The blunt opening of Chapter 18: “Frank Churchill did not come” alerts us to an instance of bad manners that reveals deep flaws in character and may even arouse suspicions that he is deceptive as well as undutiful. Mr Knightley knows he could “come if he would” and that he is probably “proud, luxurious and selfish”. Although he is right that a man can always do his duty by “vigour and resolution”, his tone is harsh, a result, possibly, of unacknowledged jealousy that Emma is interested in the younger man. “Respect for right conduct is felt by everybody” are moral words which come from Jane Austen’s mouth as well as from Mr Knightley’s and Emma’s responses are too playful. Two meanings of “aimiable” are distinguished: able to please and true English delicacy towards the feelings of others.
The novel is full of instances of both. The chapter ends with another dispute where it is possible to criticise Mr Knightley and feel that his strictures here do not show “real liberality of mind.” Envy is playing its part but he is proved to be right later when Frank Churchill’s manipulations are revealed: he is a Machiavellian liar. Emma’s patience in the Bates household (Ch 19) wins our approval and our sympathy as she is forced to discuss Jane Fairfax even though she escapes hearing the letter. The technique of juxtaposition of this discussion with the last one may lead the alert reader to connect the names of Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, though Emma mentally and rather wickedly match-makes with Mr Dixon.
Jane Fairfax is clearly a person of some misfortune of birth yet distinction of character (Ch 20) and there is a compendium of Jane Austen’s moral vocabulary here: good understanding, excellent education, right-minded and well-informed people, discipline and culture. Jane Fairfax is regarded as fortunate in having being brought up “in all the rational pleasures of an elegant society, and a judicious mixture of home and amusement.” She would be an excellent friend for Emma and yet Emma is hostile towards her, possibly out of jealousy but also because Jane is cold and reserved. Both are attractive young women and we do feel sympathetic towards Emma’s very human grumpiness in rejecting a forced friendship: she does not want “to be always doing more than she wished and less than she ought.” Emma is reacting in a petulant manner similar to Mr Knightley’s response to Frank Churchill. We appreciate her irritation over the concern for her rival’s health as Emma’s is always sound and, with verbal irony, “Jane’s offences rose again.” She will not satisfy curiosity about Frank Churchill and “Emma could not forgive her.” It is debatable if, on a first reading, we would connect her sickliness and reserve on this topic with a secret liaison but there is a hint in: “She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved.” The authorial technique here is subtle and masterly.
Chapter 21 opens with a repetition of the sentence from the previous chapter but we accept that, whatever her feelings, Emma has behaved with propriety and Mr Knightley is so pleased that he indulges in a somewhat comic sudden moving into a chair near to Emma, an action underlined by Mr Woodhouse’s speaking of his own moving a chair the previous evening. Emma’s liberality and sense are shown when she sends a whole hind-quarter of pork to the Bates household. The entry of Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax introduces pages of almost pure dialogue in which the fickle Mr Elton’s marriage is announced. Harriet is far from overwhelmed by this and is more concerned with her meeting with the Martins. Emma is forced – she has a certain mental honesty – to admit that there had been “an interesting misture of wounded affection and genuine delicacy in their behaviour” but she counts it “folly to be disturbed it it.” Verbal irony resulting from the change of viewpoint triggers our recognition that is is folly not to be disturbed by it.
The novel has few general observations on life but Chapter 22 opens with the ironic and satirical: “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.” Mr Elton’s character is revealed in all its shallowness anf mercenary fortune-seeking but Harriet is not fully recovered: the comedy is maintained by the focus being elsewhere, yet Emma does acknowledge that, in her dealings with the Martins, there was something “which her own heart could not approve — something of ingratitude, merely glossed over.” She has learned a little and has become more sensitive, accepting that Mr Martin has behaved better to Harriet than Mr Elton did, but still passes swiftly on “or what will become of Harriet?” What indeed, the reader echoes.
Chapter 23 reveals the worst side of Emma, snobbery and self-confidence. She is weary of the very situation she set up of Mr Elton and the Martins but still leaves Harriet a mere fourteen minutes with the family who have been so kind to her. Despite the failure of her interference so far she will continue to meddle: “They must be separated”, she claims to herself, yet another instance of a switch of point of view for ironic purposes. These are Emma’s thoughts, slipped in to omniscient narration, but tinged with a hint of overdone melodrama in “her evil stars” which leads us to feel that all with turn out well for Harriet. When she meets Frank Churchill at last, she is impressed by his “well-bred ease of manner, and a readiness to talk” but these are superficial characteristics which we expected from Mr Knightley’s account; Emma’s supposition that he wants to get to know her better is understandable but dangerous in the circumstances. Here, her blindness is shared by everyone else: he does seem to others to be a good match for her. He is too forward to Mrs Weston yet too quiet on the topic of Jane Fairfax.
The comic aspect of Mr Woodhouse is shown here: his opposition to marriage is a real threat to Emma’s potential happiness and yet the account of it is humorous: “it seemed as if he could not think so ill of any two persons’ understanding as to suppose they meant to marry till it were proved against them.” Yet we note that the agreeable Frank Churchill would not tolerate him as father-in-law and that there is only one man who would; again these realisations are turned to comedy in: “Frank knows a puddle of water when he sees it”.
In Chapter 24, various sides of Frank Churchill are shown: “fine words and hyperbolic compliments”, “he was delighted with everything” and, while the reader is suspicious of such undiscriminating enthusiasm, Emma mistakenly feels it exonerates him from any criticism of his previous absence. Yet he is full of life and cheerfulness, qualities welcome to Emma in her restricted life. His rudeness about Jane Fairfax’s complexion is troubling as is his general manner, “sleek and well tied” like the parcels he buys: by metonymy those characteristics transfer to him. He cannot stop taking about Jane Fairfax, even while saying “one cannot love a reserved person.” Later, by hindsight, we feel this behavious to be disgracefully deceptive and unkind to her. She is reserved because their engagement is kept secret and, in the terms of the novel, reserve is to be suspected.
Immediately, in Chapter 25, Emma must revise her thoughts: Frank Churchill goes to London, apparently merely to hava a hair-cut. She cannot approve of such “foppery and nonsense”; “vanity, extravagance, love of change, testlessness of temper, heedlessness [to others]” do not accord with the attributes of “rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart, which she had beleived herself to discern in him yesterday.” This true judgement would be even harsher were she to realise the real reason for the trip: he is lying to everyone about a serious matter. The twist in the chapter is towards humour when Emma is annoyed that she has not been invited to the Coles, whom she views with proud and snobbish hostility, because she would have liked the pleasure of refusal. Her inconsistency of nature appears when she accepts finally, rationalising that she should go because of their consideration for her father, whose anti-life attitude is demonstrated in the laughable: “The sooner every party breaks up, the better!”
She is ready to forgive Frank Churchill (Ch 26) because of his “good grace” claiming that: “Wickedness is always wickedness, but folly is not always folly.” Folly is judged by the intellect, wickedness by the moral sense but both are incontrovertible. We note that Mr Knightley’s judgements present themselves to her even as she thinks of another man. She is thoughtful to her guests, a good moral quality as is Mr Knightley’s lack of ostentation in arriving on foot. She can criticise him playfully and he can respond in kind. Mrs Cole is kind but too outspoken and patronising. Jane Austen shows us the tedium of local life: “everyday remarks, dull repetitions, old news, and heavy jokes.” It is small wonder that Emma tries to divert herself, even though her methods can be reprehensible. She is not to be blamed for thinking that Frank Churchill admires her: his behaviour to her is part of his deception along with his impolite public treatment of Jane Fairfax.
At this point she praises Mr Knightley in strong moral terms: “good-natured, useful, considerate … benevolent.” She makes an important distinction: “He is not a gallant man, but he is a very humane one” and her approbation can be seen as budding love when she is horrified at the suggestion that he might like Jane Fairfax, rationalising that her hostility to the idea is that little Henry must not be ousted from his inheritance. This thought does not disturb her later when she wishes to marry Mr Knightley. Her imitation of Miss Bates is funny but disrespectful and prefigures the incident at Box Hill. Further important comments are made about Mr Knightley: “Little things do not irritate him” (Mr Woodhouse can be tolerated by him) and: “Mr Knightley does nothing mysteriously”; unlike Frank Churchill, whose reason for going to London can now be deduced, he has no duplicity. The piano is widely accepted as being from the Campbells though Mr Knightley criticises the surprise element: how much more reprehensible a surprise it is, coming from Frank Churchill. When Mr Knightley rejects Jane Fairfax for himself, Emma has “no longer an alarm for Henry”; the irony tells us that her concern was for herself alone. She does not want Mr Knightley to love anyone else and there never was an alarm about Henry. Frank Churchill continues to be inexcusably rude about his fiancee and deceitful in his praise of Emma, whose affections might have been deeper and therefore easily hurt.
Chapter 27 has another of Jane Austen’s rare general observations on life: “Perfect happiness, even in memory, is not common” and here it refers to two matters on which Emma is not content. One is her piano playing but her practice (intended to remedy this) is interrupted by Harriet and the circle of ignorance, flattery and vanity resumes. Mr Knightley’s liberality is demonstrated by the gift of apples. In the next chapter, Emma notes Frank Churchill’s social game over the piano but is blind to ite true significance, like everyone else. Jane Fairfax is presented as secretive rather than modestly reserved, “cherishing very reprehensible feelings.” We note that Mr Knightley rushes off in order to avoid Frank Churchill: he can stay five minutes but then only two. By such tiny details, Jane Austen maps situations and relationships.
Verbal irony opens Chapter 29: “It may be possible to do without dancing entirely … ” but, in the discussion of the event, Emma comes to criticise Franck Churchill: she has changed her opinion of him almost subconsciously and questions her earlier idea of marrying him. He is rude about Mr Perry when he claims the doctor would be glad of a few more illnesses, a lack of manners of which Mr Knightley is incapable but Emma later makes a comparable remark to Miss Bates. Nor could Mr Knightley tease Mr Woodhouse about open windows. The reader may feel that Frank Churchill says what we would all be tempted to say in such a bland society but his behaviour reveals a lack of respect which is shown also in his dangerous deceptions.
Chapter 30 mentions Mr Knightley’s “provoking indifference to the dance” and we may feel he is a little too severe and anti-life in preferring to stay at home but we may also suspect he is jealous of the opportunity it will afford Emma to flirt with Frank Churchill, younger and more charismatic. It seems as though Frank Churchill is about to tell Emma of his secret engagement to Jane Fairfax but, after she has failed to pick up the signals, they are interrupted and she assumes he is in love with her. In a comic piece of detached rationalisation, she tries to prove to herself that she loves him back: “This sensation of listlessness … I must be in love.” Now Mr Knightley shows his better side when he shows genuine sympathy and “considerable kindness” towards Emma’s disappointment over the cancelled dance and Jane Fairfax’s repressed misery manifests itself as “odious” composure in Emma’s eyes. She is the only person who is truly suffering and she cannot receive compassion: there is cruelty in her situation but we may, nevertheless, feel she is too cold.