improve

Category: Education | Type: Glossary Word | Title: Emma (in Context) | Author: Jane Austen | Vol: Volume I | Ch: Chapter III

An important word in Austen. Emma is here thinking of improving Harriet's taste, because taste is an expression of discernment and judgment. 

"Improve" and "improvement" appear in Austen in two forms: education, including moral, as here, and the aesthetic improvement of the architecture and landscape of a manor house, which will be alluded to later in Emma (landscape designers were also called improvers). A third use, current in the age in which she's writing and to which she glancingly refers at the end of Emma, has to do with improvements in farming. The word is central to the era, as Asa Briggs's important history The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867 attests.

Emma's undertaking Harriet's improvement is an active parallel to Knightley's improvement of her, and, looked at from below rather than above, Harriet's story could also be the makings of a novel of education. Education being central to Emma. it is worth knowing that Austen follows Locke's psychology and educational theory, as do most of her contemporaries. Our minds are blank at birth, white paper, the famous tabula rasa, unstained by Original Sin and not predisposed to good or bad or possessed of any "ideas" (the idea of God is debated as to whether it's innate). We are environmentally determined, and our moral character and temperament derive from our experience and education. This accounts for Austen's emphasis upon the parents' responsibilities.

Much of what Austen values in our character, manners, and taste is learned through the home, our parents, siblings, and the little band of friends surrounding a family. In Mansfield Park and Emma she shows how responsive we are to those around us and especially to those we admire and who demonstrate their affectionate concern for us, who are capable then of forming us for good.

Children, Austen shows in Mansfield Park, her only novel that devotes some attention to childhoodnaturally respond to people who exhibit kindness and come to admire them. They may learn something through reason but it is finally "the education of the heart" (the phrase is Dickens') that impresses us with enduring moral values. These are too deep to be corrupted by our propensity to rationalize in behalf of our self-interest. Feeling precedes thinking, and affect is a more secure base than the intellect.

Our reading fiction and poetry may assist our improvement by providing us examples of good and bad behavior, but though we admire figures in literature, our not being loved in return by them limits their moral impact. Such learning is cerebral, as Mary, one of the Bennet sisters (Pride and Prejudice), amusingly proves.

Were reading and being in contact with the best that has been known and thought in the world so influential, we'd suppose English departments were morally superior to those in physics. Any faculty meeting would disprove that premise.

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