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Frontispiece of first volume
|Publication date||December 1815;
title page says 1816
|Preceded by||Mansfield Park|
|Followed by||Northanger Abbey|
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 very first sentence she introduces the title character as "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich." Emma, however, is also rather 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, aged 20 at the start of the novel, is a young, beautiful, witty, and privileged woman in Regency England. She lives on the fictional estate of Hartfield in Surrey in the village of Highbury with her elderly widowed father, a hypochondriac who is excessively concerned for the health and safety of his loved ones. Emma's friend and only critic is the gentlemanly George Knightley, her neighbour from the adjacent estate of Donwell, and the brother of her elder sister Isabella's husband, John. As the novel opens, Emma has just attended the wedding of Miss Taylor, her best friend and former governess. Having introduced Miss Taylor to her future husband, Mr. Weston, Emma takes credit for their marriage, and decides that she rather likes matchmaking.
Against Mr. Knightley's advice, Emma forges ahead with her new interest, and tries to match her new friend Harriet Smith, a sweet, pretty, but none-too-bright parlour boarder of seventeen —described as "the natural daughter of somebody"— to Mr. Elton, the local vicar. Emma becomes convinced that Mr. Elton's constant attentions are a result of his attraction and growing love for Harriet.
But before events can unfold as she plans, Emma must first persuade Harriet to refuse an advantageous marriage proposal. Her suitor is a respectable, educated, and well-spoken young gentleman farmer, Robert Martin, but Emma snobbishly decides he isn't good enough for Harriet. Against her own wishes, the easily-influenced Harriet rejects Mr. Martin.
Emma's schemes go awry when Mr. Elton, a social climber, fancies Emma is in love with him and proposes to her. Emma's friends had suggested that Mr. Elton's attentions were really directed at her, but she had misread the signs. Emma, rather shocked and a bit insulted, tells Mr. Elton that she had thought him attached to Harriet; however Elton is outraged at the very idea of marrying the socially inferior Harriet. After Emma rejects Mr. Elton, he leaves for a while for a sojourn in Bath, and Harriet fancies herself heartbroken. Emma feels dreadful about misleading Harriet and resolves—briefly—to interfere less in people's lives.
Mr. Elton, as Emma's misconceptions of his character melt away, reveals himself to be arrogant, resentful, and pompous. He soon returns from Bath with a pretentious, nouveau-riche wife who becomes part of Emma's social circle, though the two women soon loathe each other. The Eltons treat the still lovestruck Harriet deplorably, culminating with Mr Elton very publicly snubbing Harriet at a dance. Mr Knightley, who had until this moment refrained from dancing, gallantly steps in to partner Harriet, much to Emma's gratification.
An interesting development is the arrival in the neighbourhood of the handsome and charming Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son, who had been given to his deceased wife's wealthy sister and her husband, the Churchills, to raise. Frank, who is now Mrs. Weston's stepson, and Emma have never met, but she has a long-standing interest in doing so. The whole neighborhood takes a fancy to him, with the partial exception of Mr. Knightley, who becomes uncharacteristically grumpy whenever his name is mentioned and suggests to Emma that while Frank is clever and engaging, he is also a rather shallow character.
A third newcomer is the orphaned Jane Fairfax, the reserved, beautiful, and elegant niece of Emma's impoverished neighbour, the talkative Miss Bates, who lives with her deaf, widowed mother. Miss Bates is an aging spinster, well-meaning but increasingly poor; Emma strives to be polite and kind to her, but is irritated by her constant chattering. Jane, very gifted musically, is Miss Bates' pride and joy; Emma envies her talent, and although she has known Jane all her life has never warmed to her personally. Jane had lived with Miss Bates until she was nine, but Colonel Campbell, a friend of her father's, welcomed her into his own home, where she became fast friends with his daughter and received a first-rate education. But now Miss Campbell has married, and the accomplished but penniless Jane has returned to her Bates relations, ostensibly to regain her health and to prepare to earn her living as a governess. Emma is annoyed to find the entire neighborhood, including Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, singing Jane's praises, but when Mrs. Elton, who fancies herself the new leader of Highbury society, patronizingly takes Jane under her wing and announces that she will find her the ideal governess post, Emma begins to feel some sympathy for Jane's predicament.
Still, Emma sees something mysterious in Jane's sudden return to Highbury and imagines that Jane and Miss Campbell's husband, Mr. Dixon, were mutually attracted, and that is why she has come home instead of going to Ireland to visit them. She shares her suspicions with Frank, who had become acquainted with Jane and the Campbells when they met 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 tries to make herself fall in love with Frank largely because almost everyone seems to expect it. Frank appears to be courting Emma, and the two flirt and banter together in public, at parties, and on a day-trip to Box Hill, a local beauty spot. However, when his demanding and ailing aunt, Mrs. Churchill, summons Frank home, Emma discovers she does not miss her "lover" nearly as much as she expected and sets about plotting a match between him and Harriet, who seems to have finally gotten over Mr. Elton. Harriet breathlessly reports that Frank has "saved" her from a band of Gypsies, and seems to be confessing her admiration for him. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston wonders if Emma's old friend Mr. Knightley has taken a fancy to Jane. Emma immediately dismisses that idea and protests that she does not want Mr. Knightley to marry anyone, and that her little nephew Henry must inherit Donwell, the Knightley family property.
When Mr. Knightley scolds her for a thoughtless insult to Miss Bates, Emma is stunned and ashamed and tries to atone by going to visit Miss Bates. Mr. Knightley is surprised and deeply impressed by Emma's recognition of her wrongdoing, but this meaningful rapprochement is broken off when he announces he must leave for London to visit his brother. Meanwhile, Jane reportedly becomes ill, but refuses to see Emma or accept her gifts, and it is suddenly announced that she has accepted a governess position from one of Mrs. Elton's friends.
On the heels of this comes word that Frank Churchill's aunt has died, and with it the astonishing news that Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged since they first met on holiday a year ago. They had been keeping the engagement quiet because they knew that Frank's imperious aunt would disapprove and likely disinherit him if he went through with the match. The strain of the clandestine relationship had been much harder on the conscientious Jane than the carefree Frank, and the two had quarreled bitterly; but now that his aunt has died, his easygoing uncle has already given his blessing. The engagement becomes public, the secrets behind Jane and Frank's behavior are revealed, and Emma is chagrined to discover that once again she has been so wrong about so much.
Emma is certain that Harriet will be devastated by Frank's engagement, but Harriet reassures her that this is not the case. In fact, Harriet tells Emma, it is Mr. Knightley who has captured her heart, and she believes he returns her feelings. Emma is dumbstruck over what she at first thinks is the impropriety of the match, but as she faces her feelings of dismay and jealousy, she realizes in a flash that she has long been in love with Mr. Knightley herself. She is shattered to think that it may be too late and resolves to support her dear friends in whatever they do, even at the cost of her own broken heart. However, when Mr. Knightley hurries back to Highbury to console Emma over what he imagines to be the loss of Frank Churchill, she discovers that he is also in love with her. He proposes and she joyfully accepts.
There is one more match to be made: With encouragement from Mr. Knightley, the farmer Robert Martin proposes again to Harriet, and this time she accepts. Jane and Emma reconcile and all misunderstandings are cleared up before Jane and Frank leave for their wedding and life with his uncle in Yorkshire. Emma and Mr. Knightley decide that after their marriage they will live with Emma's father at Hartfield to spare Mr. Woodhouse loneliness and distress. They seem headed for a union of "perfect happiness," to the great joy of their friends. Mrs. Weston gives birth to a baby girl, to the great satisfaction of Emma, who looks forward to introducing little Miss Weston to her young nephews.
Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist of the story, is a beautiful, high-spirited, intelligent, and 'slightly' spoiled young woman of the age of twenty. Her mother died when she was very young, and she has been mistress of the house ever since, certainly since her older sister got married. Although intelligent, she lacks the necessary discipline to practice 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. Her affection for and patience towards her hypochondriac father are also noteworthy. While she is in many ways mature for her age, Emma makes some serious mistakes, mainly due to her conviction that she is always right and her lack of real world experience. Although she has vowed she will never ever marry, she delights in making matches for others. She seems unable to fall in love, until jealousy makes her realise that she has loved Mr. Knightley all along.
George Knightley, about thirty-seven years old, is a close friend of Emma, and her only critic, although he cares deeply for her. Mr. Knightley is the owner of the estate of Donwell Abbey, which includes extensive grounds and a farm. He is the elder brother of Mr. John Knightley, the husband of Emma's elder sister Isabella. Mr. Knightley is very annoyed with Emma for persuading Harriet to turn down Mr. Martin, thinking that the advantage is all on Harriet's side; he also warns Emma against matchmaking Harriet with Mr. Elton, correctly guessing that Mr. Elton has a much higher opinion of himself. He is suspicious of Frank Churchill and his motives; although his suspicion turns out to be based mainly on jealousy of the younger man, his instincts are proven correct by the revelation that Frank Churchill is not all that he seems.
Mr. Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son by his previous marriage, is an amiable young man, who manages to be liked by everyone except Mr. Knightley, who considers him quite immature, although this partially results from his jealously of Frank's supposed 'pursuit' of Emma. After his mother's death, he was raised by his wealthy aunt and uncle, whose last name he took. Frank enjoys dancing and music and living life to the fullest. Frank may be viewed as a careless but less villainous version of characters from other Austen novels, such as Mr. Wickham from Pride and Prejudice or Willoughby from Sense and Sensibility.
Jane Fairfax, an orphan whose only family consists of an aunt, Miss Bates, and a grandmother, Mrs. Bates, is regarded as a very beautiful, clever, and elegant woman, with the best of manners, and is also very well-educated and exceptionally talented at singing and playing the piano; in fact, she is the sole person whom Emma envies. She has little fortune, however, and seems destined to become a governess – a prospect she dislikes.
Harriet Smith, a young friend of Emma's, is a very pretty but unsophisticated girl who is too easily led by others, especially Emma; she has been educated at a nearby school. The illegitimate daughter of initially unknown parents, she is revealed in the last chapter to be the daughter of a fairly rich and decent tradesman, although not a "gentleman". Emma takes Harriet under her wing early in the novel, and she becomes the subject of some of Emma's misguided matchmaking attempts. Harriet initially rebuffs a marriage proposal from farmer Robert Martin because of Emma's belief that he is beneath her, despite Harriet's own doubtful origins. She then develops a passion for Mr. Knightley, which is the catalyst for Emma realising her own feelings. Ultimately, Harriet and Mr. Martin are wed, despite Emma's initial meddling. The now wiser Emma approves of the match.
Philip Elton is a good-looking, well mannered, and ambitious young vicar. Emma wants him to marry Harriet; he wants to marry Emma. Mr. Elton displays his mercenary nature by quickly marrying another woman of means after Emma's rejection.
Augusta Elton, formerly Miss Hawkins, is Mr. Elton's wife. She is moneyed but lacks breeding and possesses moderately good manners, at best. She is a boasting, domineering, pretentious woman who likes to be the centre of attention and is generally disliked by Emma and her circle. She patronises Jane, which earns Jane the sympathy of others.
Mrs. Anne Weston, formerly Miss Taylor, was Emma's governess for sixteen years and remains her closest friend and confidante after she marries Mr. Weston in the opening chapter. She is a sensible woman who adores and idolises Emma. Mrs. Weston acts as a surrogate mother to her former charge and, occasionally, as a voice of moderation and reason, although she is the one to yield in arguments more often than not.
Mr. Weston, a recently wealthy man living in the vicinity of Hartfield, marries Emma's former governess, Miss Taylor, and by his first marriage is father to Frank Churchill, who was adopted and raised by his late wife's brother and sister-in-law. Mr. Weston is a sanguine, optimistic man, who enjoys socialising.
Miss Bates is a friendly, garrulous spinster whose mother, Mrs. Bates, is a friend of Mr. Woodhouse. Her accomplished niece, Jane Fairfax, is the light of her life. One day, Emma humiliates her on a day out in the country, when she pointedly alludes to her tiresome prolixity. Afterward, Mr. Knightley sternly rebukes Emma. Shamed, Emma tries to make amends.
Mr. Henry Woodhouse, Emma's father, is always concerned for his own health and comfort, 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 one's health, and is generally a difficult person to handle because he is always fussing about the trifling things which bother him and which he assumes must bother everyone else just the same, to the point of trying to convince his visitors to deny foods he considers too rich. He laments that "poor Isabella" and especially "poor Miss Taylor" have married and been taken away from him, because since he is unhappy about their being gone, he assumes they must be miserable as well; moreover, he dislikes change in general, and marriage is a form of change.
Isabella Knightley (née Woodhouse) is the elder sister of Emma and daughter of Henry. She is married to John Knightley, and spends much of her time at home caring for her five children (Henry, 'little' John, Bella, 'little' Emma, and George).
John Knightley is Isabella's husband and George's younger brother. He is an old acquaintance of Jane Fairfax. He indulges his family's desires for visits and vacations, although he would prefer to stay at home, especially if the weather is less than perfect.
Early reviews of Emma were generally favourable, but there were some criticisms about the lack of story. John Murray remarked that it lacked "incident and Romance"; Maria Edgeworth, the author of Belinda, to whom Austen had sent a complimentary copy, wrote:
there was no story in it, except that Miss Emma found that the man whom she designed for Harriet's lover was an admirer of her own – & he was affronted at being refused by Emma & Harriet wore the willow – and smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma's father's opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth, thin water-gruel!!
Emma Woodhouse is the first Austen heroine with no financial concerns, which, she declares to the naïve Miss Smith, is the reason that she has no inducement to marry. This is a great departure from Austen's other novels, in which the quest for marriage and financial security are often important themes in the stories. Emma's ample financial resources put her in a much more privileged position than the heroines of Austen's earlier works, such as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice. Jane Fairfax's prospects, in contrast, are bleak.
In contrast to other Austen heroines Emma seems immune to romantic attraction. Unlike Marianne Dashwood, who is attracted to the wrong man before she settles on the right one, Emma shows no romantic interest in the men she meets. She is genuinely surprised (and somewhat disgusted) when Mr. Elton declares his love for her—much in the way Elizabeth Bennet singularly reacts to the obsequious Mr. Collins. Her fancy for Frank Churchill represents more of a longing for a little drama in her life than a longing for romantic love. Notably too, Emma utterly fails to understand the budding affection between Harriet Smith and Robert Martin; she interprets the prospective match solely in terms of financial settlements and social ambition. It is only after Harriet Smith reveals her interest in Mr. Knightley that Emma realises her own feelings for him.
While Emma differs strikingly from Austen's other heroines in these two respects, she resembles Elizabeth Bennet and Anne Elliot, among others, in another way: she is an intelligent young woman with too little to do and no ability to change her location or everyday routine. Though her family is loving and her economic status secure, Emma's everyday life is dull indeed; she has few companions her own age when the novel begins. Her determined though inept matchmaking may represent a muted protest against the narrow scope of a wealthy woman's life, especially that of a woman who is single and childless.
Populated by small "minute detail" (to borrow the term from Sir Walter Scott), very realistic but anodyne, the novel disoriented a number of Jane Austen's contemporaries by its immersion in the daily life of a small town, and with the corresponding absence of spectacle. We see, for example, Emma accompanying Harriet to Mr. Ford's boutique and, while her friend gets on with her shopping, she posts herself at the door to observe the spectacle of the street:
[...] the butcher with his tray, a tidy old woman travelling homewards from shop with her full basket, two curs quarrelling over a dirty bone, and a string of dawdling children round the baker's little bow-window eyeing the gingerbread [...].
We find the centre of Highbury life in Mr. Ford's boutique. It's there, for example, that Harriet Smith meets her admirer, Robert Martin (volume II, chapter III). Also, convinced of the importance of the place, Frank Churchill declares:
that I may prove myself to belong to the place, to be a true citizen of Highbury, I must buy something at Ford's (volume II, chapter VI).
Emma has been the subject of many adaptations for film, TV, radio and the stage.
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