The Woman, the Gypsies, and England: Harriet Smith's National Role
Abstract

Austen's Emma captures a culture in transition; Highbury may be a content society based upon traditional civic power structures, but it is also a community experiencing definite uncertainty as England becomes a modern state. Critics of Emma have traditionally viewed Harriet Smith as a mechanism for the heroine's growth and development, but Austen also presents the anonymous parlor boarder as an integral component of Highbury's growth. The novelist emphasizes the great concern of Knightley and Emma, Highbury's civic leaders, for Harriet; indeed, the narrative traces the efforts of Knightley and Emma to secure Harriet's position in England's shifting society. Austen highlights Harriet's significance to the nation following her encounter with a band of gypsies. This scene allows the novelist to place Harriet, an anonymous fair-skinned, blue-eyed young woman, in direct contact with the gypsies, whom English culture understands as the quintessential dark-skinned outsiders. In the chapters following this event, Emma and Knightley work to re-integrate Harriet into traditional English society; Knightley carefully instructs her in the ancestral agrarian culture of Donwell Abbey, and Emma arranges for Harriet to visit the nation's capital. Harriet eventually accepts a stable position in the England's national community and assumes an important role as the future reproducer of the nation's population.