Was Jane Austen for Victorian principles in the text of Emma?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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To answer this, it is necessary to clarify historical time periods. Jane Austen lived the first part of her life (1775-1817) during the reign of King George III, the King against whom the American colonies successfully rebelled (American Revolution 1776). When King George succombed to mental disease, his son George was made Prince Regent and assumed the throne in 1811. Jane Austen wrote her novels in the 1790s, before the reign of the Prince Regent began: Elinor and Marianne (1795; later to become Sense and Sensibility); First Impressions (1796-97; later to become Pride and Prejudice); Northanger Abbey (1798-99).

Austen's first novel was published more than twelve years later as Sense and Sensibility in 1811; the same year the Prince Regent, a patron of the arts, assumed the throne. Pride and Prejudice was published a year later in 1812. Jane Austen died five short years later in 1817.

Now we have it established that Jane Austen lived and wrote during the reigns of King George III and the Prince Regent, a period called the Regency that lasted until 1830, thirteen years after her death. When Prince Regent George IV died, his brother William IV ascended the throne and reigned until his death in 1837, twenty years after Jane Austen's death. Princess Victoria was the eldest surviving grandchild of King George III, so upon the death of William IV, Victoria ascended the throne as Queen Victoria, again, twenty years after Austen's death. The period of Queen Victoria's reign, 1837 until 1901, is called the Victorian period and is the birthplace of "Victorian principles." Jane Austen never lived to see the Victorian period nor to be exposed to Victorian principles, so they are not considered in Emma.

One Victorian principle emphasized imperialism, building an English empire upon which the "sun never set." Another principle emphasized the advancement of science and technology, like the steam engine and the first telegraph cable laid across the Atlantic Ocean in 1857. Another emphasized moral living and lawful living, this to counteract the chaotic effects of so many villagers swarming to London and other cities to earn their livings in the burgeoning Industrial Revolution. Another principle emphasized modesty in action and dress, thus ladies gowns rose to the throat for all social occasions except the most formal. During this period, ideas about women's legal rights and suffrage grew, though Victoria did not support these ideas; she supported the idea of the home angel which advocated women restricted to being the guiding force behind family development and child rearing.

Austen shows in Emma that she would have opposed some of these much later values. For instance, she would have opposed the idea of the non-working, non-producing woman since she found her own freedom in being a working woman writer. She would have opposed the disempowerment of women since she shows the socio-cultural-economic power Emma has to do good (or harm) to already disempowered impoverished gentlewomen who have no resources to call upon to improve their lot. We can't know about empire or technology from Emma though there are hints in Mansfield Park and Persuasion.

"I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation—but, Emma, consider how far this is from being the case. She is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and, if she live to old age, must probably sink more." (Mr. Knightley on Miss Bates;Vol. III, Ch. VII)

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