"I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like."
Emma Woodhouse from Jane Austen’s Emma and Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice are similar characters, and yet why do we dislike one and want to marry the other? Why is Emma a snob and a meddler while Darcy is a romantic? In regards to the character of Emma, Jane Austen said: “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like”. Austen understood that Emma would not be perceived well by the masses, and if Darcy is similar to Emma, why do we love him? The answer lies in a double standard. We hold women accountable and to a higher standard than men.
Emma is personally my favorite Austen book and I enjoy the flawed character of Emma. Emma is disliked by readers for being snobby, a meddler, proud, rude, annoying, etc. Is Emma a perfect character? No. Is she as kind as Anne Elliot from Austen’s Persuasion? No. Is she a realistic character? Yes. Emma is flawed and makes mistakes, just as we all do. The important thing is that she ends up recognizing them and grows in the end.
Mr. Darcy does grow throughout the book, but he is not without his flaws. I had difficulty getting past his rudeness towards others, particularly his mean comment about Elizabeth Bennet’s appearance and her family. Though he does learn from his mistakes, why do we forgive him but not Emma? We need to hold Darcy accountable.
We should begin by looking at the similarities between Emma and Darcy.
Both characters are prejudiced, with a focus on wealth and ranking. Emma disapproves of Robert Martin because he is a farmer and she looks down upon the Coles because they earned their fortune through trade. However, Emma grows throughout the book, regretting her prejudices against Jane Fairfax and Miss Bates, ending with sincere interest in their well-being and happiness.
Emma keeps company with the Bates family, who are poor, while it is hard for Darcy to interact with anyone outside of his circle, especially those “below” him. When we are first introduced to Darcy, he says: “…there is not another woman in the room, whom it would not be a punishment to me to stand up with”. In this scene, Darcy would be of the highest consequence because he is the wealthiest, and yet he does not interact with others and looks down on them, as well as insults them.
Emma insults Miss Bates in the scene at Box Hill and I do not dismiss her rudeness and insensitivity. Though she does not actually say, “I am sorry”, to Miss Bates, she goes to her the day after and provides genuine interest in Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. She is truly horrified at her actions towards Miss Bates. However, she should have outwardly apologized.
We should not ignore Emma’s rude comment, but we do need to remember that Darcy insults Elizabeth Bennet in the beginning of the book, saying:
“She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humour at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
He says this when she is within earshot, knowing fully well that she may be able to hear it (and she does hear it). When he first proposes to her, he insults her family and notes her inferiority: “His sense of her inferiority – of its being a degradation…”. In his letter, he further insults her family (though I do dislike Elizabeth’s mother and younger sisters, he puts partial blame on their standing in society).
Emma and Darcy’s Meddling
It can be easy to dislike Emma for meddling in Harriet Smith’s life. Emma knows she has influence over Harriet, a naïve girl who looks up to Emma because of her higher status, and Emma uses this to her advantage. Though Emma remains certain that Harriet should not marry Robert Martin, she decides to give up matchmaking when she realizes how horrible Mr. Elton is and how much it hurt Harriet. She at least recognizes the wrongness of her influence and her mistakes.
Just as Emma persuades Harriet not to marry Robert Martin, Mr. Darcy persuades Mr. Bingley not to marry Jane Bennet. Darcy has influence over Bingley, saying:
“But Bingley has great natural modesty, with a stronger dependence on my judgment than on his own. – To convince him…that he had deceived himself, was no very difficult point"
After Darcy explains why he persuaded Mr. Bingley not to propose to Jane, he says: “I cannot blame myself for having done thus much”, even though he admits he was perhaps wrong about Jane’s affection towards Bingley. He is not able to fully apologise for his actions.
The Double Standard
If Emma and Darcy are similar, then why should Emma be held accountable and Darcy should be forgiven? If anything, Darcy should be held more accountable as he is older than Emma. Emma is about twenty-one and Darcy is twenty-eight. Though twenty-one is an age where you should know better, the seven-year age difference is still noticeable at that point in life, and Darcy should therefore be more mature and aware of his actions.
There is an expectation for female characters to be “perfect” and for their flaws to be “charming” and not of much consequence, which is why the character of Emma is looked at with disdain. It is difficult for Emma to redeem herself in the eyes of the reader. However, male characters can be flawed and redeemed, like Mr. Darcy. Despite all the rude things he says, the reader, and Elizabeth Bennet, end up ignoring them.
Emma and Mr. Darcy are both flawed individuals, who share a very similar path to one another. Thus, if we are going to forgive and defend Darcy, we must forgive and defend Emma. Let us remove the double standard and see that Darcy needs to be equally held accountable for his actions as Emma.
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