Emma, by Jane Austen, is a novel about youthful hubris and the perils of misconstrued romance. The novel was first published in December 1815. As in her other novels, Austen explores the concerns and difficulties of genteel women living in Georgian–Regency England; she also creates a lively comedy of manners among her characters.
Before she began the novel, Austen wrote, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.” In the first sentence she introduces the title character as “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich.” Emma is spoiled, headstrong, and self-satisfied; she greatly overestimates her own matchmaking abilities; she is blind to the dangers of meddling in other people’s lives; and her imagination and perceptions often lead her astray.
Emma Woodhouse has just attended the wedding of Miss Taylor, her friend and former governess, to Mr Weston. Having introduced them, Emma takes credit for their marriage, and decides that she likes matchmaking. After she returns home to Hartfield with her father, Emma forges ahead with her new interest against the advice of Mr Knightley and tries to match her new friend Harriet Smith to Mr Elton, the local vicar. First, Emma must persuade Harriet to refuse the marriage proposal from Robert Martin, a respectable, educated, and well-spoken young farmer, which Harriet does against her own wishes. But Mr Elton, a social climber, thinks Emma is in love with him and proposes to her. When Emma tells him that she had thought him attached to Harriet, he is outraged. After Emma rejects him, Mr Elton leaves for a stay at Bath and returns with a pretentious, nouveau-riche wife, as Mr Knightley expected. Harriet is heartbroken and Emma feels ashamed about misleading her.
Frank Churchill, Mr Weston’s son, arrives for a two-weeks visit to his father and makes many friends. Mr Knightley suggests to Emma that while Frank is clever and engaging, he is also a shallow character. Jane Fairfax comes home to see her aunt, Miss Bates, and grandmother, Mrs Bates, for a few months, before she must go out on her own as a governess. She is the same age as Emma, but Emma has not been as friendly with her as she might. Emma envies her talent and is annoyed to find all, including Mrs Weston and Mr Knightley, praising Jane. The patronising Mrs Elton takes Jane under her wing and announces that she will find her the ideal governess post before it is wanted. Emma begins to feel some sympathy for Jane’s predicament.
Emma decides that Jane and Mr Dixon are mutually attracted, and that is why she has come home. She shares her suspicions with Frank, who met Jane and the Campbells at a vacation spot a year earlier, and he apparently agrees with her. Suspicions are further fueled when a piano, sent by an anonymous benefactor, arrives for Jane. Emma feels herself falling in love with Frank, but it does not last to his second visit. The Eltons treat Harriet badly, culminating with Mr Elton publicly snubbing Harriet at the ball given by the Westons in May. Mr Knightley, who had long refrained from dancing, gallantly steps in to dance with Harriet. The day after the ball, Frank brings Harriet to Hartfield, she having fainted after a rough encounter with local gypsies. Harriet is grateful, and Emma thinks this is love, not gratitude. Meanwhile, Mrs Weston wonders if Mr Knightley has taken a fancy to Jane but Emma dismisses that idea. When Mr Knightley mentions the links he sees between Jane and Frank, Emma denies them, while Frank appears to be courting her instead. He arrives late to the gathering at Donwell in June, while Jane leaves early. Next day at a local beauty spot, Frank and Emma continue to banter together and Emma insults Miss Bates.
When Mr Knightley scolds Emma for the insult to Miss Bates, she is ashamed and tries to atone with a morning visit to Miss Bates, which impresses Mr Knightley. On the visit, Emma learns that Jane had accepted the position of governess from one of Mrs Elton’s friends after the outing. Jane now becomes ill, and refuses to see Emma or accept her gifts. Meanwhile Frank was visiting his aunt, who dies soon after he arrives. Now he and Jane reveal to the Westons that they have been secretly engaged since the fall but Frank knew that his aunt would disapprove. The strain of the secrecy on the conscientious Jane had caused the two to quarrel and Jane ended the engagement. Frank’s uncle readily gives his blessing to the match and the engagement becomes public, leaving Emma chagrined to discover that she had been so wrong.
Emma is certain that Frank’s engagement will devastate Harriet, but instead Harriet tells her that she loves Mr Knightley, although knowing the match is too unequal. Emma is startled, and realizes that she is the one to marry Mr Knightley. Mr Knightley returns to learn Emma’s reaction to the engagement. When she admits her own foolishness, he proposes and she accepts. Now Harriet accepts Robert Martin’s second proposal and they are the first couple to marry. Jane and Emma reconcile, and Frank and Jane visit the Westons. Once the period of deep mourning ends, they will marry. Before the end of November, Emma and Mr Knightley are married with the prospect of “perfect happiness”.
Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of the story, is a beautiful, high-spirited, intelligent, and ‘slightly’ spoiled young woman of twenty when the story opens. Her mother died when she was young. She has been mistress of the house since her older sister got married. Although intelligent, she lacks the discipline to practise or study anything in depth. She is portrayed as very compassionate to the poor, but at the same time has a strong sense of class status. Her affection for and patience towards her valetudinarian father are also noteworthy. While she is in many ways mature, Emma makes some serious mistakes, mainly due to her conviction that she is always right and her lack of experience. Although she has vowed she will never marry, she delights in making matches for others. She falls in love briefly with Frank Churchill, but that passes away easily. She realises at the end that she loves Mr Knightley.
George Knightley is a neighbor and close friend of Emma, age 37 years. He is her only critic. Mr Knightley is the owner of the estate of Donwell Abbey, which includes extensive grounds and farms. He is the elder brother of Mr John Knightley, the husband of Emma’s elder sister Isabella. He is a man of thoughtful manners, aware of how others react to words and events. Mr Knightley is annoyed with Emma for persuading Harriet to turn down Mr Martin, a farmer on the Donwell estate; he warns Emma against matchmaking Harriet with Mr Elton, knowing that Mr Elton seeks a bride with money. He is suspicious of Frank Churchill and his motives; he sees that Frank has something secret going on with Jane Fairfax.
Mr Frank Churchill, Mr Weston’s son by his first marriage, is an amiable young man. 23 years old, who manages to be liked by everyone. Mr Knightley sees him as immature, because he fails to visit his father for so long. After his mother’s death, he was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle at the family estate Enscombe and whose last name he took at his majority. His uncle was his mother’s brother. Frank enjoys dancing and music and living life to the fullest, but he is not above a secret engagement when he fears his aunt will forbid it. He manipulates and plays games with the other characters to ensure his engagement to Jane remains concealed.
Jane Fairfax is an orphan whose only family consists of her aunt, Miss Bates, and her grandmother, Mrs Bates. She is a beautiful, clever, and elegant woman, with the best of manners. She is the same age as Emma. She is well-educated and talented at singing and playing the piano; she is the sole person whom Emma envies. An army friend of her late father, Colonel Campbell, feels responsibility for her, and sees to her education, sharing his home and family with her when she turned nine years old. She has little fortune, however, and the plan is that she become a governess – a prospect she dislikes. The secret engagement goes against her principles and wears on her.
Harriet Smith, a young friend of Emma, just seventeen when the story opens, is a pretty but unsophisticated girl. She has been educated at a nearby school, where she met the sisters of Mr Martin. Emma takes Harriet under her wing early on, and she becomes the subject of Emma’s misguided matchmaking attempts. She is revealed in the last chapter to be the natural daughter of a decent tradesman, although not a “gentleman“. Harriet and Mr Martin are wed. The now wiser Emma approves of the match.
Philip Elton is a good-looking, initially well-mannered, and ambitious young vicar, 27 years old and unmarried when the story opens. Emma wants him to marry Harriet; however he aspires to secure Emma’s hand in marriage to gain her dowry. Mr Elton displays his mercenary nature by quickly marrying another woman of lesser means after Emma’s rejection.
Augusta Elton, formerly Miss Hawkins, is Mr Elton’s wife. She has her 10,000 pounds, but lacks good manners, at best, using people’s names too intimately as one example (Jane, not Miss Fairfax, Knightly, not Mr Knightley). She is a boasting, pretentious woman who expects her due as a new bride in the village. Emma is polite to her but does not like her. She patronises Jane, which earns Jane the sympathy of others. She displays many of the faults for which Mr Knightley reprimands Emma, however on a much larger scale. Ironically much of Emma’s dislike of Mrs Elton arises from these faults.
Mrs Weston was Emma’s governess for sixteen years as Miss Anne Taylor and remains her closest friend and confidante after she marries Mr Weston. She is a sensible woman who loves Emma. Mrs Weston acts as a surrogate mother to her former charge and, occasionally, as a voice of moderation and reason. The Westons and the Woodhouses visit almost daily. Near the end of the story, the Westons’ baby Anna is born.
Mr Weston is a widower and a business man living in Highbury who marries Miss Taylor in his early 40s, after he bought the home called Randalls. By his first marriage, he is father to Frank Weston Churchill, who was adopted and raised by his late wife’s brother and his wife. He sees his son in London each year. He married his first wife, Miss Churchill, when he was a Captain in the militia, posted near her home. Mr Weston is a sanguine, optimistic man, who enjoys socialising, making friends easily in business and among his neighbours.
Miss Bates is a friendly, garrulous spinster whose mother, Mrs Bates, is a friend of Mr Woodhouse. Her niece is Jane Fairfax, daughter of her late sister. She was raised in better circumstances in her younger days as the vicar’s daughter; now she and her mother rent rooms in the home of another in Highbury. One day, Emma humiliates her on a day out in the country, when she alludes to her tiresome prolixity.
Mr Henry 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. He is a valetudinarian (i.e., similar to a hypochondriac but more likely to be genuinely ill). He assumes a great many things are hazardous to his health. His daughter Emma gets along with him well, and he loves both his daughters. He laments that “poor Isabella” and especially “poor Miss Taylor” have married and live away from him. He is a fond father and fond grandfather who did not remarry when his wife died; instead he brought in Miss Taylor to educate his daughters and become part of the family. Because he is generous and well-mannered, his neighbors accommodate him when they can.
Isabella Knightley (née Woodhouse) is the elder sister of Emma, by seven years, and daughter of Henry. She is married to John Knightley. She lives in London with her husband and their five children (Henry, ‘little’ John, Bella, ‘little’ Emma, and George). She is similar in disposition to her father.
John Knightley is Isabella’s husband and George’s younger brother, 31 years old (10 years older than Jane Fairfax and Emma). He is an attorney by profession. Like the others raised in the area, he is a friend of Jane Fairfax. He greatly enjoys the company of his family, including his brother and his Woodhouse in-laws, but is not the very sociable sort of man who enjoys dining out frequently. He is forthright with Emma, his sister-in-law, and close to his brother.