"I always take the part of my own sex": Emma's Mrs. Elton and the rights of women.
Patricia Meyer Spacks assigned us to small groups, and mine was charged with considering major issues in volume two, in order to lead the larger group in discussion. One matter my small group identified for further conversation was the volume's copious commentary on "the rights of men and women" (254). Though that statement is first used in a flippant manner (referring to the need to sit down to supper at a private dance), many that follow it invest the subject with more seriousness. What, we asked, is the feminist import (if any) of the political statements that Austen puts in the mouths of Emma, ,Jane, and Mrs. Elton, among others? To say that I thought I had it all figured out sounds rather Emma-esque and is not quite accurate. I count myself among the legions of readers and critics who find Emma to be a character on whom it is difficult and frustrating to pass judgment. But with Mrs. Elton, I thought I stood on firmer ground.
In previous readings, I had brushed aside as empty speechifying the feminist statements that came from Mrs. Elton's mouth, a view I began to find inadequate. Our conversations provoked the following questions: Why is Mrs. Elton given so many lines of dialogue that echo rights of women discourse? What does it mean that she has equally as many lines about the importance of women's submission in marriage? Is Austen presenting Mrs. Elton as a fake liberal, and if so, to what end? What is the import of Mrs. Elton's many statements on sex roles? Mrs. Elton has "ease, but not elegance," according to Emma--a decided fault, in the novel's terms (270). But what is the connection of politics to ease and elegance?
In our discussions, we made little direct headway on these questions. Fifteen pleasurable hours of talking about Emma left me (and, I suspect, many of us) with more rather than fewer matters at productive loose ends by the end of the week. As a group, we did come to some collective conclusions--namely, that the novel suggests it is only in the realm of courtesy that it is possible to have admirable ease and elegance. For me, however, months after the Institute, it is the question of Mrs. Elton's supposed feminism that continues to nag. Where, I wondered (both during the seminar and afterward) do our conclusions about courtesy and elegance leave the novel's political rhetoric? Where, in particular, do they leave Mrs. Elton's contradictory statements? Why are these statements there at all, and what purpose do they serve?
The lion's share of Mrs. Elton's political statements may be found in just a handful of chapters. The line that has received the most attention from critics in recent years is Mrs. Elton's reply to Jane Fairfax in Volume II, Chapter XVII. Jane, trying to stop Mrs. Elton from finding employment for her, remarks that she need not trouble on Jane's behalf because "'There are places in town, offices, where inquiry would soon produce something--Offices for the sale--not quite of human flesh--but of human intellect'" (300). Mrs. Elton, thinking Jane means to criticize the Sucklings (and by extension, herself) replies, "if you mean a fling at the slave-trade, I assure you Mr. Suckling was always rather a friend to the abolition'" (300). When Jane reassures that she meant not "'the slave-trade'" but the "'governess-trade'" (though she does not know which produces "'greater misery of the victims'"), Mrs. Elton then construes the comment as a reflection of Jane's excessive modesty and says Jane's friends will be unsatisfied with her taking any commonplace situation. That Mrs. Elton first concludes Jane is making a political statement (something Jane, on my reading, does nowhere else in the novel) is perhaps strange. But that Mrs. Elton is quick to pronounce her brother-in-law rather a friend to the abolition shows that she wishes to establish her and her family's strong (but not strident) attachment to liberal politics.
Mrs. Elton takes great pains to establish her liberal credentials. Where Emma worries that she has "transgressed the duty of woman by woman" in regard to gossiping about Jane Fairfax (231), Mrs. Elton declares, "'I always take the part of my own sex'" and "'I always stand up for women,'" in support of what she sees as the downtrodden Mrs. Churchill (306). Mrs. Elton exclaims against the idea that a husband might open a wife's mail, telling Mrs. Weston when she suffers such a fate that "'we married women must begin to exert ourselves!'" (305). Most of her pronouncements serve to buttress a bourgeois feminism--one that insists on using one's own sheets at an inn (306) or on being able to entertain appropriately with one's resources (290).
Her feminism, in other words, is highly commercialized and striving. Were she herself of a higher class, one might even call it elitist. Her solidarity with women serves to demonstrate her largess (as with Jane Fairfax and the Bateses) or her knowledge of a fashionable woman's world. She tries to enlist Emma in this "sisterhood," and when Emma refuses her, Mrs. Elton recoils (281). Even so, Mrs. Elton's statements demonstrate recognition of" women's uphill battle to exert power in a patriarchal world. She is eager to show her sense that forming a women's community is one way to combat this lack of control. (Of course, the idea of changing the world is not one she entertains, distancing herself from the revolutionary feminist doctrines of her day.)
As we seminar members talked about Mrs. Elton's comments, I found myself mistakenly using the word "hypocritical" to describe her feminist statements. I was gently corrected. The novel does not in this case display her hypocrisy; sire is not professing something that she fails to enact. In fact, it is difficult to catch Mrs. Elton acting in a way that she does not view as "taking the part of her own sex." Where Harriet Smith and later Emma herself are concerned, Mrs. Elton certainly defies her professed allegiance to sisterhood, but her most notable instance of refusing to take Emma's part is at Box Hill. Mrs. Elton is perhaps not wrong to do so. It is difficult in this episode for Mr. Knightley, the narrator, or the reader to take Emma's side over that of Miss Bates.
I am not arguing that we as readers ought to see in Mrs. Elton an admirable feminist. Mrs. Elton makes statements about women's solidarity only to contradict herself, as in Volume II, Chapter XV, where she first declares herself "'a great advocate for timidity'" and a moment later recommends that "'a vast deal may be done by those who dare to act'" (283). For each statement that invokes women's rights rhetoric, there is one that reinforces female submission in marriage. Her insistence that she must give up her music, or that as a married woman she must spend half the morning shut up with her housekeeper (278), or her referring to not being able to determine anything "'without the concurrence of my lord and master'" (296) follow on the heels of her seemingly feminist statements. According to the narrator, Mrs. Elton herself engages in "knight errantry" but her statements to and about her husband frequently cast her as a damsel in distress (282).
Obviously, Mrs. Elton is a female character the novel suggests we ought not to emulate. But how should we attend to her confused politics? What can Austen mean by giving her both feminist and anti-feminist lines of dialogue? Perhaps Austen's characterization demonstrates that one can intend to do good but instead do wrong by the less powerful, in the very name of serving them--in the name of sisterhood. If so, Emma learns the lesson that Mrs. Elton never does, despite the latter's seeming investment in social change. As I have argued elsewhere, if this is the case, then, Emma learns "to respect other women equitably but only if they have proved through education, status, and behavior that they are worthy of such treatment" (Looser 591).
It is undoubtedly the case that Mrs. Elton's feminist rhetoric remains more radical than what the novel finally endorses. Her most politically pointed statements recommend a blind sisterhood--one that ostensibly makes no differentiation on the basis of class or other identity categories. It seems likely to me that Emma (and, by extension, Austen) would have us see this rhetoric as a sham, as is its opposite, in which sisterhood is deemed never necessary and the status quo serves everyone well. I suspect the novel recommends a middle course, one that would tweak, rather than overturn, gendered social norms. But could there be a sense in which Mrs. Elton (whether through echoing platitudes or sincere statements of belief) gets it "right" in the greater scheme of things? Would not many today consider it improper for a husband to open his wife's mail? Did not the global sisterhood invoked by Mrs. Elton become a signature metaphor of second-wave, 1970s feminism?
Admiring Emma "puts feminist readers in a political bind," as critic Wendy Moffat argues, because "we are forced into a galling complicity with patriarchal values" (46). By the same token, I would say that dismissing Mrs. Elton also puts feminist readers in a critical bind. Though it may be easier to remember her lines about giving up music because she is married, about her "caro sposo," and her Sucklings and Bragges, Mrs. Elton is not presented as an uncomplicated, anti-feminist harpy. By seeing her feminist statements as cant and her patriarchal ones as a lived position, we miss the opportunity to recognize greater depth and complication in the novel's politics. Mrs. Elton's feminist statements show that Austen understood the possibility that fashionable women could manipulate such rhetoric for social cachet or advancement. But these statements also reveal the extreme difficulties women face in attempting to make alliances (or to "serve" each other) across class divides. Whether this is a condition the novel and/or Austen would have us lament or accept is a far more difficult question.
AUSTEN, JANE. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1966.
BOOTH, WAYNE C. "Emma, Emma, and the Question of Feminism." Persuasions 5 (1983): 29-40.
JOHNSON, CLAUDIA L. Jane Austen: Women, Politics, and the Novel. Chicago: UCP, 1988.
KIRKHAM, MARGARET. Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction. 2nd ed. London: Athlone, 1997.
LOOSER, DEVONEY. "'The Duty of Woman by Woman': Reforming Feminism in Emma." Bedford Case Studies in Contemporary Criticism Edition of Jane Austen's Emma. Ed. Alistair Duckworth. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 577-93.
MOFFAT, WENDY. "Identifying with Emma: Some Problems for the Feminist Reader." College English 53.1 (1991): 45-58.
SULLOWAY, ALISON. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood. Philadelphia: U Pennsylvania P, 1989.
Devoney Looser is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia, the author of British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820 (2000), and the editor of Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism (1995).
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|Title Annotation:||National Humanities Center: Emma Seminar|
|Publication:||Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal|
|Article Type:||Critical Essay|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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