books, Emma, Fiction, geography, Jane Austen, literature, London, urban planning
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 Island) will be published in Women’s Writing.
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!
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.
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.
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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Interesting post, interesting question! I think Mrs. Elton is both kinds of suburbanite. She certainly represents, as you so aptly put it, “the ascendency of vulgar, consumerist, and competitive upwardly mobile middle-class suburbanites.” At the same time those are some of the people who posed the biggest challenge or threat to the “outdated rural, gentry, even patriarchal way of living,” as witness the increasingly rich Coles rising in the Woodhouse world. In addition, Mrs. Elton was more modern, more worldly than most others in Highbury. She came from Bristol, the heart of the contemporary women’s suffrage movement, and though hardly a serious thinker or reformer, she is capable of transmitting at least one women’s rights statement of a sort she may have heard elsewhere: “I always take the part of my own sex. I do indeed. I give you notice, You will find me a formidable antagonist on that point. I always stand up for women.” Oh yes, she was definitely a disturber of the peace and the settled ways of Highbury!
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Thanks for your comment, Diana! Mrs Elton is a more fascinating/complex character the more you think about her. I always thought that I’d love to read *Emma* from Mrs E’s point of view so am so glad to learn about your *In Defence of Mrs Elton*!
Victoria Ciliberti Skelly said:
Interesting subject! Thanks to Kate Scarth for her post and thanks to Sarah for hosting this extensive blog discussion on all things Emma (sometimes in the snow and sometimes not!) I am looking forward to reading more about this in Kate’s forthcoming book.
The novel “Emma” does indeed describe successful social development in the rapidly morphing town of Highbury, but does this happen because the locals fall into traditional roles of following rank and wealth, or does peace and harmony descend upon the inmates for other reasons?
What if General Tilney decided to move into town and took a fancy to rearranging the agenda? What if Lady Catherine de Bourgh thought she would downsize to Highbury, building power locally by purchasing the loyalty of those who might be inclined to follow her? Might Augusta become her willing lieutenant if Emma rebuffs her?
Highbury is indeed fortunate to have a Knightley to set the tone for the community, not only because he has rank, property, and experience, but more importantly for these times (and our own), he understands the art of managing people. He conveys genuine respect for those under his care- the Robert Martins, the Harriet Smiths, Miss Bates, etc. Knightley says to Emma, “does not everything serve to prove more and more the beauty of truth and sincerity in all of our dealings with each other?” No court intrigues, no double dealings, no betrayals, no John Thorpisms on Knightley’s watch. A culture of honesty and good relations is established and carried forward by the citizens of Highbury.
I read Diana Birchall’s excellent defense of Mrs. Elton in “Persuasions” a few years ago and found myself reconsidering my initial reaction to this character. Augusta does indeed have some cause for her behavior, especially since Emma summarily dismisses her and all of her ideas! I see Augusta, however, as most likely seeing herself as the social equal of Emma, and that is why her behavior remains repellent throughout the story. The trouble is that all those good ideas (such as starting a musical society in Highbury) will never come to fruition unless someone universally acknowledged as leader decides to lay the path to implementing them. So Augusta and Emma do need each other, but It is not clear that either knows this by the end of the novel!
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Thanks for your comment and all these ideas, Victoria! Yes, certainly the *manner* of Mr Knightley’s management is important and how other characters’ manage people is/would be much more problematic. I think you’re hitting on something important to the Romantic-period suburbs in terms of people “being out of place.” The urban middle classes often clash with the gentry’s ideas and sense of ownership of nature, the rural, retirement, etc.
The Augusta/Emma dynamic is definitely an interesting one–I like how they can mirror each other so that we learn about one through the other. Yes the musical society really needed someone who was a leader and truly wanted to bring people together (and isn’t just talking about music to show off to her unmarried hostess how busy she is as a married woman, but maybe I’m being harsh on Mrs Elton!).
Victoria Ciliberti Skelly said:
I don’t think you are being harsh on the annoying Mrs. Elton. She would probably do plenty of showing off to unmarried ladies and others if she had the opportunity! The reality is that undertakings like musical societies often don’t happen unless the egos of the wealthy and the under- occupied are engaged. That is why even today many arts organizations seek to create “rank” in giving both of time and money to their various causes. According to John Brewer in “The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century” women in particular were game to attend a concert if only persons of “quality” were admitted. Such snobbery and exclusivity actually served to increase attendance at concerts!
Regardless of this, bringing musical and cultural events to the area would provide Highburyites with the opportunity to engage with each other in a more spirit led way. Mr. Woodhouse might focus less on his and others’ diet. Jane Fairfax might be able to exercise her talent without fear of reprisal or jealousy from those less gifted. Harriet Smith might become a little bit less silly about men if she had something else to occupy her mind. Perhaps the competitive spirits of Emma and Mrs. Elton would eventually be channeled into learning more and more about music, spreading the opportunity for others to hear it, sponsoring musicians and subscriptions to concerts, etc. than about what so and so wore and what sort of carriage transported that person. I daresay these snobbish (sin nobilitate) housewives would become a little less desperate.
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Yes, and interesting to think about all this in terms of the other art forms in the novel (drawing, reading) too. I think it’s especially interesting how drawing (specifically of Harriet) is a tool in furthering Emma’s ‘delusions’ about Harriet and Mr Elton.
Sarah Emsley said:
I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series, Victoria, whether Emma is in the snow or not!
Thank you so much for an insightful post. What a fascinating subject you’ve picked!
I think the rural and patriarchal way of living has been gradually evolving for some time. As you point out, the Woodhouses, though “settled for several generations at Hartfield, the younger branch of a very ancient family,” are not landed proprietors. Yet their considerable fortune “from other sources” makes them “scarcely secondary to Donwell Abbey itself in every other kind of consequence.” Their house is “modern and well built,” whereas “the Abbey, with all the old neglect of prospect, had scarcely a sight” of “the ample gardens stretching down to meadows washed by a stream.” Its noble trees have not been rooted up by fashion, and it has “many comfortable” but “only one or two handsome rooms.”
The Coles have been living in Highbury for ten years, but, as “their house in town” has lately “yielded greater profit,” are now “in fortune and style of living second only to the family at Hartfield” – Mr Knightley doesn’t keep horses, and has “little spare money,” while the Coles own stables. Nevertheless, Emma believes “they ought to be taught that it was not for them to arrange the terms on which the superior families would visit them,” a view that neither Mr Knightley nor the Westons share.
Mr Weston was born “of a respectable family, which for the last three or four generations had been rising into gentility and property,” but “engaged in trade,” eventually realising “an easy competence,” purchasing Randalls, and marrying a “portionless” governess. According to Emma, they’re higher on the social ladder than the prosperous Coles.
Mr Perry, the apothecary, cannot afford a carriage yet, but will “some time or other.” Mr Martin rents a farm from Mr Knightley, and is doing quite well: he’s been “bid more for his wool than anybody in the country … They have no indoors man, else they do not want for anything,” and his mother is thinking of hiring a boy. Mr Cox, the local solicitor, seems he might be a suitable husband for one of his daughters, “the most vulgar girls in Highbury” in Emma’s opinion. And Harriet Smith, a parlour boarder at Mrs Goddard’s old-fashioned school, is the illegitimate “daughter of a tradesman, rich enough to afford her” a “very liberal” allowance, and for a brief time “associates with gentlemen’s daughters.”
Jane Fairfax, raised by the Campbells to be a governess, marries Mr Churchill, the adopted son of a rich gentleman. Mr Knightley speaks of “equality of situation–I mean, as far as regards society, and all the habits and manners that are important; equality in every point but one–and that one, since the purity of her heart is not to be doubted, such as must increase his felicity, for it will be his to bestow the only advantages she wants.”
Mr Knightley, the landowner, farmer, and magistrate, is more flexible to economic and social change than Emma, whose father’s wealth consists mainly of financial assets. She feels an “increasing respect for … true gentility, untainted … blood and understanding.” All in all, a pretty nuanced picture.
I wouldn’t presume to add to Diana Birchall’s wonderful defence of Mrs Elton :), but I’m just tempted to point out that she tries to find JF a job – a sign of the new times? Emma would have thought of a husband … And IMHO Mrs E doesn’t poke fun at Mr Woodhouse, she just smiles at (and is pleased by) his old fashioned gallantry, as we would at a relic of a world gone by.
Whoops! I’ve misquoted from chapter II: Mr Weston’s family “had been rising into gentility and property” only “for the last two or three generations.”
Yes, absolutely, the rising into gentility and property has been happening for quite a while for Highburians and at various levels of the social scale. Would be interesting to think about Perry and Cox in terms of the suburban argument.
Thanks for your thoughts on Mrs Elton; it’s fun thinking about her from different angles. I think the telling moment for Mrs Elton’s attitude towards Mr Woodhouse is when she doesn’t want to invite him to the Donwell party when the Westons and Coles go out of their way to accommodate him (of course she is targeting Emma but Mrs Elton’s competitiveness does impact Mr Woodhouse too). And even at Donwell, it is explicitly Mr Knightley (not Mrs Elton, self-proclaimed Lady Patroness) who makes Mr Woodhouse comfortable. She does try to find JF a job but I think it’s the worst kind of ‘charity’ when the voices/desires of the benefactors are totally ignored.
Thanks for your comment! And the lovely summary of Highburians’ upward mobility.
I have often wondered just when it hit Mrs. Elton that she had been married and carried off to Highbury for no other reason than to make a display for Emma! That is, that Mr. Elton’s pride had been so wounded that he must have his revenge the only way he can think of – the same way Ivana Trump chose – “Living well is the best revenge”. But he must be SEEN to be living well and to have married someone superior to Emma, and this seems to be the engine that runs both the Eltons from that time forward. How sad to embark upon your new life and find you are simply there to be an object of envy for someone else – the true object of your “cara sposo’s” affections!
From her first appearance, I have always rankled at Mrs. Elton, while understanding how soul-destroying her position is. She has made this unfortunate alliance, and now must make the best of it.
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Thanks for this. I really like how you see Mrs Elton–it certainly makes her more understandable and sympathetic (although I’m afraid it would do nothing for Emma’s ego!). She really must make the best of it–there’s no way out of her marriage or of Highbury or of Emma Knightley’s ‘kingdom’. It seems too that Mrs Elton comes from a world of display (specifically consumerist display) and so such ‘paradings’ are quite likely the only way of behaving that she really knows. Thanks again!
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