However this ambitious marriage for Harriet was never a plausible match because of her status. What’s more it turns out that in fact Mr Elton has absolutely no interest in her because he is in love with the much more ‘handsome’ and wealthy Emma Woodhouse. Jane Austen perhaps constructs the narrative in this way to show that rejection can be a gift in disguise. Elton proves to be a repulsive, arrogant character and Harriet happily accepts another proposal from Mr Martin, a far more ‘unexceptionable’ character as Mr Knightly says. And if there is one rule to be found in this novel, it is that Mr Knightly is always right in his judgements. Also Emma, who isn’t advanced on by Churchill in the end, concludes the novel by marrying the perfect knight and her only intellectual and social equal in the novel: Mr Knightly.
Instead, Frank Churchill ends up becoming engaged to Jane Fairfax, though he has the engagement kept secret because he knows that his aunt would not approve of the match, probably because Fairfax is of a lower social standing compared to him (his aunt brought him up, along with her husband, and is very well off). This secrecy puts a great strain upon the couple’s relationship – Jane is highly uncomfortable about deceiving her family and friends – showing just how difficult it is for romance to work out when the two lovers come from different ranks of the social hierarchy. It is almost too unrealistic a match, given the conservative social conventions of the time, for the match to work.
The underlying social complexities in Emma arguably most come to the surface in chapter 26 when the pianoforte arrives as a gift to Jane Fairfax, and the speculation over the identity of the benefactor starts to feel like a crime drama. Most of the people present at the party believe Mr Campbell to be the chief suspect – he has looked after Jane Fairfax since she was left orphaned at only nine years of age.
But Emma suspects Mr Dixon as she also suspects him of having a romance with Jane Fairfax before he got married to Miss Campbell, Mr Campbell’s daughter. Mrs Weston, who was Emma’s governess throughout most of Emma’s childhood, before she got married to Mr Weston, suspects Mr Knightly, ‘I have made a match between Mr Knightly and Jane Fairfax.’ The interplay of these characters over an object as simple as a gift illustrates the social realism which Austen intricately crafts.
And at the heart of this realism lies romance, as the story does conclude with a fortunate ending for Emma, Harriet and Jane Fairfax; all three of them marry (or are on course to marry) both romantic and realistic suitors. Romance and realism has to be balanced in Austen, it seems, for a couple to live ‘happily ever after’. This requirement for the relationships in Emma is perhaps Austen’s way of communicating to her audience just how difficult these conservative social conventions of the early nineteenth century make it for love and romance to flourish and that perhaps reform of these conventions is needed.
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