Jane Austen Week: Jane Fairfax

This week, I am going to explore some of Jane Austen’s secondary characters, one from each novel. Today, I am focusing on Jane Fairfax from Emma.

Was there ever a character better born to be a heroine than Jane Fairfax? Doomed to be a supporting character to Emma Woodhouse, she is far more accomplished and likeable than the heroine. She is clever and beloved by her friends, forced to leave them to make her own way in the world. Her one fault is entering into a secret engagement, of which, from the likes of Lucy Steele, it does not seem Austen entirely approves. Where Emma is selfish and has little patience for her silly neighbors, Jane Fairfax borders on perfection.

I am going to preface this by saying that I adore Emma Woodhouse. Really and truly, she is one of my favorite heroines in all of literature. However, I can see quite clearly that she is not perfect. It is her imperfection that makes me like her even more. She sometimes does not say the right things, her judgments regarding others are faulty, and she makes lists of things to do for personal improvement and rarely follows through on them. Emma is good at planning, good at figuring out the ideal way to behave, but she will not do the required amount of work. On the other hand, Jane Fairfax does.

Jane is accomplished at singing and at playing the piano, but it is clear that this is not simply natural talent. Miss Fairfax is a hard worker. When Emma would give up at things as being too time consuming or not worth the effort, Jane not only perseveres but achieves a true proficiency. Her work ethic is the exact opposite of two of the other major female characters: Emma and Mrs. Elton. Emma plans to be the best at things, but soon forgets about her lists. She is a true dilettante. Mrs. Elton is far worse than that. She slyly puts into conversation that her friends think she is just the best at everything and waits for all around her to agree. She is often disappointed.

From a writing perspective, it is interesting to think about why Jane Austen chose to focus on Emma rather than Jane Fairfax. She admitted that she thought, in Emma, she was creating a heroine whom no one besides herself would like much. The hidden engagement causes intrigue in the story, but Jane Fairfax has more in common with previous heroines. Where Emma is wealthy and declares that she has no intention of ever marrying, Jane is poor and will have to rely on her accomplishments in order to earn a living. Jane is kind, but will speak her mind when she feels compelled to, such as during her answer to Frank Churchill at Box Hill. Her story is hidden within the larger text of Emma, but Jane is still allowed to shine. She shines so strongly, in fact, that Emma is jealous and refuses to make friends with her, choosing instead the easily manipulated Harriet Smith.

I think that the ending Jane Fairfax is given is a bit unfair to her. I will assume that it is impossible to spoil a 200-year-old book and add that Jane Fairfax deserves better than Frank Churchill. I sometimes wonder about their past in Weymouth, what led practical Jane to enter a secret engagement with a man whose entire fortune depended on the whims of an unpredictable aunt, and I wish that Jane Austen had chosen to write that story as well. The Frank Churchill of Emma is not worthy of her. But perhaps the Frank Churchill with whom she fell so desperately in love at Weymouth would have appeared to better advantage.

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