When Harriet expresses surprise that Emma has not noticed Robert Martin, Emma replies:
A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore in one sense as much above my notice as in every other he is below it. (17)
This is an odd little speech, which can be confusing, especially to American readers unfamiliar with both the social rules governing class interaction and the ways in which Emma is tweaking them. In "'I am a Gentleman's Daughter': A Marxist-Feminist Reading of Pride and Prejudice" Johanna M. Smith provides a handy chart giving a simple overview of the class distinctions in Austen's day. She places the yeomanry in the category of but below other members of the "gentry" who are defined as landowners whose income does not derive from manual labor. The line between yeoman and other gentry is indistinct because the yeoman work the land themselves, thus engaging in manual labor.
Emma's point here, then, is not that social propriety forbids her from noticing or meeting the Martins...Knightley, as we know takes an interest in and interacts with the family. Rather, it is that interactions with the family would validate their position in the gentry class, and Emma has no desire to do so. The closer a family or person is in rank to her, the more Emma insists upon keeping clear the hierarchy established by social class. Exercising clear charity does not threaten to further blur the line between gentry and worker since it will be seen only as magnamity on her part, but exercising familiarity with the yeomanry validates any claims that family (or people socially on the level with them) might have to equality with Emma, which is a claim she is not yet willing to grant.
The term "gentleman" in our day and age is a social designation more than an economic one, but in Austen's day it was still very much the latter. We see in Emma, perhaps, the very early rumblings of class change that are forged economically by the advent of personal wealth acquired by the middle class as a result of industry and trade and socially by the awareness that the nouveau riche and middle class sometimes act like gentlemen more than do the landowners. Being a gentleman is no guarantee of acting mannerly and many who are not ladies may still act like them. [This passage also reinforces Emma's disturbing quality already elucidated of thinking of people first in terms of category and only secondarily as individuals. "A young farmer" is "the last sort of person" she would notice. Just as Harriet is thought of as "a" Harriet Smith earlier in the chapter, Robert Martin will be referred to later in it as "a" Robert Martin. To the extent we can depersonalize people, we find it easier to justify our prejudices towards them. This is why it grates when we hear people characterizes African-Americans or Hispanics or gays or Christians or Republicans or Americans or blonds or engineers or whatever, even if the characterization is benign. There is something inherently condescending in the relegation of a person's primary identity to that of group member and something inherently jarring to contemporary sensibilities to govern our conduct first by their membership to that group rather than to their actions towards us.
Emma the character is aware, of course, that ideally being a gentleman means something more than having money. Hence the application of the adjective "true" or "real" to designate those (like Knightley) whose conduct is in keeping with their social class. Even so, when push comes to shove, Emma cares more about and falls back on the traditional economic designation as the ultimate determiner of social rank. ("He is not so genteel as a real gentleman" (19) is Harriet's tautologically-comic-socially-true-but-morally-inaccurate concession about Martin that Emma finally wrings from her.) Elton may not act like a gentleman, but he is. The Martins may be admirable in their conduct, which is commendable, but pristine manners will never make them socially equal to Emma.
In a roundabout way, we see Emma trying to exploit these competing notions of gentry in one area while trying to quell them in another. (The novel is, let us remember, a comedy). Harriet, because of the "accident" of her birth should be "particularly careful as to [her] associates" (18). Her own claims to gentry status are even more indistinct and questionable than those of the Martins (a point that Knightley will make later), thus she must take the more care to insist upon them and see that they are acknowledged. "There can be no doubt of your being a gentleman's daughter," (18) says Emma to Harriet. And why can there be no doubt of this? Harriet is a member of the gentry class only because Emma recognizes her as such, and she recognizes her as such only because she wishes her to be so. (Emma's inability to change the facts of society by sheer force of desire will continue to thwart her all the way to Box Hill.) If Emma has anything to back up this assertion it is only the propriety of Harriet's conduct. Yet while it is nice to have this slack in the definition of gentry to exploit when it is convenient, the use of it is already beginning to create knots that will entangle and trap Emma, for it will become increasingly difficult to not apply the same standards she uses to judge others to herself, and Emma is, at the end of the day, a fair minded person in her judgments. She may have a tendency to think too highly of herself, but she is also capable of sincere self-examination and criticism.
It is easy enough to "tsk" at Emma's snobbishness here and roll our eyes at her hypocrisy, but we do so at the risk of condemning ourselves. Most of us are more progressive in our ideals than we are in our actions, more conciliatory about the demands for equality from our ideological opponent than from our neighbors.
[For more close readings of Emma, click on the labels below this post.]