by Jane Austen
Tools of Characterization
In a town completely obsessed with social rank, where people live is a pretty good indication of how well-respected they’re going to be by other characters. Austen’s narrator spends a good chunk of time describing places – Randalls, Hartfield, Donwell Abbey and the oh-so-famous Maple Grove almost seem like characters in their own rights. Randalls is a small but respectable home. Hartfield is a large and respectable home. Donwell Abbey is the largest (and most respectable) home.
Owning property means that you’re clearly a gentleman. Living above a shop (as the Bateses do) means that you’ve fallen on some pretty rough times. The fact that Donwell Abbey is the perfect English estate gives us a pretty clear picture of Mr. Knightley as the perfect English gentleman; Mrs. Weston’s move from governess to housewife maps a HUGE jump in social status. She might have been respectable before, but she’s respected now. There’s a difference between the two.
Emma and other well-bred characters don’t emphasize their nice homes, though – that’s far too gauche. Only crass people would talk about comparing homes – which gives us a good clue about how spectacularly trashy Mrs. Elton is going to be.
How many different degrees of cool can there be in one small town? Apparently, quite a few. There’s the good-at-heart but rather stupid (and poor) Harriet and the good-at-heart but rather stupid (and once rich) Miss Bates. Notice a difference between the two? Highbury does. Harriet doesn’t have a father, so she’s low on the social scale. Miss Bates once had a very important father, so she’s well-respected.
For all that social status seems to be fixed, however, there are small signs of changes on the horizon. Robert Martin, for example, is moving up in the world. We might even think of him as the beginnings of the middle class. Sure, he talks about cows a bit too much for most folks’ taste, but he’s educated and well-respected. Emma’s refusal to see Robert as anything but a farmer becomes one of her blind spots. It’s lucky that Mr. Knightley’s around to set her straight.
Now that we’re speaking of Mr. Knightley, we’d like to point out that he’s perfect. And perfectly humble. If he weren’t the richest man in town, he’d be looked down upon for walking everywhere. But rich people get to have their freaks. In fact, if he were living today, we’d probably have a reality show about him. Because everybody understands the class system, however, he’s respected no matter what he does.
Ah, habits. We’ve got to confess, they’re some of our favorite parts of this novel. Emma can’t stop imagining love matches. Mr. Woodhouse can’t help consulting his doctor about everything. Harriet can’t help asking Emma to plan her life. Mr. Knightley can’t help telling the truth. Everybody calls on everybody else because it’s what they’ve always done.
We could go on. But you get the picture, right? The fine citizens of Highbury are very devoted to doing the same things today as they did yesterday. They’ll do the same things tomorrow that they did today. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Characters’ habits allow us to see how ridiculous – and how necessary – everyday routines can be.