books, education, Emma, female accomplishments, Fiction, Jane Austen, literature, music, reading
Kim Wilson is a writer, speaker, editor, tea lover, and gardening enthusiast, and a life member of JASNA. She’s the award-winning author of At Home with Jane Austen, Tea with Jane Austen, and In the Garden with Jane Austen. She lives in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and often travels to speak about Jane Austen and her world. This year, she’ll be giving lectures for a Jane Austen series hosted by the Road Scholar organization. Beginning next year, she’ll be the Regional Coordinator for JASNA Wisconsin. Her website is KimWilsonAuthor.com, and she’s on Twitter (@KimWilsonAuthor). At Home with Jane Austen, “an enchanting biographical sketch” (Library Journal), was named the #1 Non-Fiction Austen-Inspired Title of 2014 by Austenprose.
Kim tells me that while she was born in Seattle, which has a climate similar to England’s, she loves living in Wisconsin and has “even learned to love the snow and winters” in her adopted home state. I had a feeling that she’d have some lovely garden photos to share with us for Emma in the Snow, and I was right. Here’s a snowdrop photo from last week, plus a glimpse of what her garden will look like in April. I’m very happy to introduce her guest post on accomplishments in Emma.
Jane Austen’s novels are filled with “accomplished” young women. The Miss Dashwoods in Sense and Sensibility are (according to the Miss Steeles) “beautiful, elegant, accomplished, and agreeable”; the Miss Musgroves in Persuasion have “all the usual stock of accomplishments”; in Mansfield Park, Julia Bertram is “a nice, handsome, good‑humoured, accomplished girl”; and in Pride and Prejudice, Georgiana Darcy is (according to her housekeeper) “the handsomest young lady that ever was seen; and so accomplished!” and Anne de Bourgh is (according to Mr. Collins) prevented only by her sickly constitution from being very accomplished indeed. In Emma, Austen crafts three young women, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith, and Augusta Elton, as foils to Emma Woodhouse, their accomplishments, or lack thereof, highlighting Emma’s own talents and flaws.
What constituted an “accomplished” woman in Jane Austen’s day? In Pride and Prejudice, Bingley supposes that skill in traditional female handicrafts suffices and that all young ladies are therefore accomplished: “They all paint tables, cover skreens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.” Certainly many of the women in the novels are accomplished in this sense: Elinor Dashwood paints screens, Georgiana Darcy designs tables, and Elizabeth Bennet, Mrs. Grant, and Lady Bertram all embroider (as did Jane Austen herself). But Miss Bingley stipulates for more: “a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages … and … a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions.” And Darcy, famously, insists that “to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.” Here we come closer to Emma’s own accomplishments. She plays the pianoforte, sings, draws, dances, occasionally begins, at least, what Mr. Knightley calls a “course of steady reading,” and is a remarkably elegant young woman.
The problem, of course, is that Emma, “the cleverest of her family,” is a classic underachiever, a trait sometimes seen in gifted and talented people. Her superior natural talents bring her a “reputation for accomplishment often higher than it deserved,” but because “she will never submit to any thing requiring industry and patience,” she does not come close to “the degree of excellence which she would have been glad to command, and ought not to have failed of.” Poor Mary Bennet in Pride and Prejudice works long and assiduously, proud to be known as “the most accomplished girl in the neighbourhood,” but there is no helping her inherent lack of taste and style; Emma garners praise that she knows she does not deserve without even trying.
In Jane Austen’s time, a young woman was expected to apply herself to the acquisition of accomplishments because they enhanced her chances that she would marry well. “Give a girl an education, and introduce her properly into the world,” says Mrs. Norris in Mansfield Park, “and ten to one but she has the means of settling well.” Beauty, accomplishments, and money were a surefire combination. In the same novel, Mrs. Grant expects that her sister, Mary Crawford, will marry well: “The eldest son of a Baronet was not too good for a girl of twenty thousand pounds, with all [her] elegance and accomplishments.” Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever, and rich,” can expect the same if she desires it.
Musical accomplishments were especially valued because a young woman, at home or visiting, could provide entertainment for her family and friends and display her charms at the same time. She might sing or play an instrument such as the harp, as Mary Crawford does in Mansfield Park, or the pianoforte, as Elizabeth Bennet does in Pride and Prejudice. Jane Austen sang and played the pianoforte herself, but only performed for family. She did enjoy listening to such performances, however: “Miss H. is an elegant, pleasing, pretty looking girl … with flowers in her head, & Music at her fingers ends.—She plays very well indeed. I have seldom heard anybody with more pleasure” (Letters, 29 May 1811). In Emma, both Miss Fairfax and Emma play the pianoforte and sing for their friends’ entertainment, much to Mr. Knightley’s enjoyment: “I do not know a more luxurious state, sir,” he tells Mr. Woodhouse, “than sitting at one’s ease to be entertained a whole evening by two such young women; sometimes with music and sometimes with conversation.”
In Emma, Jane Fairfax stands as the model for the truly accomplished young woman. Trained to be a governess, she has applied herself where Emma will not, and is, as Isabella Knightley calls her, “very accomplished and superior.” Emma has never made a friend of Jane Fairfax, and though she acknowledges her to be “one of the most lovely and accomplished young women in England,” in fact she is “sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax,” echoing Jane Austen’s own feelings about perfect heroines: “pictures of perfection as you know make me sick & wicked” (Letters, 23 March 1817). Emma does not admit to herself why she does not like this paragon of virtues, but Mr. Knightley knows it is “because she saw in her the really accomplished young woman, which she wanted to be thought herself.”
Harriet Smith, by contrast, is remarkably lacking in accomplishments. She is a goodhearted goose of a girl, but her education at Mrs. Goddard’s school in Highbury was simply inadequate, as Mr. Knightley tells Emma: “She is not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information. She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself. … She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all.” We hear of none of the usual accomplishments of young ladies; it appears that Harriet does not play the pianoforte well, does not sing or draw, and heaven knows she doesn’t read extensively. She has no doubt, though, been taught to sew and embroider nicely, creating the sort of “fancy work” that Mrs. Goddard has hanging in her parlor. Harriet provides Emma with a useful contrast—she is the unaccomplished friend who stands next to Emma to make her look good. In fact, her inferiority may fuel Emma’s self-complacency, Mr. Knightley warns Mrs. Weston: “Her ignorance is hourly flattery. How can Emma imagine she has any thing to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?”
In Augusta Elton, the Reverend Mr. Elton’s new bride, Jane Austen provides a representation of a sort of pseudo-accomplished woman. Mrs. Elton combines stunning vulgarity with a self-satisfied pretension that is based on nothing in particular. “Self‑important, presuming, familiar, ignorant, and ill‑bred,” with only “a little beauty and a little accomplishment,” Mrs. Elton has “so little judgment” that she thinks she is “coming with superior knowledge of the world, to enliven and improve a country neighbourhood.” Highbury society, to Emma’s chagrin, takes Mrs. Elton—the former Miss Hawkins—at face value: “A week had not passed since Miss Hawkins’s name was first mentioned in Highbury, before she was, by some means or other, discovered to have every recommendation of person and mind; to be handsome, elegant, highly accomplished, and perfectly amiable: and when Mr. Elton himself arrived to triumph in his happy prospects, and circulate the fame of her merits, there was very little more for him to do, than to tell her Christian name, and say whose music she principally played.”
Music, Mrs. Elton claims, is one of her chief “resources,” or accomplishments and personal qualities, that will enable her to endure the quiet village life of Highbury: “I absolutely cannot do without music. It is a necessary of life to me; and having always been used to a very musical society, both at Maple Grove and in Bath, it would have been a most serious sacrifice…. I honestly said that the world I could give up—parties, balls, plays—for I had no fear of retirement. Blessed with so many resources within myself, the world was not necessary to me. I could do very well without it. To those who had no resources it was a different thing; but my resources made me quite independent.” She never stays home long enough, though, for her resources to be tested: “From Monday next to Saturday, I assure you we have not a disengaged day!—A woman with fewer resources than I have, need not have been at a loss.” Yet in spite of being “doatingly fond of music—passionately fond,” Mrs. Elton, having married, seems to feel that the days of needing accomplishments for display are over: “For married women, you know,” she tells Emma, “there is a sad story against them, in general. They are but too apt to give up music.” She cites the example of her sister, three friends, and other women, “more than [she] can enumerate,” who have all given up playing music after marriage. Emma, “finding her so determined upon neglecting her music, had nothing more to say.”
With three such contrasts, it is no wonder that we appreciate Jane Austen’s depiction of Emma as an accomplished but nevertheless realistically flawed young woman, loved by Mr. Knightley as the “sweetest and best of all creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults.”
A final note: Among the many opinions of Emma collected by Jane Austen is that of Mrs. Cage, who wrote, “Miss Bates is incomparable, but I was nearly killed with those precious treasures!” For my part, I am nearly killed by Mrs. Elton’s resources. I treasure the little throwaway line when the Eltons’ horse is lamed and the party of pleasure must be postponed: “Mrs. Elton’s resources were inadequate to such an attack.”
Quotations are from the Oxford edition of The Novels of Jane Austen, edited by R.W. Chapman (1934) and from the fourth edition of Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye (Oxford, 2011). (The Library of Congress and the Lewis Walpole Library place no restrictions on the use of their out-of-copyright images.)
Twenty-fifth 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: the last post, entitled “Frank Churchill Gets a Haircut,” by Paul Savidge.
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leslie nyman said:
Delightful essay! Plus, love the Gillrays.
Kim Wilson said:
Thank you! I agree, I love the Gillrays – there’s usually an amusing one for any topic.
love it! Your post makes me want to re-read Emma again. I also enjoyed how you brought in the other Austen books and letters.
Kim Wilson said:
Thank you! It was a fun project to work on.
Brilliant! As a student of 17th century schoolgirl embroideries, I’ve long been enamored of the “accomplishments” touted by Jane Austen’s heroines. I love this analysis of the major female characters in Emma, and the degree (or lack of) accomplishments of each! Poor Mrs. Elton will forever be attempting to convince Emma of her “resources”!
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Kim Wilson said:
Thank you! I would love to learn more about the types of embroidery projects that were taught to girls in Jane Austen’s day. Do you see much difference between 17th & 18th century schoolgirls’ work? And yes, I can call up just a glimmer of sympathy for Mrs. Elton, doomed to live in Emma’s shadow.
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Yes, the differences are incredible. Starting in the 17 c., embroidery was a major focus of female education, and the samplers produced in schools then were intricate and beautiful – full of a large variety of stitches and techniques. By Jane Austen’s school days, samplers were really only cross stitch and not full of the variety – they were often just a way to teach a young girl her letters, and had pious verses on them to help with their religious education. Gone are the glorious colors and variety of the 17th and early 18th C. And of course, Jane Austen went to school at a time when education was about to change tremendously, and such “accomplishments” were banished from the schoolroom altogether shortly after her death.
There is a lot to be learned from how the accomplishments and what we might consider “real” education today were intermixed for awhile – an almost subversive way of getting academic subjects in front of girls while the parents thought they were just paying for “tambour work” and the like…
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What a fascinating subject! I didn’t know much about it – you open up a whole new world. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and knowledge.
Kim Wilson said:
Fascinating, thank you! I wondered about that – you see so much lovely crewel work in earlier pieces, but I wondered whether the “fancy work” that Mrs. Goddard had hanging was mere schoolgirl samplers or something more complex. Jane Austen was said to be adept at satin stitch, so that’s a little fancier, anyway!
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Fancy work probably did mean something beyond just schoolgirl samplers, but it also meant that Mrs. Goddard’s school was probably not offering much in the way of academic subjects. Thus, poor Miss Smith didn’t have much beyond her pleasant personality to show in the way of “accomplishments”.
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