So I was thinking today about how everyone says that Elizabeth Bennet, from Pride and Prejudice, “is revolutionary in that she actively rejects the conventions of the time in which it is written. Her determination to choose her own husband, using “rational” Love as her main criteria, deems her as a rebel of her time.” But you know who the real revolutionary? Emma Woodhouse from Emma.
Now I don’t want you to think that I’m denouncing the things Elizabeth stands for or her accomplishments at being a revolutionary character, but face it Emma is much more revolutionary.
Now most people forget about the revolutionary aspects of Emma’s character because they focus more on the love triangle, Emma’s meddling, etc. But in actuality Emma is a more revolutionary character.
So first of all we have what Elizabeth is famous for, her decision not to marry Mr. Collins, but rather wait for love. She dreams of marrying one day to a man that completes her. As we can tell by Charlotte’s defense:
Unlike Charlotte, Elizabeth is a romantic. She has an ideal, fairytale prince she is waiting for. She’s waiting for a highly practical and sensible one, but still waiting for her Mr. Right. Now this is revolutionary. Women lacked any options at all, they usually did only what their parents instructed of them. They married only for security, standing, and wealth. They tended to have very little happiness as their husbands would have mistresses and spend all their time with them, or involved in so many vices (gambling, drinking, drugs) etc. The book & TV show The Buccaneers, really shows the realistic side of marriage in the time (if you have Amazon Instant Watch you can watch it free).
Emma on the other hand rejects marriage. Granted, unlike Elizabeth, she has the money and power to support herself (her estate is not entailed); but still this is extremely revolutionary. She embraces the idea of being a spinster.
I know right?
“I do so wonder, Miss Woodhouse, that you should not be married, or going to be married! so charming as you are!”—
Emma laughed, and replied,
“My being charming, Harriet, is not quite enough to induce me to marry; I must find other people charming—one other person at least. And I am not only, not going to be married, at present, but have very little intention of ever marrying at all.”
“Ah!—so you say; but I cannot believe it.”
“I must see somebody very superior to any one I have seen yet, to be tempted; Mr. Elton, you know, (recollecting herself,) is out of the question: and I do not wish to see any such person. I would rather not be tempted. I cannot really change for the better. If I were to marry, I must expect to repent it.”
“Dear me!—it is so odd to hear a woman talk so!“—
“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am of Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.“
“But then, to be an old maid at last, like Miss Bates!”
“That is as formidable an image as you could present, Harriet; and if I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates! so silly—so satisfied—so smiling—so prosing—so undistinguishing and unfastidious—and so apt to tell every thing relative to every body about me, I would marry to-morrow. But between us, I am convinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried.”
“But still, you will be an old maid! and that’s so dreadful!”
“Never mind, Harriet, I shall not be a poor old maid; and it is poverty only which makes celibacy contemptible to a generous public! A single woman, with a very narrow income, must be a ridiculous, disagreeable old maid! the proper sport of boys and girls, but a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as any body else. And the distinction is not quite so much against the candour and common sense of the world as appears at first; for a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross. This does not apply, however, to Miss Bates; she is only too good natured and too silly to suit me; but, in general, she is very much to the taste of every body, though single and though poor. Poverty certainly has not contracted her mind: I really believe, if she had only a shilling in the world, she would be very likely to give away sixpence of it; and nobody is afraid of her: that is a great charm.”
“Dear me! but what shall you do? how shall you employ yourself when you grow old?”
“If I know myself, Harriet, mine is an active, busy mind, with a great many independent resources; and I do not perceive why I should be more in want of employment at forty or fifty than one-and-twenty. Woman’s usual occupations of hand and mind will be as open to me then as they are now; or with no important variation. If I draw less, I shall read more; if I give up music, I shall take to carpet-work. And as for objects of interest, objects for the affections, which is in truth the great point of inferiority, the want of which is really the great evil to be avoided in not marrying, I shall be very well off, with all the children of a sister I love so much, to care about. There will be enough of them, in all probability, to supply every sort of sensation that declining life can need. There will be enough for every hope and every fear; and though my attachment to none can equal that of a parent, it suits my ideas of comfort better than what is warmer and blinder. My nephews and nieces!—I shall often have a niece with me.”
You see Emma embraces the idea of spinsterhood, the very thing that Charlotte is afraid of and what causes her to marry Mr. Collins, as a stupid man is seen as better than no man at all. Elizabeth isn’t afraid like Charlotte Lucas as she believes it will eventually happen, never considering what will happen if Mr. Right doesn’t come along. Emma on the other hand has the attitude of “forget men, I don’t need them in my life, maybe one will come around that will cause me to think differently, but if I never experience love I will be A-okay”.
Now this is HUGE for the times. Being a spinster was seen as beyond a horrible thing. It was a last result. It was the most deplorable thing a woman could amount to. But to Emma she doesn’t see it that way. She sees it an opportunity to live her life however she decides.
And when she finds out that Mr. Knightly might get with another person, she doesn’t wish that he would choose her instead, what she wishes is that nothing will change, that they will remain friends.
“Wish it she must, for his sake—be the consequence nothing to herself, but his remaining single all his life. Could she be secure of that, indeed, of his never marrying at all, she believed she should be perfectly satisfied.—Let him but continue the same Mr. Knightley to her and her father, the same Mr. Knightley to all the world; let Donwell and Hartfield lose none of their precious intercourse of friendship and confidence, and her peace would be fully secured.”
I think we have a clear winner here.
Emma, the real revolutionary.
For more on Emma go to On the 10th Day ‘Til Christmas
For more on Pride & Prejudice go to Flu Season