“I only want to keep Harriet to myself:” Reading Jane Austen’s Emma Through a Queer Lens

By Riley Dauber ’25

Major: English; Minors: Journalism, Editing, and Publishing and Communication and Media Studies

Brief Description: The final assignment for Dr. Charles’s Jane Austen class was to choose one of Austen’s novels and examine a theme or issue in the selected text. I chose to look at the queer themes and gender roles in her 1815 novel Emma, specifically the friendship between the titular heroine and Harriet Smith. I paired close readings with analysis of illustrations from a pre-1850s publication of the novel to support the idea that Emma fills a masculine role in the novel.

Contributor Biography: Riley is a sophomore majoring in English with a double minor in Journalism, Editing, and Publishing and Communication and Media Studies. She is the Opinion Editor for The Elm, the President of Film Club, and the Social Media Coordinator for EROS (Encouraging Respect of Sexualities). In her free time, she likes to read romance novels and watch period dramas with her friends.

The following was written for ENG 394-10: Jane Austen


Many of Jane Austen’s novels thematize the marriage market. Though Austen pokes fun at courtship and its guidelines, her heroines adhere to those guidelines by marrying their love interests at the end of their respective novels. Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy are married at Pemberley at the end of Pride and Prejudice (1813) and the sisters in Sense and Sensibility (1811), despite numerous hardships, find their perfect matches. When it comes to Austen’s 1815 novel Emma, however, the titular heroine is more concerned with finding the perfect match for her friend Harriet Smith than finding a match for herself. Emma spends much of the novel with Harriet instead of the male characters. Emma and Harriet grow close as Emma strives to create the perfect companion of Harriet: a copy of herself. Close readings and analysis of key scenes between Emma and Harriet reveal queer themes and gender binaries, which inform the ways that Emma takes on a masculine role as she attempts to transform Harriet into the perfect suitor. 

Emma’s Relationships with Mrs. Weston and Harriet Smith 

The novel begins with Mrs. Weston’s wedding. Emma sees her dear governess and friend leave Hartfield to take up residence at Randalls with Mr. Weston. Once Emma loses her female companion, she looks for a replacement, which shows that she treats her female friends like objects. In her journal article about Emma and queer domesticity, Margaret A. Miller writes, “Ultimately, women who are married become…accessible objects to her…the use of the article ‘a’ in ‘a Mrs. Weston’ or ‘a Miss. Taylor’ positions Emma’s female companions as accessories” (230). By treating her female friends like objects, Emma takes on a stereotypically masculine role; she only uses women for self-pleasure and self-enjoyment. She objectifies her female companions, viewing them as people she can mold and use for her own self-gain.  

According to Miller, Emma breaks the traditional roles of governess and student by befriending the Mrs. Weston and introducing her to the rules of upper-class life. Emma also encourages the match between Mr. and Mrs. Weston, showing that she understands the inner workings of the marriage market more than her governess does. Emma takes control and instructs her governess when her governess should be instructing her (Miller 236).  

However, once Mrs. Weston is married, Emma must find a woman to replace her. Harriet, a young, lower-class woman staying at Mrs. Goddard’s school, is introduced. Similar to Mrs. Weston, Harriet is poor and needs to marry well to secure financial safety. Emma hopes to find a new companion in Harriet. Miller writes, “Emma is married to Miss. Taylor, but loses her when she becomes a Mrs. Weston, only to find herself back at the beginning of the marriage journey, courting Harriet” (236). Instead of searching for a husband, Emma is concerned with her female friendships; she views the women in her life as a bachelor would view potential suitors.  

Emma and Harriet meet early on in volume one, after Emma hears of Harriet’s arrival. Through pronoun use and word choice, Austen makes clear Emma’s goal of improving Harriet and creating the perfect companion. Their meeting can be viewed through a queer lens because Emma admires Harriet’s good looks and instantly connects with the young girl. Austen writes: 

She would notice her; she would improve her; she would detach her from her bad acquaintance, and introduce her into good society; she would form her opinions and her manners. It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers. She was so busy in admiring those soft blue eyes, in talking and listening, and forming all these schemes in the in-betweens, that the evening flew away at a very unusual rate (18) 

The pronoun use throughout the passage is noticeable; the repetition of “she” and “her” make it difficult to determine which woman is referenced. The first “she” is italicized, a rare emphasis on Austen’s part.  Emma refers to herself as “she” in this case, and to Harriet as “her.” William Galperin writes in The Historical Austen that, “The referents ‘she’ and ‘her’ shift sufficiently in Emma’s usage so that what is ‘becoming’ for Emma is largely inseparable from the project and prospect of Harriet’s ‘becoming’ Emma herself” (186). Emma wants to create a copy of herself. This mission is reflected in the passage’s construction—the pronouns “she” and “her” become so muddled that the reader can no longer tell which pronoun is referring to Emma and which pronoun is referring to Harriet. The pronoun use also establishes Emma’s masculine role, as she hopes to remover her own femininity and pass it onto Harriet, therefore turning Harriet into a new, younger version of Emma. By transferring her own femininity onto Harriet, Emma establishes her masculine role by placing Harriet in the more feminine role.

The inclusion of the verb “form” shows that Emma is intending to mold Harriet’s “opinions and manners.” Emma is not open to hearing or witnessing Harriet’s actual opinions and manners. It is also implied that Emma thinks Harriet doesn’t have any opinions or manners of her own. The sentence “It would be an interesting, and certainly a very kind undertaking; highly becoming her own situation in life, her leisure, and powers” highlights Emma’s sense of entitlement and self-righteousness, two traits associated with her masculine role. She wants to take control and use her connections and understanding of the marriage market to help Harriet find a potential partner. Emma believes she knows best and that she is the best person to help Harriet because of her upper-class status and connections. In terms of “her leisure,” Emma recognizes that she has the time to improve her skills but does not need to because marriage is not at the forefront of her mind. Miller writes, “Emma can ‘afford’ to be queer, to pursue activities and uses of domestic space not driven toward their own heterosexual, marital ends” (233). Feminine pursuits, like painting and piano, are not of interest to Emma. She has the monetary means to show a disinterest in these feminine skills because she, unlike Harriet and Mrs. Weston, does not have to marry for financial security. Her denial of these activities further establishes her masculinity as she attempts to court Harriet and turn her into a proper companion. Because of her financial status, it is Emma’s responsibility to introduce Harriet to “good society.” Typically, in the marriage market, the man has the money and connections, and the woman is meant to follow along. These expectations are evident in Emma and Harriet’s relationship. Instead of placing the heroine in the feminine role, Austen places Emma in upper-class society with a firm understanding of the marriage market and how it works, therefore allowing her heroine to take on a position role traditionally given to the male hero. 

The following line is most applicable to a queer interpretation: “She was so busy in admiring those soft blue eyes.” Here, Emma praises Harriet’s good looks and beauty instead of the girl’s opinions. One interpretation of this scene could view Emma and Harriet as a potential couple, with Emma considering Harriet’s connections and looks and whether or not she will be a good companion. Miller writes, “[Emma] positions herself not as a husband, but as a masculine suitor at the beginning stage of romance” (240). Emma is caught up in Harriet’s good looks and beauty, so much so “that the evening flew away at a very unusual rate.” It is evident that Emma is not only attracted to Harriet, but is also comfortable around the new girl and feels a close connection with her. Austen reiterates Emma’s obsession with the new girl by including the phrase “the evening flew away at a very unusual rate.” This line would typically be included when the heroine first meets the male love interest to highlight the pair’s instant connection. Juxtaposed with the word “admiring,” Austen is painting Emma and Harriet as the potential couple instead of introducing Emma to a male suitor. Now, Emma is the male suitor, and she recognizes Harriet’s good looks through the eyes of a bachelor and a matchmaker. Not only is she attracted to Harriet and her “soft blue eyes,” but she also knows that Harriet’s good looks will help her adjust to Emma’s upper-class society. 


Turning Down Robert Martin 

Although Emma attempts to set Harriet up with the town’s vicar, Mr. Elton, Harriet shows an immediate interest in Robert Martin, a farmer she stayed with before moving to Mrs. Goddard’s school. In chapter seven, Harriet visits Hartfield with a proposal letter from Mr. Martin. Emma tries not to intervene, but ultimately encourages her friend to reject the proposal. She says, “I lay it down as a general rule, Harriet, that if a woman doubts as to whether she should accept a man or not, she ought to say ‘No’ directly” (Austen 41). Although one could conclude that Emma discourages the proposal because she wants to make a successful match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, the following conversation between the two friends indicates a different motive. The two girls realize that if Harriet marries Mr. Martin, she will not be able to see Emma whenever she likes because of the physical distance between the two houses and the class disparities between the Woodhouses and the Martins. Harriet says: 

 “You could not have visited me! No, to be sure you could not; but I never thought of that before. That would have been too dreadful! – What an escape! – Dear Miss. Woodhouse, I would not give up the pleasure and honour of being intimate with you for any thing in the world” (Austen 42) 

Harriet confesses how important her relationship with Emma is to her. She states that she would not give it up for “anything in the world,” including marriage to Mr. Martin. Emma knows that if Harriet had married Mr. Martin, Harriet would no longer rely on her. Emma wants to be the only person Harriet relies on for social security and friendship. During this time and in many of Austen’s prior novels, the heroines would marry their love interests for the aforementioned reasons of social security and friendship, and marriage was often viewed as the only way for women to be financially supported. Harriet needs to marry well due to her financial situation; marrying Mr. Martin, who has a reliable job and a steady income, would be the appropriate decision to make. However, Emma disapproves of this match because of her relationship with Harriet. Harriet looks to Emma for advice and help with decision making, and that reliance is similar to a marriage between the hero and heroine. However, Austen turns this dynamic on its head by placing Emma in the masculine role, where she helps Harriet make decisions while still remaining in control. She is able to maintain control thanks to her upper-class position and connections – two aspects Harriet does not possess. Emma advises Harriet to reject Mr. Martin’s proposal, so she can still be in a relationship with Harriet. Harriet is also accepting Emma’s proposal to friendship instead of accepting a marriage proposal, showing how she chooses Emma over a male suitor. In this case, Emma and Mr. Martin are in the same masculine position, and Harriet must choose who she wishes to spend her time with.  

Matchmaking Harriet and Mr. Elton  

After Harriet rejects Mr. Martin’s proposal, the two girls are free to spend as much time together as they want. Emma can also work on the potential match between her friend and Mr. Elton. One scene, which is illustrated in an 1833 edition of the novel, shows Emma drawing Harriet’s likeness to show Mr. Elton her friend’s good looks. However, it is later revealed that Mr. Elton was never interested in Harriet; he was interested in Emma. This illustration visualizes the scene for readers, emphasizing Emma’s cluelessness about Mr. Elton’s feelings for her and her obsession with Harriet. While Emma is looking at Harriet in the illustration, Mr. Elton is looking at Emma. Harriet is looking off into the distance, striking a pose for her portrait. Her gaze and pose shows how she is viewed as an object by Emma, who is looking longingly at her friend with her pencil in the air. Her holding the pencil—and the fact that she is drawing the portrait—shows her control of the scene. Typically, Mr. Elton  would control the scene considering he is the male suitor, but Emma takes over and fills the masculine role. Emma is able to be in control because of her upper-class position, an aspect Harriet does not possess. Although Mr. Elton is the town vicar and should be in control, he looks up to Emma, allowing her to control the scene and influence how Mr. Elton interacts with Harriet and vice versa. In the illustration Emma She is also on the same side as Mr. Elton, painting them both as potential suitors viewing Harriet. However, Mr. Elton watches Emma because he is interested in her, not Harriet. Although Mr. Elton is viewing Emma in the illustration, Emma ignores his gaze and does not notice he is looking at her, showing that she literally “only has eyes” for Harriet. By ignoring Mr. Elton, Emma is not only maintaining control over the scene, but also ignoring any male, heterosexual advances in favor of Harriet. 

Another scene between Emma, Harriet, and Mr. Elton shows the three writing riddles for each other. Mr. Elton writes a riddle “with the intention of courting and revealing his intended love object” (Miller 238). However, Emma misinterprets the riddle and believes it is about Harriet, when it is actually about her. Austen writes, “Harriet exactly. Soft is the very word for her eye” (58). The author mentions Harriet’s eyes again, and Emma’s voice starts to take over the third-person omniscient narration as she admires Harriet’s good looks, specifically her “soft blue eyes.” The reiteration of Harriet’s eyes is utilized in this scene to relate Mr. Elton’s riddle to his feelings for Harriet. Emma noticed Harriet’s “soft blue eyes” when they first met, and because they stood out to her, she believed they also stood out to Mr. Elton. Once again, Emma is in the same masculine position as Mr. Elton because they are both admirers of Harriet’s eyes. However, Emma mistakes Mr. Elton’s riddle for being about Harriet, when it is actually about her. Miller writes, “By incorrectly solving the riddle, Emma resolves her own queer desire for Harriet. Charades are domestic objects that play with secrecy and publicity, feelings coded for public view. Conversely, they translate visible barriers of class into coded love affairs” (239). While Mr. Elton is attempting to confess his feelings for Emma, Emma is realizing her feelings for Harriet, solidifying her disinterest in Mr. Elton. 

Emma is unaware of how much her ignorance will affect not only herself, but Harriet. Mr. Knightley tells her, “Your infatuation about that girl blinds you” (Austen 48). She is unaware of Mr. Elton’s feelings for her because she is always thinking of her feelings for Harriet. Emma replies to Mr. Knightley’s accusation with: “If I had set my heart on Mr. Elton’s marrying Harriet, it would have been very kind to open my eyes; but at present I only want to keep Harriet to myself” (Austen 53). The symbolism of eyes is present throughout volume one. Emma continues to look at Harriet, focusing on the girl’s “soft blue eyes” as she realizes her feelings for her friend. Mr. Knightley notices that Emma is “blind” to her surroundings because she is fascinated by Harriet and she cannot recognize Mr. Elton’s advances. Emma says “open my eyes” in response, recognizing her inexperience with matchmaking, not because she knows Mr. Elton is interested in her, but because she is interested in Harriet. However, Emma knows the match is not possible during her argument with Mr. Knightley. Miller writes, “Mr. Knightley’s point about Emma’s blindness operates in much the same way as the multi-layered riddle and reveals a tension between same-sex desire and class…Emma’s obsession with Harriet overrides their class discrepancies; or, more aptly, Harriet is an inappropriate object of ‘infatuation’ for someone of Emma’s class status” (239). Despite Emma’s best efforts to create a similar version of herself in Harriet, one cannot ignore their class differences. Emma is trying to make Harriet someone she is not, so they will be on the same class level. One may argue that their gender is another factor that keeps them romantically apart, but because Emma continues to place herself in a masculine role, their class difference is the major component separating them. By encouraging the match between Harriet and Mr. Elton, as well as improving Harriet’s manners and connections, Emma is hoping to improve Harriet’s class status so the two are ideal partners. Through the two scenes with Harriet and Mr. Elton, “Emma comes to occupy the role of the masculine suitor herself” because she is realizing her feelings for her friend and viewing her through the eyes of a suitor (Miller 240). 


By examining the gender roles in Jane Austen’s Emma through a queer lens, one can determine that Emma takes on a masculine role in her relationships with Harriet because she sees her as a potential partner. Because of her upper-class status and understanding of the marriage market, she is able to influence her companions and advise them on certain matchmaking decisions. By viewing Emma’s relationships through this light, it becomes clear that Emma and Harriet are partners, rather than just friends. Emma fills the role of a male suitor, and Harriet fills the role of a young, eligible bachelorette due to their class differences. Harriet’s friendship with the upper-class Emma introduces her to the wealthier, well-connected society. 

Emma utilizes her connections and upper-class position in society, two traits associated with masculinity in the novel, to take control of certain scenes and social interactions.  

The male characters would, in another Austen novel, hold the power and make important decisions that would affect the plot, but in Emma, Emma is in control. She sets her own goals and puts matchmaking schemes into motion, deciding which activities she wants to pursue and which she wants to ignore. Emma attempts to set Harriet up with Mr. Elton. However, in her relationship with Harriet, Emma takes on a masculine role and views Harriet through the eyes of a male suitor; she wants to improve Harriet’s thoughts and opinions so that she will be the proper match for her, not Mr. Elton. 


Austen, Jane. Emma, by the author of ‘Pride and prejudice.’ by Jane Austen. Google Books, United Kingdom, 1833.  

Austen, Jane. Emma, edited by Juliette Wells, Penguin Books, 2015. 

Galperin, William H. The Historical Austen. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003, pp. 180-213. 

Miller, Margaret A. “Making Room: Queer Domesticity in Jane Austen’s Emma and the Anne Lister Diaries.” Routledge, 2021, pp. 225-244. 

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