Education is an essential theme in Jane Austen’s Emma. Unlike Mansfield Park, moral principles are not instilled in the heroine from the beginning of the novel but is something she must acquire through experience. Fanny Price is particularly consistent throughout Mansfield Park in asserting her principles, and Austen narrates how they are initially shaped and guided by her cousin, Edmund. Emma is also guided by the man she eventually marries. He falls in love with her at the age of thirteen and feels obligated to guide her conduct since she is often guides others and is accustomed to the idea of being right. Somewhat snobby, Emma is very much unlike some of the heroines we encounter in Austen’s novels. She refuses to allow her friend, Harriet Smith, to marry a farmer because she wants to continue to associate with Harriet after marriage but not at the expense of associating with a family of lower class. At moral high point in the novel, she disrespects friends who have long been acquainted with her family, and by the end of the novel, she cannot conceive of the possibility of Mr. Knightly marrying Harriet Smith as it would demand a sever degradation of status on his part. We might attribute Emma’s flaws to fact that she has had no proper female role model. She is little educated by her elders, and like Fanny’s cousins, is indulged by such individuals instead of being properly guided by them.
Mr. Knighly, Emma’s only critic, refers to her faults in terms of vanity while Austen calls them “real evils,” that she is not altogether conscious of. It is not an evil that is ascribed to her character but one that is assigned to her situation:
The real evils indeed of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way and a disposition to think a little too well of herself; these were the disadvantages which threatened alloy to her many enjoyments. The danger, however, was at present so unperceived that they did not by any means rank as misfortunes with her (27)
Emma cannot remedy her situation as she is little aware that her education has been limited by it. Mrs. Weston, Emma’s old governess, finds Emma to be almost perfect and is guided by Emma’s judgment like many other female characters in the novel. The more unfortunate character, Miss Smith, to be guided by her advice loses a decent prospect for marriage on the final basis that he hasn’t read Romance of the Forest, and is therefore, a poor match. Harriet recommends Romance of the Forest to Mr. Martin but to Emma’s dismay, on encountering him later, they find that he has not read the novel. Like in Northanger Abbey, it is not only fashionable to have been acquainted with Ann Radcliffe but also signifies a degree of status. Those who read works, “beyond the line of [their] business” (46) have the time and leisure to do so. Emma finds it difficult to associate with such a class of people, well informed on matters of “agriculture” and business but uninformed on fashionable literature. They are not poor enough to garner her charity nor are they well-bred enough to garner her respect. Even though a lack of reading beyond business makes Mr. Martin less genteel, his writing proves that he acts the part. Emma’s reflection of Mr. Martin’s letter indicates her false judgment:
The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong an unaffected, and the sentiments conveyed very much to the credit of the writer (64)
When we compare Mr. Martin’s letter to the charade given to Emma by Mr. Elton, there is a contrast set up between the two characters that distinguishes one as more genteel than the other. Mr. Elton’s charade, though he claims is written by a friend, is neither “plain,” “strong,” or “unaffected.” Moreover, riddles take up too much of Emma and Harriet’s time. Emma does not offer Harriet a benefitial education, one that would cultivate and refine her intellect as they neither study together nor discuss other works of literature. Such transcribing of riddles is deemed an intellectually inferior activity compared to “useful reading and conversation” (79). Just as Emma misreads the charade to mean that its intended object is Harriet so she misreads many people’s feelings in the novel. Harriet, instead of using her judgment, follows Emma’s, particularly in an instance when it is entirely misguided. The charade represents much of the useless activity Emma and Harriet pursue in endeavoring to pursue Mr. Elton. The time and energy spent in deciphering the riddle and Mr. Elton’s feeling might have been better spent in useful study.
In this instance, misguided reading, particularly of material that does not serve to enhance one’s education, is a result of a misguided education. Had Emma received a proper education, through guidance received by her governess, she would have been cautious to judge other people’s feelings, particularly Mr. Elton’s. Additionally, fashionable reading does not necessary make one genteel, as Emma assumes. She finds Mr. Martin’s letter to be surprisingly genteel and well written. Untold by anyone but Mr. Knightly that she is wrong, she remains steadfast in her views and principles until Mr. Elton confesses his love for her and not Harriet. It takes experience, the presence of a blunder in her face, for Emma to begin to improve her conduct and principles rather than properly managed education.