The Mistress of The Household: Elizabeth Bennet and Emma Woodhouse

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About this sample


Words: 2471 |

Pages: 5|

13 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Words: 2471|Pages: 5|13 min read

Published: Aug 6, 2021

Each of Jane Austen’s heroines provides a unique perspective and reflection of what it meant to be a woman in her society. Elizabeth Bennet, frequently cited as Austen’s most beloved heroine, and Emma Woodhouse, generally perceived to be her most disliked, have a similar narrative journey in so far as they are both twenty years of age and single at the beginning of the story, and married to wealthy men with beautiful, respectable estates by the conclusion of their respective novels. The independent and headstrong personalities of both heroines mark a departure from the reserved, modest Dashwood sisters and Northanger Abbey’s naïve and immature Catherine Morland, allowing Austen the freedom to interrogate the traditional patriarchal authority of both the domestic family unit and wider society. Neither Elizabeth or Emma adhere to the conventions set forth in works such as James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women (1765), as read by Mr. Collins, which insist that any young woman hoping for a husband should sit quietly, repress her wit and intelligence - should she be unfortunate enough to possess either - and always obey her parents and betters. Neither heroine conforms to such subservient positions, particularly in light of the ‘defects of their nearest relations.’ Yet, this is perhaps where their similarities end. 

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Elizabeth is very much aware of her need to marry to secure her future. Her father, a man who wilfully neglects his responsibility for his ‘silly and ignorant’daughters, generally detaches himself from parental responsibility whenever possible. Thus, he serves as Austen’s warning of the high cost of neglecting one’s duty as the patriarch to morally and intellectually educate one’s children. This absence of authority is perhaps best illustrated in Lydia Bennet’s invitation to Brighton, which Elizabeth perceives as ‘the death-warrant of all possibility of common sense’for her sister and her parents. However, Elizabeth’s urging of Mr Bennet to ‘…take the trouble of checking Lydia’s exuberant spirits’is rejected, leading her to recognise just how destructive his failure as a father is to both her sisters and herself. Consequently, for Elizabeth marriage offers an escape from the corruption of her parents’ home. Yet her first proposal comes from Mr Collins, which she rejects, even at the cost of failing to secure Longbourne as her long-term home. Remarkably, as Berglund argues, by making the ridiculous Mr Collins both the potential provider and depriver, the man who has both the power of offering a home and taking one away, Austen makes him an embodiment of patriarchal power, further emphasised by the fact that he is a clergyman, thus also representing moral and spiritual authority. Furthermore, the fact that he is a ‘conceited, pompous, narrow-minded, silly man’– in the words of Elizabeth Bennet – emphasises the arbitrariness of power. 

However, Elizabeth is saved from the fate of losing her home or marrying Mr Collins through her marriage to Fitzwilliam Darcy, although Susan Fraiman suggests that Austen seems concerned to demonstrate that Elizabeth ‘pays a certain price for her freedom of manner’ shown at the beginning of the novel. Indeed, Fraiman argues that Elizabeth, although progressive in being given an active mind and the ability to make good judgments, declines into the normative, submissive female role of her literary predecessors on meeting Mr. Darcy. Additionally, Alistair Duckworth argues that in regard to Elizabeth’s education, Darcy’s first letter encourages her to surrender her individualism ‘to the aid and control of authority.’This argument resembles James Fordyce’s perception that accomplished women are ‘entirely contingent beings,’whose virtues incorporate temperance, chastity, modesty, pity, and compassion; all primarily passive characteristics. On the other hand, however, Mr Darcy embodies the gentlemanly qualities that Austen promotes; he is honourable and respected, but furthermore, he is a successful landowner. Alistair Duckworth argues that, throughout Jane Austen’s fiction, ‘estates function not only as the settings of action but as indexes to the character and social responsibility of their owners’. This motif of order and security - the management of the estate - is the most important metaphor in Austen’s novels; the estate is as an ordered physical structure is a metonym for other inherited structures – society as a whole, a code of morality, a body of manners and a system of language. Consequently, the aesthetic good sense that is evident in the landscape of Pemberley, ‘neither formal, not falsely adorned’, permits both the reader and Elizabeth to infer the fundamental worth of Darcy’s social and ethical character, and the significance of Elizabeth’s first visit to Pemberley emphasises the importance of the image of house apparent in all of Austen’s novels, mainly as it reflects the owner. Furthermore, Pride and Prejudice is possibly the first of Jane Austen’s novels to make extensive use of what Austen terms in Mansfield Park ‘the influence of place’. According to Ann Banfield, the ‘influence of place’ determines the development of individual characters as physical setting ‘interacts with and forms consciousness’. Thus, when Elizabeth visits Mr Darcy’s ancestral estate and interacts with the landscape, she realises her feelings for him based on her observations of Pemberley, declaring later to her sister Jane that ‘I believe I must date my love from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley’. As H. Elisabeth Ellington argues, Austen uses the landscape as a metaphor for Darcy, with references to Pemberley as ‘large’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘handsome’ being interchangeable between the house and its owner, and consequently, the landscape in the novel becomes a sign of desire. Thus, the stream that ‘swelled’ may represent Darcy’s pride and ‘natural importance’, whilst the lack of ‘any artificial appearance’ demonstrates his honest and sincere nature. 

Certainly, Elizabeth very much links her rejection of Darcy with her sudden realisation of the coinciding loss of her opportunity to be mistress of a beautiful estate:

‘And of this place…I might have been mistress! …I might have…welcomed…as visitors my uncle and aunt. – But no,’ – recollecting herself – ‘that could never be: my uncle and aunt would have been lost to me: I should not have been allowed to invite them.’

Austen frequently used the landscape to present issues in society, and the love of Darcy and Elizabeth arguably challenges societal expectations of the time in which she was writing. Whilst Elizabeth declares to Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Mr Darcy’s aunt, that Darcy ‘is a gentleman; I am a gentleman's daughter; so far we are equal’, she is certainly aware of her social position. Thus, when she visits Pemberley her uncertainty about her aunt and uncle stems from the simple fact that her uncle, Mr Gardiner, is a merchant, even leading Mr Darcy to say that the Gardiners ‘must very materially lessen the Bennet sisters’ chance of marrying men of any consideration in the world’. Indeed, whilst both members of polite society, the pompous Lady Catherine states of an alliance between Elizabeth and Mr Darcy: ‘are the shades of Pemberley to be thus polluted?’.

The well-ordered house in Austen’s novels was also stands as a motif of the moral worth of its owner. Those who are not morally worthy are ejected from their homes. Thus, Austen opens Persuasion with an unflattering description of ‘Sir Walter Elliot, of Kellynch Hall, in Somersetshire’; ‘vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot's character; vanity of person and of situation’. As a consequence of his unworthiness as a gentleman, Austen ensures that he grows ‘distressed for money’. He ignores the ‘heavy bills of his tradespeople’ and his agent, Mr Shepherd. 

The Kellynch property was good, but not equal to Sir Walter's apprehension of the state required in its possessor. While Lady Elliot lived, there had been method, moderation, and economy, which had just kept him within his income; but with her had died all such right-mindedness, and from that period he had been constantly exceeding it… He had condescended to mortgage as far as he had the power, but he would never condescend to sell. No; he would never disgrace his name so far. The Kellynch estate should be transmitted whole and entire, as he had received it.

Unwilling to forgo his heritage, but also incapable of controlling himself and reforming, Sir Walter therefore does not morally deserve to stay in Kellynch Hall and must ‘condescend’ to rent it to a naval family. Interestingly, both Lady Elliot and Mrs Woodhouse are cast as excellent… sensible and amiable’whilst their husbands are weak and inept. Mr Woodhouse’s incompetence is demonstrated through leaving his daughter to manage his house alone. An invalid who rarely leaves Hartfield, LeRoy Smith puts forward the case that Mr. Woodhouse’s demanding dependence is simply a form of male tyranny designed to demonstrate the perspective of women’s inferior and unequal relationship with men. Mr Knightley, on the other hand, manages both Emma and Donwell Abbey, with its ‘suitable, becoming, characteristic situation’, in a manner that is praised by Austen. Like Sir Thomas’ estate in Mansfield Park, and Pemberley, Knightley’s home is the appropriate expression of his firm sense of stewardship.

Whilst Austen often highlighted the flaws in the treatment of women, she was realistic about the limits of a woman’s position and a necessary dependence on men. Even Emma, who is, as Marilyn Butler suggests, unique among Austen’s heroines in her domestic ascendency, struggles with the role of managing her family. Indeed, she states: ‘You are the worst judge in the world, Mr. Knightley, of the difficulties of dependence. You do not know what it is to have tempers to manage.’A reference to the careful management needed to care for her father, a dependent valetudinarian, Marcia McClintock Folsom argues that in doing so Emma must achieve early maturity in taking on the responsibility of running a household. Thus, Emma’s accusation to Mr. Knightley, ‘who has always been his own master,’that he does not comprehend her position, is spoken from experience beyond her years of managing those around her. On the other hand of course, as Gary Kelly argues, her youthful lack of self-knowledge and self-control coupled with gaining social power too early inevitably leads to her abuse of that power. For Emma is the real ruler of the household of Hartfield and she is also the only one who is the natural feminine leader of her whole community. Butler argues that every other leading lady of Austen’s novels is socially neglected or discounted; even the confident and energetic Elizabeth is denied a positive, managerial role in events. Emma, on the other hand, is ‘handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seeming to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her’. Whilst Mr Knightley’s estate, Donwell, is the most socially preeminent in the area, Emma believes her ‘fortune from other sources, was such as to make them scarcely secondary to Donwell Abbey itself, in every other kind of consequence’and throughout most of the novel, Emma acts as if the Woodhouses and Knightleys are coequal as the village’s preeminent families. Her position as mistress of Hartfield provides her sense of identity, and thus provides her with the freedom, wealth and social power that no other female character possesses, at least not before they are married. This position is largely due to her father’s views that, very much in contradiction with societal expectations, ‘matrimony, as the origin of change, was always disagreeable’. Whilst her elder sister is happily married to Mr John Knightley, Emma is given free reign to take the role of mistress of the house. Indeed, quite radically for the period, and certainly uniquely among Austen’s female characters, Emma believes that ‘a woman is not to marry a man merely because she is asked, or because he is attached to her, and can write a tolerable letter’, and this largely arises from her social position, as she states to Harriet: 

“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.” 

This belief, coupled with Emma’s authority of Hartfield, provokes a self-vindication that is distinctly male for the period, seemingly juxtaposing the feminine delicacy expected of women at the time.

In doing so, Austen also questions, perhaps, what makes a successful mistress of a country house. The death of Emma’s mother, before her youngest daughter can benefit from anything beyond an ‘indistinct remembrance of her caresses’, pushes her into a position in which Mr. Knightley discerns that the loss of Emma’s mother has serious consequences on anyone’s ability to manage her ever since she was twelve, Emma has been mistress of the house and of you all. In her mother she lost the only person able to cope with her.

Consequently, Emma mirrors her mother’s talents’ but lacks the essential guidance of those talents that could have been provided by her mother, and does ‘just what she liked; highly esteeming her governess’ judgment, but directed chiefly by her own.’

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. 

Indeed, eighteenth-century England was a patriarchal world in which women’s isolation and confinement was built into the legal system according to which ‘the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage or at least incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything’.

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Nevertheless, throughout Emma Mr. Knightley is the gentleman-hero who Emma and the rest of Highbury highly regard and respect. However, whilst he is the stereotypically perfect gentleman, his gentlemanly qualities do not extend toward flattery of Emma in the manner of the rest of Highbury. The reaction to Emma’s portrait of Harriet Smith is an excellent illustration; whilst Mrs. Weston represents the maternal figure, Mr. Elton is the charming gentleman eager to defend his then love, ‘I never saw such a likeness in my life. We must allow for the effect of shade, you know.’ This unctuousness provides a strong comparison to Mr. Knightley’s forthright criticism, ‘‘You have made her too tall, Emma,’…Emma knew that she had, but would not own it.’ Thus, Mr. Knightley is the only member of Highbury society inclined to remonstrate with Emma, or to guide her in a substantial manner, and she is very much aware of that fact. Mr. Knightley is not entirely perfect however, and Austen allows him one particularly human trait in his inability to full.

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The Mistress Of The Household: Elizabeth Bennet And Emma Woodhouse. (2021, August 06). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from
“The Mistress Of The Household: Elizabeth Bennet And Emma Woodhouse.” GradesFixer, 06 Aug. 2021,
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