The last two centuries have been full of drastic changes in the human condition. Today, we tend to overlook just how drastic those changes were. Britain during the late 18th Century provides an excellent example because both the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution were chipping away at the established social order. In Britain, the aristocracy had ruled in relative stability since the medieval period. There were power struggles but the ideology of privilege remained untouchable. British society considered privilege a reward for refinement and expected a gentleman to distinguish himself by following a specific code of conduct. However, his duty and honor depended on more than a code; he also had to feel sympathy for the weaker sex and the lower classes and know when to act accordingly. This sensibility made him “gentle” and a just participant in the governing process. In the 1790’s and 1800’s these gentlemanly ideals were eroding. Yet, while the British did not guillotine their nobles like the French did, many still said that rapid change could unravel the delicate balance of society perpetuated by a refined nobility. The rise of merchants and industrialists into the ranks of the upper class graphically illustrated a shift toward individual success and the selfish ideology of capitalism. Gentlemen through birth and education were losing ground to these nouveaux-rich and consequently the ruling class disconnected further from their communities.
In 1790, Edmund Burke, a member of the British Parliament, made an impassioned plea in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” to avoid letting the radical changes occurring around the world cause British citizens to give up their traditional values. He thought that a social hierarchy where gentlemen took care of the lower classes allowed individuals to contribute to society. If people focused too much on their own success, society would crumble. His outspokenness against the French Revolution for just this factor led to the demise of his political career. But he was proven right when many atrocities took place in the name of progress. His conservative ideas also apply to the more gradual breakdown of British society over the following century. By the time Jane Austen published Emma in 1816, marked changes had occurred within British society. Austen’s portrayal of small community life chronicles the decline of what Frohnen calls the “conservative good life” emphasized by Burke. Characters in Austen’s work reflect a society struggling with value systems that were slipping away. In Austen’s Emma, her character George Knightley upholds the aristocratic tradition of British society despite the impact of people in his own class who acted against the welfare of the community.
One aspect of chivalry was that gentlemen gladly performed their duty to society; powerful men like George Knightley had to be concerned about their people. A gentleman’s sense of honor included the higher moral quality of helping others beyond the letter of the law if required. Burke saw the end of chivalry approaching Britain during the French Revolution: “Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex. That proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of heart…” (550). This “generous loyalty to rank and sex” defines the selfless actions of a gentleman when confronted by the weak and needy. The gentleman knows that the “subordination of the heart” puts him in tune with the community. As the Squire of Highbury, George Knightley follows this ideal by being sensitive to the plight of Highbury’s less fortunate. In particular he makes sure to tell Mrs. Bates that he is at her disposal during her time of need: “Mrs. Cole has servants to send. Can I do anything for you?” (156). By insuring that Mrs. Bates retains her dignity and quality of life in her declining years, Mr. Knightley maintains the class structure because his service keeps the genteel Bateses from sliding into poverty.
Frank Churchill’s conduct as compared to George Knightley’s is a significant example of the eroding aristocratic ideal of duty. Frank embodies a new generation of men more interested in their personal affairs than attending to their duty. Emma may condone the continuing saga of Frank’s absence from Randalls and his avoidance of visiting his father and new stepmother but Mr. Knightley does not agree: “There is one thing, Emma, which a man can always do, if he chooses, and that is, his duty; not by maneuvering and finessing, but by vigour and resolution” (94). Frank Churchill has not performed his duty; furthermore, his motives for neglect have been selfish. He does not choose to do his duty until it serves his ulterior motive- to see Jane Fairfax. For such a cause he undergoes much “maneuvering and finessing” to cover their engagement. His actions lack the honorable intent of a gentleman and show a disregard for duty that calls his gentility into question. Frank’s appearance in Highbury marks the end of a more idyllic, dutiful era.
Morality was another gentlemanly quality that suffered under the philosophy of the French Revolution. Both Burke and Austen felt that fading religious principles presented the eroding of social cohesion because the qualities of a gentleman also depended upon being a good Christian. Following in Christ’s footsteps, a gentleman should take on the qualities of humility and moral character. The absence of the church is a notable aspect of Emma. Although Mr. Elton is the Vicar of Highbury, he appears to spend more time wallowing in pride and avarice than attending to his community. His religious orientation seems to follow the secular side of the church: money and power comes from being in the church hierarchy. Burke says,
Nothing is more certain than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners and with civilization [have depended upon]… the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion. (553)These two ideals of the gentleman and religion combine into the morals that influence civilization. This bold statement suggests that morals must empower manners in order for the former to have any positive affect on the community. Interestingly, the name ‘George Knightley’ combines the patron saint of England with the chivalrous knight. This fusion of images makes the gentlemanly Mr. Knightley an idealistic figure. Brown says, “His world is a stable, pastoral world in which everything is in its place, people have the predictable stability of furniture, and the virtuous person is always deferred to” (103,104). This very predictability relies on virtue or else manners become a mask to hide a person’s true intentions. While Mr. Elton has the refined manners, Austen does not show him contributing to the community (his only visible effort- to visit the sick family- are pushed aside when he meets his love interest, Emma). His manners are just a façade with which he hopes to ingratiate himself with his betters and their marriageable daughters. His attempt to win Emma fails. When Emma shuns him, he finds a wife within a few weeks. The Highbury circle learns that “he had gained a woman of 10,000L. or thereabouts; and he had gained her with such delightful rapidity…” (115). This startling event takes place with dubious and not “delightful” speed; the undertaking happened purely for the social and economic benefits of the “10,000L.” Mr. Elton’s greed underlies his manners instead of morals. His need to climb higher on the social ladder unnecessarily hurts those around him. His actions disrupt the delicate sentiments of the community and break the code of gentlemanly conduct.
After their marriage, the Eltons blatantly attack those worse off than them and reveal themselves as unfeeling social climbers. When the ball occurs in Highbury, the Eltons find deliberate ways to snub Harriet. Mr. Elton first offers to dance with Mrs. Gilbert but when Mrs. Weston says Harriet needs a partner he replies, “But my dancing days are over, Mrs. Weston” (210). This deliberate lie hurts Harriet “while smiles of high glee passed between him and his wife” (210). But Mr. Knightley saves the day by asking Harriet even though he does not like to dance: “In another moment a happier sight caught her;-- Mr. Knightley leading Harriet to the set!” (210). Mr. Knightley’s actions are at odds with Johnson’s view which suggests that Austen looks at the “chivalric pseudotraditionalism” of Burke for Mr. Knightley’s character but that she bypasses “the trauma of 1790s sentimentality altogether” (156). Perhaps Ms. Johnson should apply this to John instead of George Knightley because it takes a sympathetic understanding of the female psyche to realize how deep a barb like that could dig into Harriet. Mr. Knightley's values make up for Mr. Elton’s devious attempt to belittle Harriet: “Habitual attachments form the basis and the criteria for Burkean virtue. Right and wrong action, virtue and vice, are determined by the service or disservice one does for one’s society” (Frohnen). Mr. Knightley’s virtuous feelings and actions continue a tradition of gentlemanly conduct that makes a person feel positively involved with the community. His moral character cancels out the effects of Mr. Elton and other like him in Highbury.
Inheritance of property is the last part of the gentleman’s lifestyle we will look at. Here we can see the greatest impact on the ruling class. Mr. Knightley cannot step in and stop the slow spread of the nouveaux-rich as they move into estates and begin to set up their own legacies. The process would not be so bad if the newcomers would accept their responsibilities to the community. Mrs. Elton’s background and her family’s lack of refinement are examples of the destabilization of the aristocracy. The Suckling family’s rise to prominence in Maple Grove has been a short one but filled with backbiting instead of humility for those beneath them. Cornfield says, “However, the new rich were expected to adopt the gentlemanly style and to avoid a vulgar display of wealth.” Unfortunately, the trend usually went the opposite way with the rich having slowly subverted society instead of blending in. Interestingly, when Mrs. Elton puts down another family, she inadvertently describes her family’s own situation: “People of the name of Tupman, very lately settled there, and encumbered with many low connections, but giving themselves immense airs, and expecting to be on a footing with the old established families…” (199). The Sucklings have been in residence at Maple Grove for two generations as compared to the Knightleys who have lived in Donwell Abbey for centuries. They have no idea of the value of the traditions that help keep the community cohesive. Instead they abuse their power and put on “immense airs.” The way Mrs. Elton calls Mr. Knightley, “Knightley” displays the lack of respect for established families. Her entrance into Highbury may not bring “low connections” but her talk of having the Sucklings out proves to be an empty promise; she has no useful family relationship to add to Highbury society. She represents a trend towards superficiality and the egotistical destruction of a community’s values.
Today we see the culmination of Burke’s
thinking: the lack of personal values affects many people. We continually
speak about our “moral imperative” but without conviction. In addition,
from Austen we have learned that society will not remain stable; but not
to worry, communities are flexible. Waldron says, “Austen is at some pains
to show that the world of Highbury is extremely fluid.” At first it may
be difficult to see beyond our notions that our communities, like Highbury,
are destined to unravel. However, change can lead to welcome progress and
by paying attention to people like George Knightley, we may save the best
parts- the emotional connections that bind us together. The character of
the gentleman, his sense of duty, his morality, and his need to preserve
civilization for future generations are the tools we need to combat the
dehumanized spectacle of what our communities have become today.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. Stephen M. Parrish. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1993.
Brown, Julia Prewitt. “Civilization and the Contentment of Emma.” Modern Critical Views: Jane Austen. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 87-108.
Burke, Edmund. “Reflections on the Revolution in France, and on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event: in a Letter Intended to Have Been Sent to a Gentleman in Paris 1790.” Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches. Ed. Peter J. Stanlis. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1963. 511-608.
Frohnen, Bruce. “Burkean Virtue and the Conservative Good Life.” Perspectives on Political Science 21.1 (1994): 4-15.
Johnson, Claudia L. “’Not at All What a Man Should Be!’: Remaking English Manhood in Emma.” Equivocal Beings: Politics, Gender, and Sentimentality in the 1790s. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. 191-203.
Waldron, Mary. “Men of Sense and Silly Wives: The Confusion of Mr. Knightley.” Studies in the Novel 28.2 (1996): 141-158.