Emma and Darcy are two of the most iconic of Austen's characters. Both are smart, wealthy, attractive, and well aware of their attributes. In fact, they are so similar that at one point, after rereading P&P for the millionth time, I began to develop a theory:
Is Emma a loose version of Darcy's story from a female perspective?
For starters, their stories start in remarkably similar ways; two friends are in love with objects whom the higher class friend considers to be beneath them. Both then set out to destroy these matches, both then have their own romantic hopes foiled, deal with a humbling event, and eventually accept the original friend's match.
The beginning catalyst is almost identical: Emma and Darcy disapprove of Mr. Martin and Jane Bennet, respectively. Accordingly, Emma convinces Harriet to refuse Mr. Martin's proposal; Darcy prevents a proposal by whisking Bingley away from Meryton. These similarities are not just plot-centric; they are also a reflection of Emma and Darcy’s tendency to allow their personal prejudices to contradict their class snobbery. Emma blithely overlooks Harriet’s mystery parentage yet frets about accepting an invitation to the Coles’, while Darcy considers it a “punishment” (7) to dance with ladies that technically are of higher rank--and, let's face it, better personalities--than the Bingley sisters.**
Once Darcy and Emma have dissuaded their friends of their original chosen matches, the stories similarly continue when Emma and Darcy's respective love interests show anger at this high-handed interference. Elizabeth accuses Darcy of inflicting “misery of the acutest kind” (98) while Knightley tells Emma, “better [to] be without sense, than misapply it as you do” (53). Despite being rattled, Emma and Darcy nonetheless remain convinced that they were in the right. Darcy proclaims that was “done for the best” (102), and Emma insists that Harriet should have time to "look about" instead of accepting "the first offer she receives" (53).
Now dealing with lovesick friends, Emma and Darcy then attempt their own matchmaking. Emma hopes that Harriet will marry Mr. Elton while Darcy wished that Bingley would match with Georgiana: “[Darcy] had certainly formed such a plan, and without meaning that it should affect his endeavor to separate him from Miss Bennet, it is probably that it might add something to his lively concern for the welfare of his friend” (136).
Unfortunately, or fortunately, both of these intended marriages come to naught. Mr. Elton had set his affections on Emma, not Harriet, while Bingley and Georgiana, though friendly, appear to have no “particular regard” (132) for one another.
Smarting at these failures, our characters then attempt to repair their egos by incorrectly assuming successful relationships for themselves. Emma conceitedly thinks that Frank Churchill is on the verge on a proposal, while Darcy, anticipating an acceptance, proposes to Elizabeth.
Here, the two stories begin to diverge more markedly. For starters, a rejected proposal is much more traumatic and hurtful than a non-materializing one. For seconds, Frank Churchill is not the destined final romantic love interest, whereas Elizabeth is. However, it does beg the question: if Emma had been an Emmett, would she have proposed to a Francine?
Emma’s main reluctance to enter into marriage is the loss of her independence and the necessary departure from her father. If she had been a man, these considerations would have been moot points. Unlike Lizzie, Emma does not seem to require that a marriage be indicative of true love, though she would naturally expect some measure of affection and care. If anything, Mr. Knightley appears to be the more romantic of the two. While, as a man, he did not have to worry about the loss of independence in marriage, he undoubtedly felt some social pressure to settle and produce an heir. However, he remained unmarried until he had found his true love.
It could also be argued that Knightley’s angry scolding at Box Hill was Emma’s equivalent to Darcy’s proposal. Though Emma was not declaring or even overtly aware of her love for Knightley, she admittedly admired and respected him, and it impacts Emma deeply when she believes she has lost his good opinion (and perhaps, in her subconscious thoughts, his love).
Darcy and Lizzie repair their relationship at Pemberley, and Emma likewise does some damage-control with her relationship with Knightley by visiting Mrs. and Miss Bates. However, a final obstacle nonetheless remains for our characters.
Knightley despairs because he thinks Emma will marry Frank Churchill; Lizzie regretfully believes that Lydia’s elopement has wrecked any possible chance with Darcy. Emotionally overwhelmed, both Knightley and Lizzie leave their love interests with hurried and vague explanations. However, both Emma and Darcy see these situations as ways to improve themselves to make them worthy--both to their own ideals and to Knightley/Lizzie's . Darcy tracks down Wickham and forces him to marry Lydia; Emma in earnest makes every effort to help Jane Fairfax.
It is this “redemption” that makes the reader feel as if Emma and Darcy are worthy of Knightley and Lizzie, and the happy ending is able to commence. The original interferences which serve as catalysts for the stories are righted--Harriet marries Mr. Martin, and Jane marries Bingley.
There are, naturally, differences to specific aspects of their stories. After all, Emma and Darcy’s story arcs could never be exactly the same because of the limitations of gender. This opens a whole other box of questions and thoughts (I could write a dozen articles on how the person I would consider the “Wickham” equivalent is, as a female, angelically good), to be contemplated at another time, preferably over good discussion and wine.
However, for this article, I conclude that the similarities between Emma and Darcy are almost too pronounced to be coincidence. An arrogant but lovable snob who influences a lovesick friend? A love interest who offers a battle of wit and the occasional critique? Add to this the similarities between Mr. Collins/Mrs. Elton, Colonel Fitzwilliam/Mrs. Westin, and Lydia/Frank Churchill?
Once again, it's a working theory. But I think the ghost of Jane Austen should know that I'm onto her.
*Page numbers for both books were taken from the free Public Domain Kindle versions.
** As a side-note, I just want to address the expected outcry that I could ever compare Harriet to Bingley, and Robert Martin to Jane Bennet. Something that tends to get lost in the Meryton madness of P&P is that while Mr. Bingley is wealthy, he isn’t a “gentleman” in the strict sense of the word. He has neither a house in London nor one in the country until his lease of Neverfield, meaning he isn’t a member of the landowning set. Moreover, Austen notes that Bingley’s fortune was “acquired by trade” (9) and that his family was from the North. To 18th and early 19th century readers, this was almost certainly a hint that Bingley’s money came from cotton manufacturing. In light of this, Bingley, someone from the tradesman class, is technically marrying up by proposing to Jane, a gentleman’s daughter.
Similarly, though Emma is at first convinced that Harriet is too good for Mr. Martin, it is revealed at the end of the novel that as the illegitimate daughter of a tradesman, Harriet is making the advantageous match.