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Kate Scarth considered becoming an urban planner, but eventually decided to combine her love of literature with her interest in cities and geography by doing a PhD at the University of Warwick on “how Romantic-period novels (including Austen’s), deal with London’s growing suburbs.” She’s currently developing this project into a book and she’s made the case for Jane Austen and Charlotte Smith as suburban writers. She’s also written about L.M. Montgomery, and her article “Anne of the Suburbs” (which analyzes the depiction of “Patty’s Place” in “Kingsport”/Halifax in Anne of the Islandwill be published in Women’s Writing.

Kate Scarth

Kate is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow in English here in Halifax at Dalhousie University. She says her postdoc project “builds on geo-lit interests and focuses on London’s green geographies in the Romantic period.” At the moment she’s spending some time in St. John’s, Newfoundland, so she sent me a few photos of St. John’s in the snow. Here’s her guest post for Emma in the Snow, on Highbury as a suburb. Thanks, Kate!

A suburb in the snow

A suburb in the snow

Are Emma Woodhouse, Mrs. Elton, Isabella Knightley, Isabella Thorpe, Maria Crawford, and Maria Bertram Rushworth original “desperate housewives”? All of these Jane Austen characters either live in or have something to say about the well-heeled Regency suburbs, forerunners of the affluent suburbia of lavish homes and manicured lawns inhabited by the women of TV’s Desperate Housewives (2004-12). Desperate Housewives’ landscape embodies both reality (a detached or semi-detached home surrounded by a lawn is the standard middle-class British and North American residence) and aspiration, given the size and opulence of the show’s homes. Desperate Housewives’ setting is also the kind of space that often comes under fire: the suburbs can represent sprawl, vulgarity, conformity, and cultural vacuousness. The affluent suburban landscape and the twin impulses of aspiration and satire were also at play in Emma’s England.

Jane Austen had something to say about the suburbs, as she did about many other things in the world around her. References to Greater London abound. Isabella Thorpe reveals her true social climbing stripes when, pretending to want a retired, rural cottage, she is in fact imagining a villa in Richmond, a suburb considered fashionable enough for the grand Mrs. Churchill’s convalescence. Admiral Crawford extensively landscapes the grounds of his Twickenham cottage, and while Henry is staying there and Maria Rushworth is in nearby Richmond, they start their illicit affair. Isabella Knightley insists to her father, Mr. Woodhouse, that the air of Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury is salubrious, unlike the rest of polluted London, and it therefore meets their exacting parental and medical standards. And, of course, Maple Grove (near Bristol) is home to Mrs. Elton’s Suckling relatives and their barouche-landau. Austen shows that the Regency suburbs were bound up with sex and marriage, money and class, love and children, luxury and consumerism, home renovations and landscaping, all suitable fodder for a Desperate Housewives episode.


Kate says she chose this photo because Regency suburbs were so dependent on horses.

Highbury is Austen’s most sustained look at a suburb. Sixteen miles from London, Highbury is firmly within Greater London (as early as the 1720s, Epsom, fifteen miles from London and also in Surrey, was suburbanizing as a commuter town for City merchants, as Chris Miele points out). Thomas Hothem and Tara Ghoshal Wallace have both discussed the many ways Highbury is suburban (or is what I am calling “Highbury Heights”). Like Epsom, Highbury is also a commuter town. For “eighteen or twenty years,” Mr. Weston had divided his time and space in a suburban way: “useful occupation” is spent in the City, while “leisure” and “the pleasures of society” are found in his “small house in Highbury.” At the novel’s start, Mr. Weston and his fellow merchant Mr. Cole have only semi-retired to Highbury and are still involved in London business. Mr. Weston continues to commute to London (at least occasionally). In his retirement, Mr. Weston can afford a “little estate adjoining to Highbury, which he had always longed for,” thus realizing the suburban dream of house plus land (Volume 1, Chapter 2). Highbury is also a suburban bedroom community dependent on London’s goods and services. Highburians purchase a piano and order ribbons and a folding-screen from the city; they also visit a hairdresser, law firm, dentist, picture framer, and Aspley’s circus.

While landlords of London-adjacent land (such as the Russells in Bloomsbury) were the Regency-era land developers in the conventional sense, Mr. Knightley and Emma are developers of suburban space in a cultural sense. By controlling social relations in Highbury, Mr. Knightley and Emma manage the transformation of the village into a suburb in a way that keeps them on top of its social hierarchy but that flexibly accommodates new, urban, middle-class elements. In other words, they set the cultural tone for the new suburban version of Highbury.


A Newfoundland regiment memorial that commemorates the battle of Beaumont Hamel, where many Newfoundlanders died in 1916.

The Westons’ Christmas Eve dinner party, also discussed in this series by Nora Bartlett, is a good (snowy) example of Mr. Knightley and Emma’s management. While Mr. Weston, the host, acts with “the utmost good-will,” he fails to control this space (Volume 1, Chapter 15). When snow threatens to strand everyone, he does not relieve Mr. Woodhouse’s or Isabella’s anxiety and causes Mrs. Weston uneasiness by calling her “to agree with him, that, with a little contrivance, every body might be lodged, which she hardly knew how to do, from the consciousness of there being but two spare rooms in the house.” Mr. Knightley takes charge: he goes outside to inspect the roads and is able to reassure everyone that reports of snow have been greatly exaggerated. He is soon joined by Emma in managing this space and getting everyone home safely: “while the others were variously urging and recommending, Mr. Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences.” Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Weston are the supporting managers. Earlier, Mrs. Weston and Emma had “tried earnestly to cheer [Mr. Woodhouse],” and later “the carriages came: and Mr. Woodhouse, always the first object on such occasions, was carefully attended to his own by Mr. Knightley and Mr. Weston.” Mr. Weston brings his good humour (and money) to Highbury, enriching the village socially and economically, but when his gregarious personality causes discomfort, he follows Mr. Knightley’s lead and attends to Mr. Woodhouse, who because of age, gender, and rank, is second in Highbury’s hierarchy. Ultimately then, Mr. Weston is not shaking up Highbury’s social hierarchies or ways of doing things.

When Mr. Knightley moves to the Woodhouses’ home, Hartfield, he and Emma (now the Knightleys) get their own suburban space to manage. Hartfield is surrounded by a “lawn and shrubberies” (Volume 1, Chapter 1), and like the newly arrived Highbury suburbanites, the Woodhouses’ money probably has urban ties. As an unlanded gentry family, their “fortune from other sources” (i.e., not the land, and thus rural, sources of wealth), likely comes from investments or government bonds held in London’s financial City (Volume 1, Chapter 16). Mr. Knightley and Emma already have a solid track record as Hartfield managers. Emma single-handedly runs Hartfield (and quite well since even the exacting Mr. Knightley compliments her hostessing skills), and he often takes Mr. Woodhouse’s place as host at the head of the table, writes his business letters, and is a conversational companion for Emma. However, Austen does not exactly let the newly minted Knightleys fade off into suburban bliss.

Mrs. Elton is an impediment to their Highbury-wide suburban development. The Sucklings and Maple Grove, not Mr. Knightley and Donwell Abbey, are Mrs. Elton’s models for suburban living. Mrs. Elton’s suburbia is one of display (via barouche-landau rides) and competition (she compares Maple Grove to Hartfield and the Churchills’ estate). She even tries to manage Mr. Knightley’s Donwell Abbey, as its “Lady Patroness” (Volume 3, Chapter 6). While Mr. Knightley limits her plans for her Donwell party (he puts a stop to eating outside and he invites the Woodhouses), Mrs. Elton’s party goes ahead in a way that undercuts Highburian etiquette: she makes fun of Mr. Woodhouse and bullies Jane Fairfax, she has the gypsy “parade” she disingenuously claims not to want to have, and she dominates verbally (prattling about strawberries and Maple Grove). Also, as the Knightleys are about to start their life together at suburban Hartfield, Mrs. Elton gets the last word on their wedding: using Maple Grove standards of “finery” and “parade” (Volume 3, Chapter 19), she finds the simple ceremony wanting.

Mrs. Elton thus challenges George and Emma Knightley, suburban developers. To conclude, I ask what kind of suburbanite you think Mrs. Elton is: does she represent the ascendency of vulgar, consumerist, and competitive upwardly mobile middle-class suburbanites? Or, given Diana Birchall’s defense, does she present a welcome challenge to an outdated rural, gentry, even patriarchal way of living?

Quotations are from the Oxford edition of Emma, edited by R.W. Chapman (1988).

Eighteenth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Kirk Companion, Margaret C. Sullivan, and Cinthia Garcia Soria.

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Emma in the Snow