Emma is a comic novel by Jane Austen, first published in December 1815, about the perils of misconstrued romance. The main character, Emma Woodhouse, is described in the opening paragraph as "handsome, clever, and rich" but is also rather spoiled. Prior to starting the novel, Austen wrote, "I am going to take a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like."
Emma Woodhouse is a young, beautiful, smart, and witty woman in Regency England. She lives in Surrey in the village of Highbury with her father, a valetudinarian (that is, one who is afraid they will become ill), who is principally characterized by excessive concern for the health and safety of his loved ones. Emma's friend and only critic is the gentlemanly Mr. Knightley, her neighbour from the adjacent estate of Donwell, and brother of her elder sister Isabella's husband. As the novel opens, Emma has just attended the wedding of Miss Taylor, her old governess and best friend. 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 avocation; this time she tries to match her new friend Harriet Smith, a sweet but none-too-bright girl of seventeen — described as "the natural [illegitimate] daughter of somebody" to Mr. Elton, the local vicar. However, first she must persuade Miss Smith to refuse an advantageous marriage proposal from a respectable young farmer, Mr. Martin, whom Emma believes is too socially inferior for Harriet. Against her wishes, the easily-influenced Harriet refuses the proposal. However, soon her schemes go awry when Mr. Elton, a social climber himself, declares he wants to marry Emma — not 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 now tries to convince Harriet that Mr. Elton is beneath her after all.
An interesting development is the arrival in the neighbourhood of Frank Churchill, Mrs Weston's stepson, whom Emma has never met, but has a long-standing interest. Also, Mr. Elton (who will reveal himself to be more and more arrogant and pompous as the story continues — much like Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice) returns with another newcomer — a common, vulgar but rich wife who becomes part of Emma's social circle, though the two women soon loathe each other. A third new character is the orphaned Jane Fairfax, the reserved but beautiful niece of Emma's impoverished neighbour, the loquacious Miss Bates. Miss Bates is an aging spinster, who is well-meaning but increasingly poor; Emma strives to be polite and kind to her, but is irritated by her dull and incessant chattering. Jane, who is very accomplished musically, is Miss Bates' pride and joy; Emma, however, envies her talent and initially dislikes her for her apparent coldness and reserve. Jane had lived with Miss Bates until she was nine, but Colonel Campbell, a friend indebted to her father for seeing him through a life-threatening illness, welcomed her into his own home where she became fast friends with his unfortunately plain daughter and received a first-rate education. On the marriage of Miss Campbell, Jane returned to her relations, ostensibly to regain her health and prepare to earn her living as a governess.
In her eagerness to find some sort of fault with Jane — and also to find something to amuse her in her pleasant but dull village — Emma indulges in the fantasy, apparently shared with Frank, that Jane was an object of admiration for Miss Campbell's husband, Mr. Dixon, and that it is for this reason she has returned home, rather than going to Ireland to visit them. This suspicion is further fueled by the arrival of a piano for Jane from a mysterious anonymous benefactor.
Emma tries to make herself fall in love with Frank largely because everyone says they make a handsome couple. Frank seems to everyone to have Emma as his object, and the two flirt together in public, including on a day-trip to Box Hill, a local beauty spot. Emma ultimately decides, however, that he would suit Harriet better after an episode where Frank 'saves' her protégée from a band of Gypsies. At this time, Mrs. Weston wonders if Emma's old friend Mr. Knightley might have taken a fancy to Jane. Emma promptly decides that she does not want Mr. Knightley to marry anyone, but rather than further explore these feelings, she claims that this is because she wants her nephew Henry to inherit the family property.
When Mr. Knightley scolds her for a thoughtless insult to Miss Bates, Emma is privately ashamed, and tries to atone. Though the kind-hearted Miss Bates readily forgives her, Jane initially refuses to see her or accept her gifts causing Emma to despair of ever making amends for her behaviour. She believes that Jane's dislike of her stems from her behaviour towards Miss Bates. However, Emma learns that Jane and Frank have been secretly engaged for almost a year. In striving to disguise the love between them, Frank pretends to admire Emma. Jane's distress was due to the fact that she believed that Frank's behaviour towards Emma was genuine. Emma is discomfited at her lack of insight into others' behaviour, as she has seen only what she wanted to see, rather than the truth.
When Harriet confides that she thinks Mr. Knightley is in love with her, jealousy forces Emma to realize that she loves him herself. Mr. Knightley has been in love with Emma for the duration of the book and after the engagement of Jane and Frank had been discovered, he proposes to her. Shortly thereafter Harriet reconciles with her young farmer Mr. Martin and Jane and Emma reconcile and everyone lives happily.
Mr Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son by his previous marriage, an amiable young man who manages to be liked by everyone except for 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 thoroughly enjoys dancing and music and likes to live 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. She 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 that 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. Ultimately, Harriet and Mr Martin are wed, despite Emma's meddling.
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 is Mr Elton's moneyed but obnoxious wife. 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 patronizes Jane, which earns Jane the sympathy of others.
Mrs 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 Emma. Mrs Weston acts as a surrogate mother to her former charge and, occasionally, as a voice of moderation and reason.
Mr Weston, a recently wealthy man living in the vicinity of Hartfield. He 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 socializing.
Miss Bates, 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 her and Emma, shamed, tries to make amends.
Henry Woodhouse, Emma's father, is always concerned for his own health that of his friends, to the point of trying to deny his visitors foods he thinks too rich. He laments that "poor Isabella" and "poor Miss Taylor" shouldn't have married and been taken away from him.
Emma also proves surprisingly immune to romantic attraction and sexual desire. In contrast to Austen heroines like Elizabeth Bennet and Marianne Dashwood, who are attracted to the wrong man before they settle 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. 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 Harriet Smith and Robert Martin's budding affection for each other; she interprets the prospective match solely in terms of financial settlements and social ambition. Only after Harriet Smith reveals her interest in Mr. Knightley does Emma realize her own feelings for him. Although never outright stated as such, it may be postulated that the reason for Emma's inability to fall in love with another man is that she has been unconsciously in love with Mr. Knightley for years.
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 circumstances comfortable, her everyday life is dull indeed, and she has few companions of her own age when the novel begins. Emma's determined and 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.
The text is now in the public domain.