A Short Analysis of Romance and Eroticism in Emma and the French Lieutenant’s Woman
English and Literature
Submitted By girlpunk
2 March 2011
A Short Analysis of Romance and Eroticism in Emma and The French Lieutenant’s Woman
While both novels explore the ideas of romance, Jane Austen is much more conservative in her approach to courtship and marriage. She includes traditional love scenes where men confess their love to a lady, or a woman speaks of her love for a man. There is no strong sexual content or intimacy between characters that is able to evolve into a steamy affair. There are certainly no intimate scenes within the novel and much of the romance is expressed through flirtation, superficial interest and courtship. John Fowles on the other hand explores romanticism and eroticism through several affairs that end in romantic tragedy in The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Although this contrast exists between the two novels, both authors are still able to demonstrate the complexity of romantic relationships using their own unique approach to the subject. Jane Austen introduces romantic ideas through complex relationships that involve courtship and marriage. For some characters it is a growth process that allows them to make mistakes and learn new lessons. Emma is the main character in the novel and she is the main cause for the drama that goes on in the story. Emma assumes that she has cupid-like qualities that make her a great matchmaker for those she surrounds herself with. In reality, the matchmaking backfires and Emma finds herself entangled in a web of guilt and disappointment due to her actions. There are very few romantic or intimate scenes in the novel. The closest the readers get to anything romantic is when Mr. Knightly confesses his love to Emma and Harriet finally marries Robert Martin. These are the most satisfying moments in the novel where readers learn that all of the misconstrued romances of the entire book finally fall into the right place and the characters live happily ever after. But before the seemingly happy ending can conclude the novel, readers are taken on a rollercoaster ride of courtship, love, sadness and disappointment. As the story unfolds, Emma deploys her matchmaking skills with several characters, only to find that the love she tries to create is unfruitful. Usually Emma realizes that her match was in fact not well made and her subjects were not suitable for one another. One example of a relationship that Emma tried to initiate, was the relationship between Hariett and Mr. Elton. Hariett unfortunately falls victim to Emma’s matchmaking plans several times throughout the entire novel. Emma tells Harriet that she should try and win the affections of Mr. Elton but later becomes disappointed when she realises Mr. Elton likes her instead of Harriet. In chapter forty, Harriet eventually tells Emma that she does not like Mr. Elton any longer and Emma is relieved. These complicated relationships are seen throughout the novel and they become a complex web of misinformed affection. Emma is a product of the life and times of the era in which Austen was born. Her work is a classical piece of Romantic Literature and during this period, women were denied many things in life except for marriage and children. Social status was extremely important and society was seen as a hierarchy of people. During this era, their status and the families they came from defined the lives of men and women. Emma’s character defines what an upper-class young woman might have thought during the time of Jane Austen’s writings. There is a lack of sexual themes in the novel and Emma barely thinks about marriage, let alone erotic and sexual thoughts. Austen is writing a novel that reflects societal morals and values of her time therefore she manages to write about love triangles and teenage love without offending standards of propriety. There is no trace of any characteristic that may be considered a Harlequin novel; except for the satisfying ending that Austen has granted the readers of Emma. Marriage is another acceptable role that women of Austen’s time would have to fulfill to become a fully functioning member of society. Marriage is seen throughout the novel and each marriage is defined by social status. In the very beginning of the novel, Mr. Weston is introduced as a man whose marriage fell apart due to the fact that his wife’s family was too wealthy and proud to have someone who was not as wealthy as themselves within their family (Austen 13-14). Readers are made aware that his new marriage was happier because Miss Taylor was a governess who was satisfied with what Mr. Weston had to offer. Throughout Emma, marriage is constantly being compared to social status and this may be a reason for the lack of romance and eroticism in the novel. Since it was important to marry a man of high status or who shared the same social status as yourself, it was not important to have a romance or be intimate.
Another example of Emma’s failed matchmaking is her idea to separate Harriet from Robert Martin and to make sure that she does not marry him. Emma manipulates Harriet into believing that Robert Martin is not good enough for her because of his social status. When Emma learns that Harriet would like to marry Martin one day, she tries everything in her power to lure her thoughts away from Martin and help her understand the type of man she really needs. Emma takes it upon herself to make sure Harriet does not marry Martin, and instead tells her that it would be more suitable for her to marry a man of higher rank. Emma is one of the wealthiest girls in the entire town and having a friend who could potentially marry a farmer would be unacceptable. Emma does this because she believes Harriet might be of noble descent and marrying below her social status may cause her to lose certain privileges, including her friendship with Emma. Emma is so convinced that Harriet and Robert’s social statuses are different that she tells Harriet to refuse his marriage proposal and move on with her life. Emma eventually tells Mr. Knightly who expresses his anger at the news, “you saw her answer! You wrote her answer too. Emma, this is your doing. You persuaded her to refuse him” (Austen 61). The lack of romantic ideals in the novel coupled with Emma’s strong belief in class distinctions can be blamed for when discussing the unpredictable relationships in the novel. The end of the novel is where the real romance finally unfolds. Contrary to Emma’s beliefs that she would never marry, she finds herself being courted by Mr. Knightly. Emma’s character is finally enveloped in it’s own true romance and it is displayed through the planning of a wedding instead of any intimacy between the characters. Austen unites Mr. Knightly and Emma creating a match that seems socially appropriate. Knightly first confesses his love when he feels the time is right, “My dearest Emma… for dearest you will always be, whatever the event of this hour’s conversation, my dearest, most beloved Emma” (Austen 432). The feelings that Mr. Knightly finally reveals to Emma are the most romantic words spoken in the entire novel. This comes as a pleasant surprise and could barely have been anticipated from all the disagreements that both characters had with each other. Austen introduces a happier ending in contrast to all of the disappointment that characters had been experiencing up until this point. In comparison to Austen’s novel, John Fowles’ novel resists the ideas of romance and courtship in the Victorian period. He takes things a step further and engages characters in forbidden affairs where they succumb to temptation and ultimately destroy their lives. In contrast to these rebellious characters, there are characters in Fowles’ novel that are principled enough to be an Austen character. Ernestina presents the social etiquette of a “proper” lady and reflects a woman from the Victorian Era. This becomes a problem when romance and temptation arise in the novel. Sarah Woodruff who also goes by the name “the French lieutenants woman” is viewed as the opposite of Ernestina in their society. Sarah Woodruff is named The French Lieutenant’s woman because she was known to have had an affair with one who ended up abandoning her and returning to France. This is the first clue that we get into the way society views women and gender roles in the novel. Readers are not given any clues pertaining to the abandonment of Sarah but as the story unfolds, she is made to look more and more like a victim of an empty promise. Throughout the novel, Sarah constantly stands alone and looks out to see from a sea wall near her house. She catches the eye of Charles, Ernestina’s fiancé, and after several more encounters with the mysterious Sarah, Charles begins to develop a sexual desire for her. Fowles builds a ‘sexual tension’ within Charles towards Sarah Woodruff. In Chapter ten, when Charles stumbles upon Sarah sleeping underneath a tree, he begins to reminisce about a past sexual encounter with a prostitute from Paris, “there was something intensely tender and yet sexual in the way she lay, it awakened a dim echo of Charles of a moment from his time in Paris” (Fowles 61). Although the setting of the novel is in the Victorian era, Fowles continues to use language that inspires eroticism and forbidden romance to give this novel a rebellious edge. This encounter also foreshadows Charles’ and Sarah’s affair that ends up destroying Charles. The major turning point for the character of Charles is when he witnesses the sexual encounter of Mary and Sam. At first Charles is embarrassed that he is caught in a situation where he witnesses such an intimate act. They both watched as the “two servants were far more interested in exploring each other than their surroundings” (Fowles 150). Sarah is also watching the two characters get intimate and she decides to smile at Charles to show him her feelings towards him have developed into something greater than a friendship. This is just the beginning of Fowles expressing romantic and erotic ideas through descriptions of unexpected encounters. The scene in which Charles finds himself at a club where prostitutes are lingering all around is a very sexual scene, and something that seems out of the ordinary for a Victorian setting. Charles cannot help but stare at a child prostitute and feel the animal within him getting excited (Fowles 242). This type of imagery in the novel shows the extent to which Fowles would like to make known the degradation that Charles is slowly putting himself through. Women throughout the novel are constantly tempting Charles and his desire to succumb to these women overpowers his desire to be a good fiancé to Ernestina. The sexual desires that Charles succumbs to with Sarah, lead to his downfall and slowly diminish his status and manhood. When he confesses to his fiancé that he had slept with another woman, she sought to destroy his reputation, which she achieved successfully by having him sign a breach of promise (Fowles 323). The main focus of the entire novel is the character of Charles, whereas in Austen’s novel it is a woman. The fact that a male is the main focus of Fowles’ novel could relate to the fact that there is much more eroticism and sexual content than what readers see in Emma. It was important for a woman to maintain her chastity and never show signs of sexual advances in the presence of a man therefore this could be why Austen’s novel is much more conservative in her approach to relationships.
It can be said that both Austen and Fowles use very different approaches to the way they express romanticism and relationships within their novels. Austen tries to do her best to avoid “unladylike” ideas like eroticism and intimate romances between her characters. She understood that during her lifetime these things were secondary to more important aspects of life like marriage and bearing legitimate children. Austen expresses romance in a very controlled way by minor flirtatious gestures and courtship, while Fowles takes these ideas to a new level where he shows the downfall of both men and women who engage in acts that their societies do not accept.
Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Simon&Schuster Inc, 2005
Fowles, John. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. New York: Penguin Books Ltd, 1981