Emma - Jane Austen

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A novel about youthful hubris and romantic misunderstandings
First published in December 1815
Author: Jane Austen
A comedy of manners, and depicts issues of marriage, sex, age, and social status.
Centre on Emma Woodhouse, a precocious young woman whose misplaced confidence in her matchmaking abilities occasions several romantic misadventures.
The famous introduction
Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.
Emma is indeed beautiful, wealthy, and smart. However, she is also spoiled, meddlesome, and self-deluded. Although she is convinced she will never marry, Emma believes she is an excellent matchmaker.
As she tells her father and her dear friend Mr. Knightley, she practically arranged the recent marriage between her former governess, Miss Taylor, and the widower Mr. Weston.
After such a clear “success,” Emma is determined to make another match. This time, she has set her sights on the village vicar, Mr. Elton. Both Emma’s father and Mr. Knightley caution her against interfering, but they ultimately fail to dissuade her.
Shortly thereafter, Emma befriends Harriet Smith, a 17-year-old student at a local boarding school. Harriet’s parentage is unknown; she is “the natural daughter of somebody” who many years ago placed her in the care of the school’s headmistress, Mrs. Goddard.
Despite the obscurity of her birth and her perceived inferior social status, Emma decides that Harriet is a perfect match for Mr. Elton. Emma sets about improving her friend, first, by discouraging her interest in Robert Martin, a young farmer whose family is renting land from Mr. Knightley.
Harriet clearly has feelings for Robert (and Robert for her). Emma convinces her otherwise; she tells Harriet that Robert is beneath her. When Robert writes a letter asking for her hand in marriage, Harriet, with Emma’s counsel, refuses him.
When Mr. Knightley visits Emma, he excitedly tells her about Robert’s intent to marry Harriet. After Emma informs him that Harriet has already rejected Robert’s proposal (with her help), Mr. Knightley is furious.
He criticizes Emma for interfering, claiming Robert is a respectable man and a good match for Harriet. Mr. Knightley storms out. He does not visit Emma again for some time.
In his absence, Emma continues to push Harriet and Mr. Elton together. With Robert out of the way, and Harriet and Mr. Elton spending more and more time together, Emma begins to celebrate the success of her endeavour.
All seems to be going well until Christmas Eve, when Mr. Elton reveals to Emma that he is in love with her, not Harriet, and has been spending time with Harriet only to please her.
Humiliated by her attempt to pair him with Harriet, Mr. Elton resolves to retire to Bath. Emma is forced to tell Harriet about Mr. Elton and spends the next several days consoling her.
Meanwhile, two new visitors arrive in Highbury: Jane Fairfax, the beautiful orphaned niece of Emma’s neighbour Miss Bates, and Frank Churchill, the dashing young son of Mr. Weston.
Initially, Emma dislikes Jane. She condemns her for being too “cold” and too “cautious.” (The narrator suggests that Emma is in fact jealous of Jane, because Jane had previously met Frank, whom Emma has taken a liking to.)
Mr. Knightley defends Jane, reminding Emma that, whereas she is privileged, Jane has no fortune and must soon leave to work as a governess. Mrs. Weston suspects that Mr. Knightley harbours some romantic feelings for Jane. Emma adamantly denies this.
Emma’s initial interest in Frank does not last. After a while, she begins to imagine him as a potential match for Harriet, and, when Harriet confesses her love for a man of a higher social status, Emma assumes she means Frank.
As it turns out, Harriet is in love with Mr. Knightley, who, at a recent village ball, saved her from the embarrassment of being snubbed by Mr. Elton and his new wife. Suddenly, Emma realizes that she, too, loves Mr. Knightley.
She realizes that if she had let Harriet marry Robert, she might have avoided this whole mess. And thus the denouement begins.
Not long after Harriet’s confession, Frank makes a hasty departure from Highbury. As he later explains in a letter to Emma, he and Jane have secretly been engaged all along.
His flirtation with Emma was just a ruse—a way to buy time until his relatives agreed to his marriage with Jane. Emma and Mr. Knightley discuss this surprise turn of events. To Mr. Knightley’s surprise, Emma confesses that she never loved Frank.
Mr. Knightley, in response, professes his love for Emma. She is overjoyed, and they implicitly agree to be married.
Emma briefly worries about Harriet and how she will receive the news of their engagement. Emma is pleased to learn that Harriet has decided to marry Robert after all. The novel thus concludes with three marriages: Jane and Frank, Harriet and Robert, and Emma and Mr. Knightley.
Marriage and social status are the two foci of Emma. Most of the drama in Austen’s novel revolves around who loves whom and what that means, given their social station.
Social status in 19th-century England was determined by a confluence of factors, including, but not limited to, family name, sex, birthright, reputation, and wealth, and it dictated much about the course of a person’s life.
Members of the higher social classes were not expected to intermarry, let alone interact, with members of a lower class. In fact, in some cases, such marriages were considered inappropriate.
Through Emma, Austen subtly satirizes her society’s obsession with social distinctions.
At the beginning of the novel, Austen’s heroine is confident she knows who “the chosen and the best” are in Highbury and who constitutes the “second set.”
Keeping with her social code, Emma discourages Harriet from pursuing a relationship with Robert. As Emma explains, Robert is not a “gentleman.” He is therefore destined to become “a completely gross, vulgar farmer, totally inattentive to appearances, and thinking of nothing but profit and loss.”
Mr. Knightley challenges Emma’s notions of class distinction, pushing her to contemplate whether such distinctions truly matter. When Emma criticizes Robert for his ungentlemanly demeanour, Mr. Knightley impassionedly defends Robert, claiming that he “has more true gentility than Harriet Smith could ever understand.”
After all her attempts to make suitable matches fail, Emma finally begins to realize that social distinction does not equate to a constitutional difference in character. By the end of the novel, Emma has learned her lesson, and she decides that “It would be a great pleasure to know Robert Martin.”
Austen herself described the novel’s subject (“Three or four families in a country village”) as an ideal subject for any novel.
Emma was revolutionary in terms of its form and style. Before Austen, novelists generally used either first- or third-person narration to tell their stories. Austen combined the two styles, first in Sense and Sensibility (1811) and then again in Emma.
Principal characters
Emma Woodhouse
The protagonist of the story
George Knightley
A neighbour and close friend of Emma, aged 37 years (16 years older than Emma)
Frank Churchill
Mr. Weston's son by his first marriage, is an amiable young man, who, at age 23, is liked by almost everyone
Jane Fairfax
An orphan whose only family consists of her aunt, Miss Bates, and her grandmother, Mrs. Bates.
She is the sole person whom Emma envies
Harriet Smith
A young friend of Emma, just seventeen when the story opens, is a beautiful but unsophisticated girl.
Robert Martin
A well-to-do, 24-year-old farmer who, though not a gentleman, is a friendly, amiable and diligent young man, well esteemed by Mr. George Knightley.
Philip Elton
A good-looking, initially well-mannered, and ambitious young vicar, 27 years old and unmarried when the story opens.
Augusta Elton
Formerly Miss Hawkins, is Mr. Elton's wife; she has 10,000 pounds, but lacks good manners, committing common vulgarities
Mrs. Weston
Emma's governess for sixteen years as Miss Anne Taylor and remains her closest friend and confidante after she marries Mr. Weston.
Mr. Weston
Miss Bates
Mr. Henry Woodhouse
Isabella Knightley (née Woodhouse)
A widower and a business man living in Highbury who marries Miss Taylor in his early 40s, after buying a house called, Randalls.
A friendly, garrulous spinster whose mother, Mrs. Bates, is a friend of Mr. Woodhouse.
Emma's father, is always concerned for his health, and to the extent that it does not interfere with his own, the health and comfort of his friends.
The elder sister of Emma, by seven years, and daughter of Henry
John Knightley
Isabella's husband and George's younger brother, 31 years old (10 years older than Jane Fairfax and Emma)