I often feel for poor Harriet in Emma. Without family, or the knowledge of who her family were, she was left adrift, especially painful in the 18th Century when family connections conferred status and security. Harriet is Emma’s new friend; Emma has discovered Harriet once her old friend, Miss Taylor, now Mrs Weston, originally her governess, then her mentor and friend, has married. Initially Egotistical-Emma, who needs a new project, wants for Harriet to marry well in the status stakes. Thinking she is doing her friend a great favour, Emma dissuades Harriet from marrying her beau Robert Martin, a simple farmer, and sets her up with aspirational Elton. But Elton is interested in Emma and is affronted when he finds out that Harriet was meant for him. Harriet eventually finds happiness when Robert Martin renews his attentions and she accepts him. The Martin family are almost too good to be true; their life is portrayed almost like a rural Arcadian paradise that Rousseau would be proud of. They are indeed a prize: warm hearted and generous and at the end of the novel, Harriet ends up as content as the heroine. Despite having begun the novel an orphan, without family and without fortune, Harriet by the end of the novel is in an enviable position: ensconced within her new husband’s family, with friends and in a community that will bring her the happiness that all of us wish for.
I often think of a man whose funeral I attended this year. He had spent his childhood in a state run boys’ home. He did not have the childhood family that we might all aspire to but this did not stop him from having a happy life. Armed with the desire for the warmth of a family, he fell in love with a young woman and created his own hub of familial warmth. And with the simple pleasures of books, politics, warm friends, a small community and a gift to work with wood, he found a happiness that many might have expected would elude him.
Jane Austen makes no judgement about what will make us happy – marriage or independence ; child free or parenthood; wealth or a simple life – her characters experience a variety of circumstances, but what holds true across them all is that those who seek wisdom, give love to family and friends and are true to themselves, find happiness in the end. And as I pen this on Christmas Eve I hope for all of us that a little bit of happiness will come to all of us over this Christmas period. What do you think is the role of family in a happy life?