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Emma | Context

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The Historical Period

Jane Austen is both a Georgian (1714–1830) and a Regency (1811–1820) author, meaning that she lived her life under the reigns of King George III and his son, George IV. Because he became mentally incompetent, George III stepped down and allowed his son to rule in his place as regent. The extravagant George IV was a patron of the arts and a fan of Austen's work, and she dedicated Emma to him at his strong suggestion.

The Georgian era was one of great turmoil and upheaval. Austen was born one year before the American Revolution, lived her teen years and beyond through the French Revolution, and toward the end of her life saw Great Britain's defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. The War of 1812 and the first phase of the Industrial Revolution also occurred during her lifetime.

The world of Austen's novels seems to exist mostly outside this chaotic realm, which is especially true in Emma. Nonetheless, the author did have some consciousness of the changes going on around her. On the one hand, she upholds the British class structure; and, on the other, she satirizes snobbery and slavish devotion to class distinctions.

The English Class Structure

Austen occupied herself with the role that class and gender played in the day-to-day life of the "middling classes"—those between the aristocratic nobles (the royal family down through the barons) and the lower classes (craft, agricultural, and factory workers and the poor). The middle class in the Regency period had some fluidity; at the higher end of the middle were baronets and knights, along with the landed gentry (families with property who made their money from agricultural activities on their estates). Depending on how rich a family was, its members would be more or less involved in the day-to-day management of farming.

In the upper-middle class were clergymen, lawyers, doctors and apothecaries, teachers, builders, successful artists, military men with commissions (officers), and wealthy tradespeople. Many of these gentlemen owned property. People could buy their way into the landed gentry class with new money from successful trade. A peculiarity of the class system was that only sons could legally inherit property, leaving a family of daughters without any financial resources. At the same time, a family could move up in the world when a daughter married a man of property.

Members of the gentry with little or no land faced particular problems. To maintain their social status, they avoided going into business or trade, which left very few occupations open to them. The military was an acceptable profession, as was the law and the church. Those who became vicars in the Church of England usually did not have a spiritual calling; rather, they were educated men who took a "living" from a benefactor—the use of a house (a vicarage) and a modest salary. In exchange, they ministered to the spiritual needs of the community.

Even more difficult was the position of women, who were legally treated as children. Jane Austen knew firsthand the financial difficulties of single women of modest means who relied on relatives for their livelihood. She understood the plight of governesses hired out as tutors and quasi-nannies, the only respectable work a middle-class woman could do. She also observed the dilemmas of women from prosperous families whose entire happiness depended on making a suitable match. These trials and tribulations of the landed gentry, the upper-middle class, and the socially aspiring lower-middle class are the subjects of her comic novels, including Emma.

Literary Influences

Jane Austen was well educated and well read for a woman of her day and borrowed books from both family libraries and circulating libraries. Although she read seriously, Austen favored fictional works. Among her literary influences were Frances (Fanny) Burney and Maria Edgeworth, who wrote about society with humor and wit; Ann Radcliffe, an early gothic novelist influenced by the romantic movement; Samuel Richardson, an epistolary novelist (novels written in the form of letters); and Henry Fielding, the author of the famous satire Tom Jones.

Austen's Contributions to the Development of the Novel

Austen was also a literary innovator. In her time, novels were becoming a primary form of entertainment for the middle class. She was one of the first to advance social realism in literature, in which the characters and plots are plausible imitations of real life. She was also an innovator in her refinement of the use of irony and satire in the novel form, using witty dialogue between characters and perceptive narration. In truth, there are few heroes and villains in her stories. She moved the novel genre away from sentimentalism and emotional excess and drew sympathetic portraits of flawed human beings in need of instruction and improvement.

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