Emma


Jane Austen's Emma is a novel of courtship. Like all of Austen's novels, it centers around the marriage plot: who will marry whom? For what reasons will they marry? Love, practicality, or necessity? At the center of the story is the title character, Emma Woodhouse, a heiress who lives with her widowed father at their estate, Hartfield. At the beginning of the novel, she is a self-satisfied young woman who feels no particular need to marry, for she is in the rather unique condition of not needing a husband to supply her fortune. At the beginning of the novel, Emma's governess, Miss Taylor, has just married Mr. Weston, a wealthy man who owns Randalls, a nearby estate. The Westons, the Woodhouses, and Mr. Knightly (who owns the estate Donwell Abbey) are at the top of Highbury society. Mr. Weston had been married earlier. When his previous wife died, he sent their one child (Frank Churchill) to be raised by her brother and his wife, for the now-wealthy Mr. Weston could not at that time provide for the boy. Without Miss Taylor as a companion, Emma adopts the orphan Harriet Smith as a protégé. Harriet lives at a nearby boarding school where she was raised, and knows nothing of her parents. Emma advises the innocent Harriet in virtually all things, including the people with whom she should interact. She suggests that Harriet not spend time with the Martins, a local family of farmers whose son, Robert, is interested in Harriet. Instead, Emma plans to play matchmaker for Harriet and Mr. Elton, the vicar of the church in Highbury. Emma seems to have some success in her attempts to bring together Harriet Smith and Mr. Elton. The three spend a good deal of leisure time together and he seems receptive to all of Emma's suggestions. The friendship between Emma and Harriet does little good for either of them, however. Harriet indulges Emma's worst qualities, giving her opportunity to meddle and serving only to flatter her. Emma in turn fills Harriet Smith with grand pretensions that do not suit her low situation in society. When Robert Martin proposes to Harriet, she rejects him based on Emma's advice, thinking that he is too common. Mr. Knightly criticizes Emma's matchmaking, since he thinks that the dependable Robert Martin is Harriet's superior, for while he is respectable, she is from uncertain origins. Emma's sister, Isabella, and her husband, Mr. John Knightly, visit Highbury, and Emma uses their visit as an opportunity to reconcile with Mr. Knightly after their argument over Harriet. The Westons hold a party on Christmas Eve for the members of Highbury society. Harriet Smith, however, becomes ill and cannot attend. During the party, Mr. Elton focuses his attention solely on Emma. When they travel home by carriage from the party, Mr. Elton professes his adoration for Emma, and dismisses the idea that he would ever marry Harriet Smith, whom he feels is too common for him. Mr. Elton obviously intends to move up in society, and is interested in Emma primarily for her social status and wealth. Shortly after Emma rejects Mr. Elton, he leaves Highbury for a stay in Bath. Emma breaks the bad news to Harriet Smith. As of this time, Frank Churchill has not yet visited his father and his new wife at Randalls, which has caused some concern. Emma, without having met the young man, decides that he must certainly be a good suitor for her, since he is of appropriate age and breeding. Another character who occupies Emma's thoughts is Jane Fairfax, the granddaughter of Mrs. Bates, an impoverished widow whose husband was the former vicar, and the niece of Miss Bates, a chattering spinster who lives with her mother. Jane is equal to Emma in every respect (beauty, education, talents) except for status, and provokes some jealousy in Emma. Jane will soon visit her family in Highbury, for the wealthy family who brought her up after her parents had died has gone on vacation. There is some indication that Jane might be involved with Mr. Dixon, a married man, but this is only idle gossip. Mr. Elton returns from Bath with news that he is engaged to a Miss Augusta Hawkins. This news, along with an awkward meeting with the Martins, greatly embarrasses poor Harriet Smith. Frank Churchill finally visits the Westons, and Emma is