Jane Fairfax: The True Heroine of Emma

There are many worthy characters and heroines within Jane Austen’s timeless novels. Many would consider Emma in the novel Emma to be one of Austen’s most worthy, an ideal heroine right alongside Elizabeth Bennet of Pride and Prejudice. Even though it is a popular belief, that Emma is the pure heroine in Emma, I believe Jane Fairfax is the true heroine of the novel. But she is constantly being overlooked despite being a better heroine than Emma, who the novel is named after. The social class status in which Jane Fairfax belonged prevented her from achieving the true heroine classification that she deserved. The class that Miss Fairfax belonged to kept her from becoming her full potential, while Emma, who was born into a higher class status than Jane, was awarded the easy street of life. Due to the difference in social class, Emma was labeled the heroine of Emma – a false heroine – while Jane Fairfax, who rightly deserved such a prestigious label as heroine, was overlooked due to social class and wealth.

            What defines a character to be the heroine of a story is defined in the simplest sense as the female hero of the story. There are many characteristics this character must embody to be a true heroine, such as courageous, talented, and admired. She acts better than other characters because she is the best version that others attempt to emulate. The heroine stays true to her nature despite adversity and obstacles because she is the hero, the one above the rest. There are countless heroines throughout popular culture and literature from Rosa Parks to Lara Croft.

            Jane Fairfax was born into the social class that prevented her from becoming known as the heroine of Emma, which she had no choice in the matter: “By birth she belonged to Highbury; and when at three years old, on losing her mother, she became the property, the charge, the consolation, the fondling of her grandmother and aunt” (Austen 153). It is important to understand Jane Fairfax’s roots to fully grasp how her social class prevented her from the heroine status. Unlike Emma, who was born into a rich family, Jane was taken care of by Colonel Campbell, who was not blood-related but treated her like his own. Since her father was deceased, she did not inherit much money, and no property to speak of which limited the options for Jane: “The plan was that she should be brought up for educating others; the very few hundred pounds which she inherited from her father” (Austen 154). Since Jane’s parents were both deceased, and her care was left in the hands of the generous Colonel Campbell, being a governess was the best option of what limited choices she had. Not inheriting any land from her family set her to be part of the working class, and for a young woman like herself, the governess trade was best suited for any resemblance of independence. This circumstance was not of Jane’s choosing, but she did the best she could with the situation she found herself in, unlike Emma, who was fortunate enough to be part of the gentry landowning class. The social class should not have determined which of these women were considered the heroine of Emma, because if they were equal in social class status, then Jane Fairfax would be the heroine over Emma.

  Jane Fairfax and Emma had many similar traits, but their differences proved Jane as the true heroine. Both Emma and Jane Fairfax were equally attractive young women, making them equally agreeable to male suitors; either would be an ideal match for someone. No one would speak ill will regarding either one of them throughout their community, and both were highly respected. Other than physical looks, and how others treated them, the two women were more different than they were alike. I believe Jane Fairfax was more mature than Emma, as Emma always was scheming, playing matchmaker between her friends. Plus, Emma never truly thought well of Jane, not until the end of the novel after Emma learned of her terrible ways. Jane always treated people with respect, while Emma constantly misjudged people, including Jane and Miss Bates. Emma’s treatment of the social classes below her is one of the major differences between her and Jane. Emma was born into a high social class of the land-owning gentry, while Jane was stuck working for a living. Many critics, such as Sheryl Bonar Craig, agree that with Emma’s wealth, she never truly understood the struggles of others due to her easy life: “Mr. Knightly and the other inhabitants of Highbury might well be cutting corners and saving money where they could, but, because of her privileged position, Emma Woodhouse has led a charmed life and remains ignorant of their struggles (Craig 3). No heroine would think badly of anyone, especially someone of a lower social class. Jane Fairfax respected every one of all classes as a true heroine should. Jane Fairfax had a reserved personality, never wanted to vex anyone that came across her. She was totally polite and nice to everyone. Emma picked and chose who she would think well of, never in a malicious manner, but not respectful either. Emma never trusted Frank Churchill, even though he never disrespectful her or her family. But again, he was not part of the same gentry class as Emma. Emma did not even think highly of Jane when she first arrived in Highbury, and the critic Sheryl Craig agrees: “Everyone else admires Jane Fairfax for her beauty, intellect, and talents, and no one but Emma finds fault with her” (Craig 7). Even Emma’s internal thoughts about Jane were not as a heroine would think: “She is sort of elegant creature that one cannot keep one’s eyes from. I am always watching her to admire; and I do pity her from my heart” (Austen 161). This shows that Emma only pities Jane because she is from a lesser social class than herself. She can respect her physical traits but pity her situation in life. It takes until the end of the novel for Emma Woodhouse to realize that how she was treating people was wrong. It took the very disrespectful event at Box Hill with Emma insulting poor Miss Bates, and Mr. Knightly calling her out on the event afterward. If Mr. Knightly did not bring Emma’s poor behavior to her attention, I am not sure if Emma would have ever changed for the better. Jane Fairfax was the ideal heroine with her actions, and words from the beginning, she did not have to improve herself as she was always worthy of the heroine status. In addition to all the mentioned rationale, Jane Fairfax was even more talented at the pianoforte than Emma: “They sang together once more; and Emma would then resign her place to Miss Fairfax, whose performance, both vocal and instrumental, she never could attempt to conceal from herself, was infinitely superior to her own” (Austen 212). Thus, proving Jane Fairfax to be superior to Emma in all aspects needed to be classified as the title heroine other than social class and wealth. 

Jane Fairfax did not choose her social class, or the amount of money that she had available, but due to the circumstances of her deceased family, she was part of a much lower social class than Emma. Jane Fairfax, due to her social class, had very few opportunities compared to Emma, thus eliminating her to be considered a heroine, and many opportunities for a male suitor. Lynda Hall, in the article “Jane Fairfax’s Choice: The Sale of Human Flesh or Human Intellect” examines the limited life choices Jane is forced into compared to Emma: “The contrast between Emma’s relatively active life and Jane Fairfax’s submissive one is important since the main difference in their independence rests solely on their income” (Hall 2). Emma has everything at her fingertips for a perfect life that she gets to choose anything she wants, while Jane Fairfax does not have such luxuries. Jane is forced by her social class to either be a governess for the rest of her life or marry someone like Frank Churchill who is not the most desirable of suitors. Either choice eliminates Jane from being a heroine in the time period of Jane Austen’s Emma because neither of those situations was looked upon in a positive light. A governess was a good working trade, but not one for a heroine. Plus, the heroine always was able to obtain the most desirable suitor in the community. Emma was able to achieve Mr. Knightly in Emma due to her financial situation, and the social class in which she belonged leaving Jane Fairfax forgotten, even though she is the true heroine of Emma. Lynda Hall goes on to describe Jane’s choices in life as the sale of intellect, but almost the sale of flesh, because she has so limited options to survive, and to make the best life she could. Jane Fairfax was educated but according to Lynda Hall that did not expand Jane’s life choices: “Because of their limited education and forced dependence, poor but educated women were in danger of being abandoned and forgotten” (Hall 6). Others at Highbury respected Jane’s elegance and attitude but never considered her on the same level as Emma due to social class. Hall explains further that women in Emma’s social class position have the independence to make any choice in life their desire, and get any suitor they desire while women in Jane’s class must sell herself, and make sacrifices to achieve a desirable existence: “Women of means, such as Emma, could choose a partner or even choose not to marry, but the majority of women needed to peddle their accomplishments and whatever income they had to the few potential mates they found in limited society” (Hall 9). Jane having to make sacrificial choices and overcome the struggles of her life is the definition of a heroine, while Emma had no struggles, only an easy life than marrying a rich gentleman of the same social class. Jane is left with the only choice of survival of marrying Frank Churchill, who barely elevates her out of her social class, but it is better than working as a governess. The critic Patrick McGraw, in the article “The World Is Not Their’s: The Plight of Jane Fairfax in Emma” also agrees that women who are not rich like Emma are forced to sell themselves in order to better their lives: “Without financial resources, most women (unlike Emma herself, who has a dowry of 30,000) are forced into situations that are literally or figuratively forms of the sale of human flesh” (McGraw 7). These impossible decisions of sacrifice defined Jane Fairfax as a character, choices that only a heroine could overcome.          

         Women from the social class of Jane Fairfax during Jane Austen’s time, and even during our modern time period, are faced with hard choices and few options to better themselves. Women like Emma of the higher social classes are presented with endless opportunities and are awarded the best suitors. Despite all the shortcomings Jane never let her life change her personality or make her a sour person. She always acted elegant, and proper. She was in a worse life situation than Emma, and still treated people better like only a heroine would be able to do. It’s not life’s easy choices that define a person, it’s the struggles, and impossible ones that show the strength of character. Such situations are not as relevant today as it was during Jane Austen’s time period, in which it was a common situation for women of lower social classes. Jane Austen knew this and fell into the same mindset with the aspects of Emma in not respecting the lower social classes which were far too common. Emma marrying Mr. Knightly solidifies the mistreatment of the lower social classes because it does not challenge the common views against them since Emma and Mr. Knightly are both of higher social classes. Penny Gay, in the article “Jane Fairfax and the she-tragedies of the Eighteenth Century” would go as far as making the statement that Jane’s life is the mirror of the characters found in the she-tragedy stories that were popular during Jane Austen’s time period. Penny expresses that Jane’s life is so terrible that many similar characters in the she-tragedies could not overcome their lives and turned to poison rather than to face the harsh reality of their existence. Penny explains the similarities between Jane and these she-tragedy characters: “Tragedy heroines are always of course very beautiful and accomplished. Emma, we know, is strongly aware of Jane’s superior claims in this regard. Such heroines also tend to be alone in the world, without parents” (Gay 3). Jane, being stuck in a lower social class, is forced to be classified as a tragic heroine, while Emma, who is part of an upper social class, gets the true heroine honor despite not being as worthy of the title as Jane Fairfax.         

             In Jane Austen’s other novels such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, Austen sheds light on the injustice of the social classes during her time period by having the heroines of those novels come from lower classes and rise to be better. Jane Fairfax should have had the same heroine title as Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, as I feel they both have similar characteristics. Both Elizabeth and Jane are very strong individuals who never allow life’s obstacles to get them down. They both know themselves as a person while sticking to their beliefs. Both characters walked in the rain, and dirt despite what others thought about their actions: “I went only to the post office, said she, and reached home before the rain was much. It is my daily errand, I always fetch the letters when I am here. It saves trouble and is something to get me out. A walk before breakfast does me good” (Austen 272). Jane Fairfax would always walk to the post office no matter if it rained because she was a strong person who did not allow anything to get in her way just as Elizabeth Bennet acted, who was the best heroine in all of Jane Austen’s novels. That is because Jane Austen wanted to show that lower social class heroines can reach their true potential, but in Emma, Austen chooses to express the actual representation of the social class structure and condemn Jane Fairfax to a life of tragedy due to her placement in the lower social class. Being strong despite what others think as Jane Fairfax acted was directly tied to her class, as she knew she had to do whatever it took to make the happiest life she could. As all heroines before her did, Jane made the best life with what options she had, which involved acting strong and brave without worrying about other people’s opinions. Only a true heroine such as Jane would be true to her own beliefs and actions while being faced with daily tough life decisions. Emma never had to face adversity, make life-changing choices that mirror the selling of one’s own flesh. Instead, she had plenty of worry-free time to play matchmaker to all the inhabitants of Highbury, all the while misjudging everyone’s character. There are countless actions done by Emma that go against how a heroine should act, but her higher class gave her the credit, while the best and true heroine Jane Fairfax was forgotten.          

            Even the 2020 film version of Emma shows Jane Fairfax as being a more superior heroine than Emma. The characters mirror one another in similarities, but Jane expresses more reserved behavior, strength, maturity, and better treatment of others, while Emma in the film is shown as being impulsive, not nice towards others, petty, too involved in others’ lives, and a weak character. Yes, Emma eventually changes for the better in both the book and film, but that is not without the influence of Jane Fairfax according to Paul Almonte, and his article “Insidious Designs: Reading Jane Fairfax in and out of Highbury” which expresses that Emma’s transformation was all due to Jane’s positive influence on Emma. Jane showed Emma how to be a better person through Jane’s model behavior which inspired Emma to change her immature ways, stop meddling in other people’s business, and stop misjudging everyone to better herself: “I have never had a high opinion of Frank Churchill. I can suppose, however, that I may have under-rated him” (Austen 400). Dialogue such as that spoken by Emma shows the misjudgment and ill-thoughts she had towards others. Jane on the other hand was always calm, proper, and dignified in her responses and thoughts: “Excuse me, said Jane earnestly, I cannot by any means consent to such as arrangement, so needlessly troublesome to your servant” (Austen 274). This dialogue from Jane shows that even when defending her strong beliefs, Jane remained calm and elegant. Jane’s spoken words are one of the many heroine characteristics embedded in Jane’s essence that helped shape Emma into a good person. Without Jane Fairfax, Emma would never have changed for the better and would have continued in her self-abusive ways; Paul Almonte classified this best with, “Emma is instructed and instructs us to a broader ethical design than even Knightley could provide. That instruction comes from Jane Fairfax. It is ultimately her experience and her choices of love and duty that are defining designs of the novel” (Almonte 5). It takes a true heroine to influence someone like Emma and make her change her personality for the better. In this one instance, Jane’s lower social class made her humbler than Emma, thus providing a positive influence for her.

Despite being a better person than Emma, more elegant, more talented, and even influencing Emma herself to transition from her ill ways, Jane’s social class ultimately kept her from the heroine status she deserved since young women in her situation rarely were able to marry up but were left the impossible choice of either a lifelong position as a governess or marrying a slighter better option in someone like Frank Churchill. Emma’s social class elevated her to a status undeserving based on the countless reasons mentioned while Jane Fairfax was overlooked and forgotten due to her social class that she had no choice in being part of. If Jane’s social class was respected as much as Emma’s or even equal to it, then there is no doubt everyone would consider Jane Fair the heroine of Emma. Thus, Emma, being in the right class, was deemed the heroine due to her rank in society, but not due to embodying the quality characteristics of a heroine. Our modern society, like Austen’s society, both need to learn that it’s not the social class that defines people but their personality and actions. The status of Jane Fairfax would have been much different if social classes didn’t play such a huge part in determining a person’s worth as a person, and she would have claimed her rightful heroine status.

Works Cited

Almonte, Paul. “‘Insidious Designs’: Reading Jane Fairfax in and out of Highbury.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 25, 2003, pp. 239–243.

Austen, Jane. Emma. Penguin Group, 1996

Craig, Sheryl Bonar. “The Value of a Good Income: Money in Emma.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line, vol. 22, no. 1, 2001.

Emma. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, performances by Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, and Mia Goth, Working Title Films, 2020.

Gay, Penny. “Jane Fairfax and the ‘She Tragedies’ of the Eighteenth Century.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 29, 2007, pp. 121–130.

Hall, Lynda A. “Jane Fairfax’s Choice: The Sale of Human Flesh or Human Intellect.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal On-Line, vol. 28, no. 1, 2007.

McGraw, Patrick. “‘The World Is Not Their’s’: The Plight of Jane Fairfax in Emma.” Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, vol. 37, 2015, pp. 218–225.