthy landowner. Alistair Duckworth believes that Jane Austen uses estates as an index of character, social responsibility, and the history of its owners. This motif of order, security and management is most prominent in Austen novels. The physical estate serves as a representation of other inherited structures such as the society at large, the code of ethics, a body or manners, and the language. Elizabeth’s initial visit to Pemberley demonstrates the importance given to the appearance of a house, as seen in Austen’s books, in expressing the character of its owner. Pride and Prejudice, according to Austen in Mansfield Park, is the first Jane Austen book that makes extensive use of ‘the place influence’. Ann Banfield believes that the influence of place’ is what determines individual character development, as physical settings ‘interact with and form consciousness’. Elizabeth has a similar experience when she visits Mr Darcy’s ancestral home and interacts the landscape. She realises what she feels for him after her first encounter with his Pemberley. Then, later, Jane tells Elizabeth that her love is due to her first impression of Pemberley. H. Elisabeth Ellington argues Austen used the landscape as a symbolic representation of Darcy. Pemberley is described as a ‘large’ house, a ‘beautiful one’, and a ‘handsome one’. Darcy may be represented by the ‘natural significance’ of the stream, while his honesty and sincerity are shown through the absence of artificial appearance.

Elizabeth has a very strong link between her rejection Darcy, and the sudden realization that she will no longer be able to own a beautiful estate.

“And this place…I may have been the mistress!” I could…welcome…my aunt and uncle as visitors. But no’, she replied. ‘That was never going to happen: I would have lost my uncle and Aunt: they were not welcome.

Austen often used landscapes to illustrate social issues, and it is possible that the love between Darcy’s and Elizabeth’s relationship challenges the societal expectations at the time she wrote. Elizabeth is aware of the social status she holds. She tells Lady Catherine de Bourgh that Darcy “is a gentleman” and I am his daughter. As a result, Elizabeth’s uncertainty when visiting Pemberley stems from her Uncle, Mr Gardiner. He is a businessman, and this led Mr Darcy say that they “must materially reduce the Bennet Sisters’ chances of marrying men who are of any regard in the whole world”. Even though they were both polite members of society, Lady Catherine questioned the alliance between Elizabeth Darcy.

Austen used the neatly-ordered houses in her novels as a metaphor for moral worth. Morally indecent people are kicked out of their houses. Austen starts Persuasion off with a description that is less than flattering of “Sir Walter Elliot” of Kellynch Hall. In Somersetshire. “Vanitas of person, and vanity of circumstance, was at the heart of his character.” Austen makes him ‘distressed’ by money because of his lack of a gentlemanly character. He ignores Mr Shepherd and the ‘heavy invoices of his contractors’.

The Kellynch was a good property, but it did not meet Sir Walter’s expectations of what he expected from its owner. The Kellynch property was good, but not equal to Sir Walter’s apprehension of the state required in its possessor. He would not disgrace himself in this way. The Kellynch estate must be transferred in its entirety, just as it was received by him.

Sir Walter cannot control himself or reform, so he does not deserve the privilege of staying in Kellynch Hall. He must therefore ‘condescend,’ and rent it to another family. Interesting, Lady Elliot is portrayed in the film as being excellent… sensible, amiable and kind’ whereas her husbands are weak. Incompetence of Mr Woodhouse is shown by leaving his daughter alone to run his home. LeRoy is an invalid who never leaves Hartfield. He argues that Woodhouse’s demand for dependency on his daughter is just a way to prove women’s inferiority in relation to men. Austen, however, praises the way Mr Knightley manages Emma as well as Donwell Abbey’s’suitable and characteristic situation’. Knightley’s house is a perfect example of his sense of responsibility, just like Sir Thomas’ Mansfield Park estate and Pemberley.

Austen did not shy away from highlighting women’s flaws, but she was also realistic in her view of their limitations and the necessity of men being the main source of support for them. Marilyn Butler has suggested that Emma, Austen’s only domestically ascendant heroine, struggles to manage her own family. Knightley is the worst person to judge the problems of dependency. Marcia McClintock Folsom says that you don’t know how to control tempers. She refers to her father who is a valetudinarian and needs to be managed carefully. Emma’s claim that Mr. Knightley does not understand Emma’s position comes from her own experience. She has been managing people for many years. Gary Kelly points out that Emma’s lack of self control and knowledge in her youth, combined with the fact that she gained social power at a young age, led to her abusing this power. Emma is both the real leader of Hartfield’s household and the only woman in the community who is a natural female leader. Butler claims that all the other leading ladies in Austen’s novels are socially overlooked or discounted. Even the confident, energetic Elizabeth is denied an active role as a manager. Emma is the opposite: ‘handsome and clever’, ‘rich’, ‘happy’, ‘with a comfortable house and a happy disposition’, ‘with hardly anything to worry or distress her’. She has lived in the world for nearly 21 years. Emma feels that although Mr Knightley is the social leader in the town, she has a fortune of her own. She believes it makes Donwell Abbey and the Woodhouses look like second-class citizens. She is able to gain the social power, freedom and wealth that she has never had before, because of her position as mistress at Hartfield. Her father believed that marriage, contrary to societal expectations, was a very disagreeable thing. Emma is granted the opportunity to act as mistress to the house, while her sister happily marries Mr John Knightley. Emma’s view is quite radical and unusual for Austen characters of that time. She believes ‘a woman shouldn’t marry a man just because he asks her or is attached to them, but also because he can write her a tolerable note’.

“Fortune, employment and consequence are things I don’t want.” Hartfield is my home, and I know that very few married wives are half so much in charge of their husbands’ houses as I. And I could never have expected to feel so truly important and loved by any man as I did in the eyes of my father.

Emma’s assertion of Hartfield’s authority, along with this belief, provokes self-vindication, which is distinctly masculine for the period. The feminine delicacy that was expected of women in the past seems to be contrasted by the male self-vindication.

Austen asks, in the process, what is required to be a good mistress. Emma’s death, before she can even have a vague memory of her mother’s caresses, puts her in a position where Mr. Knightley realizes that Emma’s loss has serious implications for anyone’s ability manage her. Ever since Emma was twelve years old, Emma has been the mistress of both the house and you all. Her mother was the only one who could deal with her.

Emma is, in this way, similar to her mother but without the vital guidance and talents of her mother. Emma instead does what she wants, highly valuing the judgment of her governess but being mainly guided by herself.

On the other hand, the Regency period witnessed a transition from socio-political marriages of the seventeenth century toward marriages in which emotional relationships were taken into consideration, with personal choice of a spouse becoming more accepted.footnoteRef:50 The traditional patriarchal structure of marriage remained however, and a strong emphasis continued to be placed on a husband’s duty to manage his wife and to act as her moral guide.

Even in eighteenth Century England, women were isolated and restricted by a patriarchal legal system that stated, “the woman’s legal existence is suspended while she is married or at least integrated and consolidated to his: Under whose wings, protection and coverage, she does everything”.

While Mr. Knightley appears in all of Emma, he is the gentleman hero that Emma as well as the rest Highbury hold dearly. The stereotypical gentleman does not flatter Emma the way the other Highbury residents do. Emma’s portrayal of Harriet Smith was a perfect example. Mr. Elton, while he is the stereotypical gentleman, was the charming man who wanted to defend Emma. “I had never seen anything like it in my whole life.” We must account for the effects of shade. Austen does not make Mr. Knightley perfect, but she does allow him to have one human characteristic: his inability of full.


  • ewanpatel

    I'm a 29-year-old educational bloger and teacher. I have been writing about education for about six years, and I have a B.A. in English from UC Santa Cruz. I also have a M.A. in English from San Francisco State University. I teach high school English in the Bay Area.