Study Guide

Jane Fairfax in Emma

By Jane Austen

Jane Fairfax

Since we just talked about Frank, we might as well start where we left off: why does Jane stick with him? They’re secretly engaged when Jane arrives in Highbury – but Jane doesn’t tell anyone about their love, even when Emma seems to be stealing Frank from under Jane’s nose. Wouldn’t you expect a cat fight? We sure would! We don’t even get a little one, however.

Maybe Jane keeps her cool so well because, well, she actually is pretty cool. She’s the only self-made woman in the novel. Orphaned when she was young, Jane quickly learns that she’s got to be good at taking care of herself. She sings, plays the piano, sews, and is about to start teaching – in other words, she does just about everything that a woman could do in her time. And she does them all really, really well. In fact, Emma hates her at first because she’s just too…good! Emma may assert that Jane "tires [her] to death," but Mr. Knightley thinks she’s just about perfect.

We should interrupt this encomium to say a little bit about the dirtiest word in the novel: governess. That’s right – Jane’s about to be one. Gasp. In a world where nanny-ing is actually a pretty sweet gig, we might not think twice about taking care of smelly, whiny, spoiled children. OK, now that we think about it, it’s not that great. But still, a paycheck is nothing to be scoffed at – right? In the world of Highbury, however, women become governesses because they can’t do anything else – and, of course, because they haven’t found some poor jerk to marry. Being a governess, then, means that Jane has failed in the marriage market (except, of course, for her secret engagement. But that’s still a secret). Governesses might be gentlewomen, sure, but they’re about as low on the social ladder as you can get. Maybe that’s why Mrs. Elton feels like she can patronize Jane. (We still hate her for it, though.)

Of course, as you’ve already figured out, Jane isn’t involved with Mr. Dixon. Let’s say that again: Jane and Mr. Dixon = nothing. Got it? Emma doesn’t – which is why she and Frank make so much fun of Jane. And because Jane wants to keep the engagement secret, she can’t give Frank the hard smack on the head he so deserves.

Jane’s plucky, but she’s quiet. As Emma observes, "There was no getting at her real opinion. Wrapt up in a cloak of politeness, she seemed determined to hazard nothing. She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved." Maybe that’s not quite fair, but it’s a pretty decent assessment of Jane’s privacy. Jane seems to care deeply about her friends and family, but our narrator doesn’t tell us much about that. Think about the Bateses, for example – if it were Emma (or, let’s face it, us), we’d probably hear a lot about how silly they are. Jane doesn’t say a word.

Jane’s character gets as little of the narrator’s attention as Isabella Knightley does, but this seems to be for different reasons. Isabella doesn’t get much page time because there’s just not that much to say about her. Jane doesn’t get much attention because she wants it that way. After all, with a secret engagement to hide, a pesky narrator (or an inquisitive neighbor) would intrude too much into personal business for Jane’s comfort. Perhaps we don’t learn much about Jane because Emma’s character doesn’t want to know more about Jane’s perfections (and our narrator, as we’ve mentioned, tends to follow Emma’s perspective). But perhaps our narrator is doing Jane a good turn – when the secret engagement comes to light, we learn much more about Jane as a person.

In fact, once her secret’s out, Jane becomes a new woman. She laughs, makes friends with Emma, and seems to dote on Mrs. Weston, her new mother-in-law. We at Shmoop predict that she’ll be very happy as the new Mrs. Churchill…if she can ever get Frank in line.

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