Publication Year: 1815
Book Description: Emma Woodhouse is one of Austen’s most captivating and vivid characters. Beautiful, spoilt, vain and irrepressibly witty, Emma organizes the lives of the inhabitants of her sleepy little village and plays matchmaker with devastating effect.
Note: Yes, this is out of order. I blame the quarantine and general craziness of watching over a one-year-old, but I finished reading “Emma” about a week or two ago, and only then realized that I had skipped “Mansfield Park.” I probably could have banged “Mansfield Park” out in this last week, but I didn’t want to rush my read of that rather hefty book. And then when I would finally get to “Emma,” around July, I’d be several months removed from my actual read through. So, I think this is better than doggedly sticking to my original order. It is what it is!
Part II – Volume 2, Chapters 11 – End
Story – “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”
Frank Churchill is called back to his ill aunt, leaving the entire neighborhood bereft. Before he leaves, however, he visits Emma and seems to be on the cusp of some great confession. He doesn’t get it out, but Emma assumes it was a profession of love. She believes she must be in love, too; how could she not be?
Soon enough, however, a new distraction arrives in the return of Mr. Elton with a new bride. Mrs. Elton soon makes a poor impression on Emma, coming across as snobby, full-of-herself and, especially bad, overly familiar with Mr. Knightley, calling him “Knightley” after only one meeting. Mrs. Elton soon cools towards Emma, too, and between herself and Mr. Elton, the two become quite unpleasant neighbors, though Emma puts on a good face about it. For a new companion, Mrs. Elton takes Jane Fairfax under her wing, eagerly hoping to help with Jane’s need to look for a governess position soon. Jane attempts to dissuade her, but Mrs. Elton is persistent.
Frank’s aunt decides to take up residence much closer to Highbury, so he becomes a much more frequent visitor of the neighborhood. Emma finds, on his return, that she didn’t seem to miss him much at all and must not have really loved him. He, too, seems to be less in love, though the two still enjoy joking around with one another. Frank, Emma, and the Westons arrange to have a ball in the town center. It’s a fancy affair and everyone arrives decked out, though Frank comments negatively on Jane’s looks.
Early in the dance, while most people are paired up already, Mr. Elton rudely and publicly snubs Harriet who is still sitting alone without someone to dance with. Mr. Knightley arrives and asks her to dance, pleasing Emma to see her friend so happy. Later, she admits to Mr. Knightley that she was wrong about Mr. Elton, and Mr. Knightley concedes that Harriet has some first rate qualities that the new Mrs. Elton with without. The two dance together.
A while later, the neighborhood is thrown into confusion when Harriet and her friend are set upon by gypsies while walking. Frank arrives in the nick of time and whisks Harriet back to Hartfield. Emma believes she may see a spark between the two after this incident. Later, when she and Harriet are talking, Harriet confesses that she no longer plans to marry and Emma guesses to her that it may be because the man she prefers is so far above her. Harriet confesses that it is true. Emma reassures her that unequal marriages happen all the time and its no wonder Harriet fell for him after he rescued her like that. Harriet goes on about her feelings at the moment, though both she and Emma agree not to name the gentleman in question so there are no mistakes this time around.
As the summer progresses, there are many opportunities for the group to gather together. They all go to Mr. Knightley’s home one summer day do pick strawberries; even Mr. Woodhouse is convinced to come and Mr. Knightley makes great effort to make sure he is comfortable. Mrs. Elton continues to hound Jane about her future as a governess, and in a quiet moment, Emma catches Jane sneaking away. Jane begs her to let her go on her own and claims that she is emotionally exhausted. Emma helps her and worries about her health. Soon after Jane leaves, Frank Churchill arrives in a poor temper, saying his life is a series of frustrations and he will soon leave the country. Emma convinces him to come on a trip to Box Hill that they are all are taking.
The trip is immediately a poor affair. It is hot and everyone seems to be in bad moods. After wandering around, they all sit down for a picnic lunch though no one seems to talk much. Frank and Emma try to carry the conversation with Frank becoming more and more exuberant and ridiculous, prodding Emma that she must find him a wife who is just like her. Emma thinks of Harriet. Jane pipes up that it is hard to truly know someone on short acquaintances, and Frank seems put out. He insists everyone play a game in which they must say something clever, two things sort of clever, or three things dull indeed. Miss Bates says she will succeed easily as she always says dull things. Emma laughingly says that the struggle will be only saying three at one time. This hits with a thud. Everyone gradually wanders away. As Emma is walking, she is caught up by an angry Mr. Knightley. He berates her for being so cruel to Miss Bates and says it was badly done. Emma feels the truth of his words, but he walks away before she has time to apologize.
The next day, Emma gets up early to call on Miss Bates in an attempt to apologize and start to behave better by her. When she gets there, she meets with Miss Bates but Jane refuses to see her. Miss Bates says that Jane has accepted a governess position, taking them all by surprise, though Jane seems very sad about it. Upon returning home, Emma meets with Mr. Knightley who is just taking his leave. He is told about her trip to the Bates’ and seems to know what she was about. He says that he is leaving on a substantial trip to London. Emma is saddened to see him go.
Over the next few weeks, Emma tries to befriend Jane but is turned away at every attempt. Eventually, news comes that Frank’s aunt has passed away. Soon after, Emma is called to the Westons for urgent news. It turns out that Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged since before either of them came to Highury. Mrs. Weston is beside herself, worrying that Emma was in love with Frank and knowing that that is what she and her husband had been wanting. Emma is hurt and confused by Frank’s behavior, but reassures Mrs. Weston that she never loved Frank. She understands, now, why Jane avoided her, however, seeing as Frank flirted with her constantly in front of Jane.
Emma goes to Harriet, feeling the awful weight of having to deliver the bad news once again that the man Harriet loves is with someone else. But Harriet seems unaffected! Emma soon learns that she was again, mistaken: Harriet never meant Frank Churhill when she spoke of being in love, she meant Mr. Knightly. They go over all the details of their confusion, and Emma sees how she, again, misinterpreted things. Harriet feels confident that Mr. Knightley returns her affections and Emma admits that he is the last man who would ever intentionally lead someone on. The entire affair makes one thing blatantly clear: she, Emma Woodhouse, is in love with Mr. Knightley.
Wretched, Emma returns home. A few days later, Mr. Knightley arrives at Hartfield. He and Emma walk about the house and Mr. Knightley hurries to reassure Emma that Frank is a scoundrel who never deserved her. Emma confesses that while Frank did use her to continue his scheme of hiding his relationship with Jane, she was never in love with him. Mr. Knightley says that he is jealous of Frank in a way, that Frank’s secret is known. Emma cuts him off quickly, not wanting to hear his confession of love for Harriet. Shortly after, however, she feels what she has done and rushes to tell Mr. Knightley that he can say anything to her, as her friend. Mr. Knightley says he doesn’t want to be just friends and asks if he has a chance with her? Emma realizes that she was mistaken once again, and the two confess their love for each other.
Eventually all is settled. Harriet, again heart broken, manages to find love for a third time with Mr. Martin and the two are married. Mr. Knightley, knowing Emma cannot leave her father who depends on her so much, decides to move into Hartfield after they marry. John and Isabella come to stay with Mr. Woodhouse and give Emma and Mr. Knightley the chance to go on a honeymoon to the seaside.
Heroines – “I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures.”
I think what really sells Emma to the most readers, something that Austen didn’t put enough stock into when she worried people wouldn’t like her heroine, is just how much page time is devoted to her feelings of regret, sorrow, and duty. She makes mistakes, huge ones and small, but it can be argued that she pays equally high prices for those mistakes.
In her misleading of Harriet, she ends up in a situation where Harriet sees a future for herself with the very man Emma now knows she loves. And the book spends pages really exploring how Emma realizes all of the little mistakes and steps that she took that lead to this situation. But on top of her regrets, there are even better small moments, like a line detailing Emma’s inner thoughts about how she had no right to crush or criticize Harriet’s dreams of a life with Mr. Knightley. Emma recognizes that it was she who formed this friendship with Harriet, she who encouraged attachment and the trust Harriet now puts in her sharing these deep secrets. Emma has no right to smack her down, and so she stays quiet and says what needs to be said: that she will support Harriet and that Mr. Knightley would never lead any woman on.
We also see Emma pay the price of her foolishness with Frank Churchhil. Delayed, yes, but she does try to form a friendship with Jane and gets no where. Once the truth comes out, she sees the part she played in Jane’s ongoing torment and deeply regrets her behavior. She admits to Mr. Knightley that it is her own behavior more than anything that pains her when she thinks back on that entire situation.
And, of course, the Miss Bates situation. Unlike Mr. Knightley, we see how immediate is Emma’s reaction to his words. She not only recognizes how right he is in this situation but sees how easily she has given way to selfish neglect of Miss Bates in the past. The scene where Emma visits Miss Bates the next morning is awkward and uncomfortable, but we see a reformed Emma who is willing to pay that price to begin again on the right foot.
Beyond all of these moments where we see Emma confront her own inner demons, there is plenty of opportunity given throughout the series to appreciate her innate good qualities. Any and every interaction between Emma and her father shows just how good-hearted Emma can be. She does sacrifice much of the independence and fun that many young women in her position would crave to make sure her father is comfortable and happy. She recognizes her own power in his life, either as a force of good or evil. And she always chooses the good, arranging his evenings to be quiet and comfortable and not pushing him too much as far as her own social plans go. And, obviously, in the end we see just how far she is willing to take this. She fully expects to only be engaged to Mr. Knightley for many years. It never crosses her mind to leave her father, and instead she is ready to put off the biggest happiness of her life, marriage to her true love, in an effort to keep him happy and comfortable while he lives.
Heroes – “What are men to rocks and mountains?”
We see a lot more of Mr. Knightley in general in this second half. And not only does it feel like he’s around more often, but he has some pretty great moments. Rescuing Harriet at the ball, of course, serves as a pretty major lynchpin in the following romantic confusion. He has some excellent lines with regards to Mrs. Elton, effectively putting her in her place when he refuses to let her invite whomever she wants to his house for strawberry picking, noting that only “Mrs. Knightley” will have the privilege of doing that. And he’s the only one to pick up on the weirdness between Frank Churchill and Jane. He even goes so far as to warn Emma about what he suspects, though she laughs him off. You’d think that after admitting to Mr. Knightley himself that he saw things in Mr. Elton that she didn’t, she might be more open to his maybe cluing in on things she isn’t. But, again, she really has no reason to suspect anything like this, what with Frank’s unnecessarily rude comments about Jane’s hair and such.
The only thing he gets wrong is Emma’s regard for Frank, and you can hardly blame him for that given the two of them and their behavior. But it’s funny to see how much of Mr. Knightley’s opinion of Frank depends on Emma’s opinion of Frank:
He found [Emma] agitated and low. – Frank Churchill was a villain.- He hear her to declare that she had never loved him. Frank Churchill’s character was not desperate. – She was his own Emma, by hand and word, when they returned to the house; and if he could have thought of Frank Churchill them, hi might have deemed him a very good sort of fellow.
Villains – “I do not want people to be very agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them a great deal.”
Frank Churchill is the closest thing to a villain in this second half of the story. As Mr. Knightley rightly points out, he treats everyone poorly and then everyone is eager to forgive and forget. He is lucky that Emma didn’t fall in love with him, what with his constant flirtations. And for what? He by no means needed to have another object of interest to deflect attention from his engagement to Jane. It’s pretty clear that no one would have put those pieces together (except, obviously, Mr. Knightley).
What’s more, we’re meant to think that he truly loves Jane. And yet, he continually goes out of his way to hurt her by his behavior. Some of it to her face and some of it behind. Talking badly about her appearance to Emma? Why?? For no obvious reason other than his poor character. And then, again, flirting continuously with Emma. He’s at his worst at the picnic at Box Hill, but it’s pretty bad the entire time. Getting Emma to tease Jane alongside him and everything. He really doesn’t deserve Jane, who, other than the questionable decision of being in a secret engagement, really does seem like a nice woman. All of it throws back to Mr. Knightley’s original assessment of Frank: that any man who knows what is right but chooses not to do it is not a man to be admired. Mr. Knightley says this in context of Frank not visiting the new Mrs. Weston, but it applies here, too. Of the two, Jane is the one who suffers more for their secret engagement. And at least half of her torment is due to Frank’s own, intentional behavior. It’s no way to treat someone you claim to love.
Even in the end, with his apologies to Emma, it seems clear that Frank is only half-heartedly feeling the true weight of his poor behavior. He’s still quick with a joke and seems barely able to remain serious long enough to get the basic words out.
Romance – “A lady’s imagination is very rapid: it jumps from admiration to love, from love to matrimony in a moment.
I have a note in my Kindle that flags the first real signs of romance in this book, and it comes about two thirds into the story in the second chapter of the third volume. It’s certainly another example of how “Emma” differentiates itself from Austen’s prior novels. Emma herself, as we’ve discussed, is very different than the other heroines. And here we see how much of a back burner the romance plays in this story to the comedy itself. Of course, once it comes it’s immensely gratifying, but again…two thirds of the way through. And even then, it’s Emma admiring Mr. Knightley’s fine figure at the ball and still placing him right aside Frank Churchill as being uncomparable in the room.
It’s kind of an odd thing, but having talked to many “Emma” fans, both of the book and of the various film adaptations, two scenes often stand out between Emma and Mr. Knightley and they both involve the two fighting. Or at the very least, Mr. Knightley scolding Emma. The first, of course, is the fight over Harriet’s future in the first half. And the second is Mr. Knightley’s lecture to Emma about her bad behavior at Box Hill. Let these instance note that for centuries now, people have found romance in this kind of “enemies to lovers” story. Obviously, Mr. Knightley is never Emma’s enemy, but why do people always comment on his “badly done, Emma” as such a notable, almost romantic line? It’s an interesting thing, I’ll say that.
Readers are too sauvy to ever buy into the whole Mr. Knightley/Harriet thing like Emma does. But Austen does do a good amount of work to lay groundwork for why Harriet might think what she does. And really, the entire reason she thinks these things is due to Emma herself. Not only the obvious line about unequal marriages, but the entire way she essentially trained Harriet to look for romance. During the Elton situation, Emma raised even the smallest interaction to heights of importance that of course Harriet would adapt this same method for evaluating all men’s actions. Simple conversations suddenly mean interest. Small moments of kindness mean true love. This all goes to say, that Emma is right when she says she only has herself to blame for the Harriet situation, even if she was more hands off in this second round.
But, of course, it all turns out well. The scene between Mr. Knightley and Emma is everything one could want. We see personal growth on Emma’s side when she catches herself being selfish and turning away from hearing Mr. Knightley. We see how long Mr. Knightley has struggled against his feelings for Emma, going back to the very beginning of the book when he was criticizing Emma, even if he wasn’t aware of it at the time. And we see Emma finally be wrong for one last time, but in the best way possible.
And, ultimately, I don’t think there’s another Austen hero that pulls off as romantic a gesture as Knightley does here. Moving in to Emma’s house for her. Giving up large portions of his own independence, something he has had probably for the last 18 years of life. Now, to live in another man’s house and a man who is by no means the easiest person to live with. And all for Emma. I mean, Darcy’s got some moves, but in all practical senses, I think Mr. Knightley has him beat with this one.
Comedy – “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”
Mrs. Elton could also be in the villains category, such as it is. But I think she fits better in comedy in that she really has very little power to inflict real harm on people, unlike Frank Churchill. Instead, her jabs and barbs are more of a nuisance to most than any real threat. Emma, herself, feels very little other than annoyance that Mrs. Elton doesn’t like her. And it seems that by the end of the book, that even Mrs. Elton herself sees the writing on the wall with regards to her dwindling power over those around her. Mr. Knightley proves he won’t be bullied by her on his own, and the combined forces of the Knightleys and Woodhouses once they are married will be more than enough to quell any further major maneuverings by Mrs. Elton.
Because Emma is so secure from Mrs. Elton’s attempts to make her unhappy, Mrs. Elton instead comes off as the kind of non-threatening character who is made all the more fun for being so unlikable. One does feel bad for poor Jane, and it does serve as another example of Emma’s failings in that respect. But Mrs. Elton on a whole is pretty funny. All of her fancy-schmancy mannerisms, her false humility, her assurance that she is the most fashionable, the most influential. Good stuff.
Favorite quotes – “What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.”
The classic favorite line, of course. But I think this is also proof that besides the fact that she wrote romances, Austen seemed to struggle the most writing the actual romantic dialogue. There’s really very little in many of the books, if you actually look for spoken lines specifically.
“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
Emma is redeemed largely by how much time Austen devoted to her really feeling the weight of her actions, both in the Miss Bates situation and with Harriet’s love for Mr. Knightley.
With insufferable vanity had she believed herself in the secret of every body’s feelings; with unpardonable arrogance proposed to arrange every body’s destiny. She was proved to have been universally mistaken; and she had not quite done nothing – for she had done mischief. She had brought evil on Harriet, on herself, and she too much feared, on Mr. Knightley.
And a small line, but one that I found extremely funny this read through:
Mr. Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs. Elton’s beginning to talk to him.
Final thoughts – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!”
I’ve always loved “Emma.” Perhaps less romantic than some of the others, I think the balance of comedy and romance plays perfectly. The fact that Emma has more to her life than her love interest (in fact, he’s a literal afterthought!) is a perk for modern audiences. And I think the personal growth she experiences and her original flaws make her all the more relatable to many readers.
While Mr. Knightley is by no means the most overtly romantic of Austen’s heroes (Darcy has the brooding and grand gestures, Captain Wentworth has that letter), he’s the kind of romantic lead that always appeals to me. I always love the friends-to-lovers storyline, and he has the rare ability to somehow make lecturing sexy.
There are also very few “villainous” characters in this story. The Eltons are more just nonsensical than anything, and Frank Churchill’s wrongs are quickly gotten over, for better or worse. As I’ve discussed previously, Emma herself causes the most actual harm to poor Harriet. Harriet not only loses a year of a presumably happy life as Robert Martin’s wife, but also spends much of that year caught up in foolish ploys followed by crushing disappointments. The fact that their friendship wanes in the end of the book is definitely best for both of them. And while Mr. Knightley may not have been completely wrong when he said they’d both do each other harm, he wasn’t far off base either.
I’m excited to get into the movie adaptations of this movie. From my general memory, “Emma” is the book that has the most versions that I generally liked. So we’ll see if that holds true in the coming weeks!
In two weeks, I’ll review the 1996 version of “Emma.”