By Andrea Thompson
In Jane Austen’s world, her heroines aren’t typically reduced to (shudder) actual work. Why would they want to be, given the options for women, which tended to be the degrading kind where they would be at the mercy of their employers? To be considered a success is to escape such requirements, or optimally, avoid them altogether. The Dashwood sisters are able to make it work in a cottage in “Sense and Sensibility,” the Elliots simply rent out their estate in “Persuasion,” while the Bennets and the Morlands are able to marry their way out before things get truly desperate in “Pride and Prejudice” and “Northanger Abbey,” respectively.
“Emma” is bound to stand out in such company. It’s the only one of Austen’s novels to not only be named for its heroine, but to endow her with a fortune and a life of ease. Not only is she “handsome, clever, and rich,” she’s reached the age of 21 with “very little to distress or vex her.” Even in her small circle she is an exception to the rule; she needs nothing from no one, and has none of the usual inducements to marry.
Miss Woodhouse is unique to today’s audiences as well. Emma is not any kind of precursor to modern women like Elizabeth Bennet, whom many readers did and still long to be, given her wit, intelligence, and firm commitment to remain herself in spite of all the pressures bearing down on her to conform, including the future loss of her home to her ridiculous cousin Mr. Collins. Yet it is Emma Woodhouse who represents what an independent woman looks like, at least in the early 19th century. She is intelligent, capable, and wealthy, and also very much lacking any real outlet for her skills. So she chooses to indulge in matchmaking by attempting to pair off those around her, only to discover how unpredictable love can be, much to her dismay.
But it is “Emma,” a seemingly light, fluffy comedy of manners, with little plot to speak of and a heroine who has the least to fear, that gives us one of the most vulnerable characters Austen ever created, who may actually be Emma’s true foil. The 2020 adaptation chose Harriet for this role, but despite her relative class difference to her more genteel neighbors, Harriet has still been relatively protected, and provided with a home and income of her own, albeit a limited one.
Jane Fairfax has had no such luck. She’s not only a penniless orphan, her relatives, the Bates women, are about as destitute as she is, and essentially survive on the generosity of their more fortunate neighbors. Various characters may continually remark on how Jane’s beauty and accomplishments surpass even those of the lovably meddlesome Miss Woodhouse, but her many skills are due to the generosity of a family far more fortunate than her own, who charitably took her in and raised her alongside their own daughter. Everything she’s been taught has also had a very practical purpose, to prepare Jane to earn her own money by working as a governess, where she’ll basically be at the mercy of the wealthy class who raised her and spat her out. She may be the one person who provokes Emma’s jealousy, but her position could hardly be called an enviable one.
While Austen gives Jane as much attention as she can, what with the novel’s limitations, which is almost entirely from Emma’s perspective, the various adaptations give her almost none. The 2009 BBC miniseries probably comes the closest, which is most likely why a Google Image search for Jane will bring up quite a few stills from this particular source. But even this one neglects many of the most touching developments between Jane and Emma, including their reconciliation near the end of the book. Jane fares even worse in the 2020 version, which gives her almost no attention, and only includes one scene to indicate that Jane is not a perfectly trained robot who mostly exists as a possible rival for Mr. Knightley’s affections. But her suffering is very real.
How could it not be? Throughout “Emma,” Jane is secretly engaged to Frank Churchill, who often flirts with Emma Woodhouse to deflect suspicion from his and Jane’s relationship. How painful, to watch the man you love play suitor to another woman, especially one who was born with everything you were deprived of, while practically the entire neighborhood encourages them both. Many cite Frank’s general caddishness, and it’s quite true he takes no small amount of pleasure in the secret he and Jane share. Yet the seemingly carefree and independent Frank is also completely dependent on the aunt who took him in and made him her heir after his mother died and his father was unable to care for him. From what the other characters say about her, there’s little reason to doubt Frank’s need to keep his and Jane’s engagement hidden for fear of the consequences should his proud, domineering aunt discover it. It’s a lot to keep straight at times, and given Austen’s skill at small town drama and secrecy, she probably could’ve had a great career as a writer on “Riverdale.”
There’s another reason Jane has been repeatedly neglected. Probably the only thing many audiences, be they book lovers or moviegoers, dislike more than imperfect (aka unlikable) heroine like Emma is a perfect one like Jane. Except for the deception around her engagement, Jane Fairfax is an unquestionably morally upright heroine. Even worse, she’s what could be referred to as uptight. Jane doesn’t smile cheerfully through her troubles, she’s reserved, holding back not only her secret but her true character from those who try to befriend her, including Emma Woodhouse.
Jane is flawed enough to resent Emma, however. Much has been made of Emma’s moral awakening after she insults Miss Bates, but another large component of her reform is a determination to be kind to Jane Fairfax. But by this time, Jane hasn’t just witnessed the blissfully unaware Emma parade around with her fiance for weeks, she believes she’s lost him. Jane could hardly be blamed, then, for refusing Emma’s many, and long overdue, attempts at friendship, from invitations to visit, offers of a ride in her carriage, or even any medicine for her illness.
Much like the Cinderella of any story, Jane Fairfax wins her prize in the end, mostly by sheer force of luck. After Frank’s aunt dies near the end of the book, the always fortunate young man is able to easily gain the approval of his remaining relatives, allowing both him and Jane Fairfax to openly acknowledge all and renew their engagement. It’s a happier ending than most women in her position likely received, and Jane likewise is continually given less than her due. Nevertheless, the true platonic love story of the novel is between Emma and Jane, who is the source of much of Emma’s emotional and moral growth, and whom Emma might have easily become without her privilege.
Depressingly, there doesn’t seem to be much media that gives Jane Fairfax the time and attention she deserves, aside from a 1997 novel by Joan Aiken, which also bears her name and tells the story of her life, including the events of “Emma,” from her perspective. The silver lining though, is that just as a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife, you can always count on another Jane Austen adaptation to appear sooner or later. Hopefully a major film will give Jane Fairfix her due, but as Austen wrote in “Emma,” “Seldom, very seldom, does complete truth belong to any human disclosure.”