Who Wrote Robert Martin's Proposal?

Who Wrote Robert Martin's Proposal? 

'The style of the letter was much above her expectation. There were not merely no grammatical errors, but as a composition it would not have disgraced a gentleman; the language, though plain, was strong and unaffected, and the sentiments it conveyed very much to the credit of the writer. It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling. She paused over it, while Harriet stood anxiously watching for her opinion, with a "Well, well," and was at last forced to add, "Is it a good letter? or is it too short?" "Yes, indeed, a very good letter," replied Emma rather slowly -- "so good a letter, Harriet, that every thing considered, I think one of his sisters must have helped him. I can hardly imagine the young man whom I saw talking with you the other day could express himself so well, if left quite to his own powers, and yet it is not the style of a woman; no, certainly, it is too strong and concise; not diffuse enough for a woman. No doubt he is a sensible man, and I suppose may have a natural talent for -- thinks strongly and clearly -- and when he takes a pen in hand, his thoughts naturally find proper words. It is so with some men."' Emma

Everyone knows that Emma wrote Harriet's response to Robert Martin's proposal letter - but what if someone else wrote Robert's letter, as well? A great deal of literary criticism has been written about Emma's authoring of Harriet's response to Mr Martin, but very little has been written about Robert's letter, and the possibility that it too may also have been written by another character. Robert Martin is a sensible and literate man, but as a tenant farmer in the Regency era it is very unlikely he would be the author of a letter impressive enough to surprise Emma, as his proposal does. Austen writes that Robert reads Almanacs and other practical publications important to his profession, but it is unlikely that he has a great deal of leisure time to read much else, as is supported by his seeming disinclination to purchase the book that Harriet recommends to him.

The case against Robert as author of the letter

Emma's reaction to the letter provides us important clues as to who the real author of the letter may be. She makes two claims. Firstly, it is unlikely Robert wrote the letter on his own. Secondly, the style is not that of a woman's, making it unlikely his sisters helped him. This all points to the question, who did help Mr Martin with his letter? All of the clues divulged by Emma's claims suggests that if the letter was written by someone other than Robert Martin, it must have been a man and someone whose writing would surpass even Emma's high standards. The answer to this mystery lies in one of two directions. The first direction is that the author is someone who Austen does not introduce to her readers during the course of the novel. This is an unsatisfying but very possible conclusion, as Austen frequently writes endings that leave the reader unsatisfied in one sense or another. The second possible direction, much more interesting and satisfying, is the possibility Robert Martin's letter was written by Mr. Knightly. Knightly fulfils both qualifications created by Emma concerning the author's identity. He is an educated man, and genteel enough to impress her. It is also clear in the text itself that Robert Martin consulted Mr. Knightly just as Harriet consulted Miss Woodhouse. Emma chose to take control and write Harriet's response, so the possibility of Knightly having written Robert's proposal fits rather nicely into their dichotomy of attitudes about the marriage.

Why Mr. Knightley's potential authorship of Robert Martin's proposal is important

More than simply making the storyline more interesting, the possibility of Knightley's authorship of Martin's letter adds depth and a more critical slant to the novel. Jane Austen is famous, not just for writing love stories, but for questioning and critiquing the society in which she lived.  Throughout the novel, Austen presents Emma as someone who interferes in the affairs of others and bringing Mr. Knightley into that same critical light moves the shortcoming from a personal level to a class based and societal issue. If indeed Knightley wrote Martin's letter, then we have two very wealthy upper-middle socialites interfering in the affairs of those who are socially beneath them and robbing these two individuals of their own voice. As we see later on, Robert Martin and Harriet Smith do well enough courting each other without the interference of their friends that they do eventually marry.

Jane Austen's Critique of Society

Knowing what we know about Jane Austen, one cannot believe that the criticism she lays upon Knightley and Emma for their interference is simply directed at two fictional characters. It is more likely Austen's criticism is really directed at the wealthy upper classes of England, those literate people who through affluence and influence control the way the very history and story of a nation was written and remembered. At the time Austen wrote Emma, pastoral stories that presented a romanticized version of country life were very common. Jane Austen's satirical advice to another novelist, that "3 or 4 families in a Country Village [was] the very thing to work on]", shows an awareness of this trend. Austen, a writer often concerned with the themes of authorship and voice, as well as ideas of material inequality, would very likely want us to look on Knightley and Emma's interference as indicative of a larger societal problem.  

Michaela Spangenburg has always been a Janeite but did not fully appreciate Jane's brilliance until taking a course in literary criticism from Robert Coleman-Senghor. Michaela aspires to be a literary theorist, writer, and one day clinical psychologist and anthropologist. Reprinted with permission from Suite 101: Authorship of Letters in Jane Austen's Emma: An Exploration and Critical Analysis of Voice and Letter Writing.

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7 comments

The working classes in Emma are the servants and the very poor family Emma and Harriet visit. Robert Martin, the Bateses, Mrs Goddard, the Coles, and the Westons are members of the new middle classes (of which there were and still are gradations). The Woodhouses and Knightleys, and the talked about Campbells and Churchills, would have been “gentry”.

Carol Gladwell October 10, 2021

I have to agree with most of the comments here. I see no evidence in “Emma” to indicate that Robert could not have written his own letter. Why would his education be worse than that of his sisters? He may have attended the local grammar school where he would learn Latin and the Classics. The novel shows that he is an intelligent man and successful business person. He reads not only farming journals but “the Vicar of Wakefield” as well.

Emma, we learn from Knightley, was always making lists of the books she should read. No-one had been able to exert enough influence on her to do this reading. Emma’s education was at the hands of Mrs. Weston. It was probably appropriate for a young woman of Emma’s class where she would learn music, dancing and painting. There is no evidence for Emma being well educated in the way that Jane Austen was. Emma is a snob. This influences how she assesses people. It was no doubt part of the class system that she was brought up in to think this way. She mentions to Harriet, that if she were to marry Robert Martin then Emma could not visit her socially. In Emma’s mind a lower social class appears to be equated with lower intelligence and virtually no education.

Martin was an upcoming, successful farmer. A tenant farmer, in England at this time, was a very respectable position. I see no evidence at all for Robert Martin not to be the author of this letter. If there is evidence for Robert not writing this letter, then Michaela Spangenburg does not show it.

Catherine Payne October 07, 2021

I always read that part as Emma wanting to demean Robert Martin. She has foolishly suggested to herself that Harriet’s parentage may be quite grand-even noble. She wants Harriet to ‘aim higher’ in society, rather than settle for simply a ‘good sensible man’. I think Jane Austen is revealing Emma’s snobbishness here. A quality she, herself, never admired. She is poking fun at ‘Society Standards’.

Wendi October 06, 2021

Sorry, but isn’t it a bit snobbish to presume that anyone from the working class wouldn’t have sufficient refinement or intelligence to write a decent letter?
Ability is not determined by class or status.
Some people I know have achieved stunning things in the sciences, arts and commerce, and been awarded university high honours even though their origins were disadvantaged.
Intelligence and a feeling for humanity do not only reside in those with money and status. Money does not determine ability or empathy.
Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that it does.

Jane October 06, 2021

I’m sure Robert wrote his own proposal. This is just another case of Emma “knowing” something and being terribly wrong. She has him pigeonholed as a big, dumb guy; and his proposal shows something completely different.

Angelia Sukala October 06, 2021
Was Robert Martin a member of the working class?

Robert Martin was 24. He was the tenant of the Abbey-Mill Farm, which he rented from Mr Knightley. It was a large farm. We do not know how large, but it was not a small-holding. He probably took over the tenancy from his father. He lived there with his mother and his sisters. There was a large farm-house. Harriet Smith, who had spent two happy months there, spoke with so much exultation of Mrs Martin’s having “two parlours, two very good parlours indeed - one of them quite as large as Mrs Goddard’s drawing room; and of her having an upper maid who had lived five-and-twenty years with her; and of their having eight cows; and of their having a very handsome summer-house in the garden, where some day next year they were all to drink tea - a very handsome summer-house, large enough to hold a dozen people.”
While she was staying there he had his shepherd’s son into the parlour one night on purpose to sing to her. She was very fond of singing. He could sing a little himself. She believed he was very clever, andunderstood everything. He had a very fine flock; and while she was with them he had been bid more for his wool than everybody in the country.
Harriet knew that he had read the ‘Vicar of Wakefield.’ “They live very comfortably. They have no indoors man - else they do not want for anything; and Mrs Martin talks of taking a boy another year.”
They shopped at Ford’s, where Harriet had an awkward encounter with Elizabeth Martin and her brother. Ford’s was the principal woollen-draper, linen-draper and haberdasher’s shop united - the shop first in size and fashion in Highbury.
Robert Martin was not a member of the working class and he was quite capable of writing his own proposal.

David Pugsley October 06, 2020

A tenant farmer, who has to run his farm, organise his labourers, buy and sell, and make a profit so that he can pay the rent he owes to his landlord, is certainly not working class.

David Pugsley October 06, 2020

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