Emma’s thoughts on how much she is in love with Frank Churchill reveal that she is not in love with him at all: she is busy and cheerful; the word “fancying” is used and the fancies involve her refusing him. There is dramatic irony here for the astute reader, who realises that he is using Emma to divert suspicion from his true feelings and by the end of the paragraph she has accepted that there would be more of an inner struggle if she loved him. She has learned from past experience but not enough and that is the process of her development throughout the novel. His letter pleases her and the description of it is full of the moral language of Jane Austen’s approval: affection, gratitude, respect, natural, honorable …” When apologising to Harriet over the matter of Mr Elton, Emma acutely summarises: “Deceived myself, I did very miserably deceive you.” The word “deliberately” could have started the sentence and made it more accurate. Yet she overrates “tenderness of heart” and is too critical of her own superior powers: Harriet and her father are less endowed with admirable faculties than she is and being popular is not the ultimate criterion.
Mr Elton’s character is revealed through his bride: lack of elegance denoting superficiality and vulgarity. Mrs Elton is a snob, vain, self-satisfied, ignorant and over-familiar. Emma is right to find her “insufferable” with unduly easy manners; Mr Elton has married her for money but Emma is quick to judge and ready to find his wife intolerable, even though that casts doubt on the judgement of the man she intended for Harriet’s husband, who turns out to be less of a gentleman than Mr Martin. They treat Harriet unpleasantly in Chapter 33 and Mrs Elton’s manners continue to be “presuming, familiar, ignorant and ill-bred” stemming from her self-importance. When she decides to draw out Jane Fairfax we cannot help noting the similarity between that and Emma’s attempts to improve Harriet, an irony of situation of which Emma is unaware. Mr Knightley feels that it is Emma’s own fault if Jane Fairfax is patronised by Mrs Elton as she herself made no movement towards befriending her and yet he satisfies Emma that he himself could not love such a reserved person: “I love an open temper” – such as Emma’s we note. In Chapter 35, Jane Fairfax’s behaviour is again suspect: a quivering lip and a sudden walk to the post office and yet it is oppressive for her to have every movement watched in such detail.
In Chapter 35 Jane Fairfax is controlled, cool, distant and bitter and, although she denies that she was comparing being a governess to being a slave, the point has struck home. Her cynicism is the result of a truly difficult situation but the reader’s attention is drawn away from it by the caricature element in the presentation of Mrs Elton and her language: contradictory on the matter of trimmings which, by metonymy, become representative of her behaviour. The conversations and the reports of them reveal the characters of the people concerned: John Knightley is anti-society; Mr Weston is unselfcritically talkative; Jane Fairfax is distant; Emma is silent and perplexed and Mr Knightley is mute. There are serious events taking place but only two people recognise that there is something amiss. It must be acknowledged that the impetus of the plot has been lost at this point: the interest generated by Emma’s doings earlier cannot be sustained by a somewhat factitious attention to Jane Fairfax and Chapter 36 has little new in it except My Knightley’s silence as he frets about the arrival of Frank Churchill.
Chapter 37 is the start of the original Volume 3 and Jane Austen speeds up the plot for this final section by re-introducing the ball. Meanwhile Emma does observe a change in Frank Churchill’s attitude but fails to interpret his cooler manner correctly. He is also restless and dissatisfied but cannot find the time to visit Hartfield more than once.
Chapter 38 deserves detailed scrutiny for its subtle view of relationships, its humour and social satire. Frank Churchill is set on pleasure but all that happens is that the comic group of forerunners discuss the advisability of a fire in May. Miss Bates chatters in a wholly chaotic fashion with no direction and few completed sentences. Mrs Elton is also closely observed: when she pays a compliment, it is because she is waiting to have one returned and her opinions contradict themselves. In a slip of the tongue, Frank Churchill addresses his secret fiancee as merely “Jane” and his mood is so odd that Emma cannot understand him – but this is not a blindness particular to her. Comedy intervenes in her feeling so irritated by Mrs Elton and having to stand second to her that: “It was almost enough to make her think of marrying.” Yet this trivial thought is soon interrupted by a reflection on Mr Knightley which, by juxtaposition, suggests he might be the man for her. She is suddenly visited by a sense of physical admiration for his “tall, firm, upright figure” and “there was not one among the whole row of young men who could be compared with him.” This is unacknowledged sexual attraction in Jane Austen’s terms.
He is grave because of Frank Churchill; his unwillingness to dance is brought to a climax when he rescues Harriet from a humilating refusal by Mr Elton and leads her onto the floor. Emma has to accept that Mr Elton is not “amiable, obliging, gentle” and that she was entirely wrong about him. Miss Bates continues to be undiscriminating in her admiration for Mrs Elton and tactless over the asparagus. Mr Knightley is intelligently perceptive and about the incident with Harriet’s dancing but, in kindly fashion, does not scold Emma. As a result, both admit their errors and Mr Knightley pleases Emma by his revaluation of Harriet as an “unpretending, single-minded, artless girl” and preferable to Mrs Elton. This praise will return less agreeably to Emma’s mind later but, for the moment, they are in such accord that she can ask him to dance. His emphatic rebuttal of her summary of their relationship shows that he is now acknowledging his sexual feelings for her: “Brother and sister! no, indeed!”
Chapter 39 recounts a supposedly romantic adventure placed as such by verbal irony: “A young lady who faints must be recovered…” The dry tone suggests that such incidents are the stuff of novels of sentiment, comparatively trivial but food for foolish imaginations. In this novel it is the cause of a major misunderstanding. Harriet shows sense in realising the true character of Mr Elton but the account of her “Most precious treasures” is highly comic and even Emma is divided between “wonder and amusement” that Harriet has enshrined a piece of court plaister as a romantic souvenir. It is her own fault, however, that matters arrived at this point yet any serious implication is dismissed by the suggestion that they keep the plaster as it might be useful! At this point Harriet confesses to a new attraction and gratitude even though she says she will never marry: both notions are foolishly mistaken. Emma, equally and typically misguided, applies a half-lesson she has learned from her last error, which is the exact opposite of what is required here: she will not interfere and she will not mention names. In this case they should mention names and Emma might be right to interfere. As it is, the misinterpretation lasts a long time: Harriet is speaking of My Knightley at the ball and Emma assumes she means Frank Churchill and the incident in the wood.
This mistake is underlined by the fact that Mr Knightley’s rational cogitations are leading him to a correct conclusion: that there is “something of a private liking, of private understanding even, between Frank Churchill and Jane.” The irony in the situation is made explicit: “But while so many were devoting him [Frank Churchill] to Emma, and Emma herself making him over to Harriet, Mr Knightley began to suspect him of some inclination to trifle with Jane Fairfax.” His acute perception is immediately proved correct when Frank Churchill reveals that he knows that Mr Perry thought of setting up his carriage: this information could only have come from Jane Fairfax in private discussion with him and cannot be laughed away as a dream. They then communicate secretly in a lexicon-like game when he forms the word “blunder” and Harriet’s stupidity emphasises it. Mr Knightley sees: “Disingenuousness and double-dealing… at every turn” and is so anxious about it that he confronts Emma with his suspicion. Emma, quick to perceive liaisons where there are none, is slow to see them when they do exist. This irony is stressed by her emphatic denial and when he misuses the word “imagined”, she seizes on it as the explanation: Mr Knightley never works by imagination, whereas Emma doe so persistently. When she replies: “I will answer for the gentleman’s indifference” it can only be interpeted that she has received declarations of attachment from Frank Churchill and Mr Knightley is silenced.
The first of two expeditions is heralded, which, like the ball, show character, relationships and social satire. They are parallel trips but contrasted as Mr Knightley organises the visit to Donwell with care and consideration and the overriding mood is good. In Emma people are closely associated with their properties and sometimes take on their features: Donwell, is “respectable”, “suitable, becoming”, with “neither fashion nor extravagance” altering its avenues; it has “many comfortable and one or two handsome rooms” and is the “residence of a family of such true gentility, untainted in blood and understanding.” This is both Jane Austen’s approbation and Emma’s new feelings towards its owner. It is sensible, complex and harmonious, embodying the Augustan values of useful beauty. Mr Weston is typified by : “One cannot have too large a party; Mrs Elton by her peevish and snobbish restlessness: “cabbage-beds would have been enough to tempt the lady who only wanted to be going somewhere.” Her notion of the “simple and natural” is contradicted by Mr Knightley who knows that nature must be adapted to the needs of people and does not merely mean outdoors in simplistic definition.
He acts out of particular consideration towards Mr Woodhouse who would be ill if anyone sat outside! Mr Woodhouse is appeased and entertained – a matter of much significance if Emma and the “kind and sensible” Mr Knightley are to be united. Emma engages in wilful self-deception when she refuses to perceive any meaning in Mr Knightley’s speaking separately with Harriet and in convincing herself that Mr Martin had long ceased thinking of Harriet. Jane Fairfax bursts out to Emma: “Oh! Miss Woodhouse, the comfort of being sometimes alone” and, while Emma is sympathetic (albeit rather self-centredly) and likes her for it, she misinterprets the “just horrors” to which Jane Fairfax refers. Frank Churchill is variable and unstable and Emma is glad that she has, in her mistaken fancy, passed him on to Harriet who will not mind. The irony is that Harriet has turned to the same worthwhile man as Emma herself: Mr Knightley. The outing is a success because of the organiser.
The outing to Box Hill in the next chapter (53) is very different. The effect of contrast is heightened by the juxtaposition of chapters. Some of the members of the party are in disagreeable moods and there is no-one in charge to bring harmony. There is “a languor, a want of spirits, a want of union, which could not be got over. They separated too much into parties”, a description of a microcosm which reveals much about the macrocosm of the wider society: it is fractured and disparate in its underlying structure; only good manners, respect and decorum hold it together. Emma continues to misinterpret behaviour and, in her boredom, flirts with Frank Churchill in an uneasy manner stemming from disappointment rather than attraction. This causes pain to Jane Fairfax and Mr Knightley and, while Emma cannot be held responsible for that, Frank Churchill should not be deliberately wounding his fiancee. The ill-feeling running through the group culminates in Emma’s rudeness to Miss Bates, a person lower in rank who has made a good-humoured self-deprecating remark.
Emma’s cruel wit at first passes over Miss Bates but not for long and the poor woman blushes. “Ah! ma’m, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me — but you will be limited as to number — only three at once.” It is a wholly inappropriate remark as Emma takes advantage of her superior position and intelligence to hurt the defenceless – but many of us would be tempted to make such a comment. Dangerous topics of love are discussed foolishly until even Emma grows “tired at last of flattery and merriment” and finds consolation in gazing at the views, again a microcosmic detail. Mr Knightley’s rebukes over her treatment of Miss Bates are severe and unforgiving: the spinster is a test of people’s forebearance and tolerance and Emma has failed it. The point Mr Knightley stresses is that it is acceptable to antagonise the rich or the presumptuous (we think of Mrs Elton) but not the poor, even if the “good” and “ridiculous” are blended in the personality, as it is the duty of the rich to respect and protect them. Emma’s behaviour could be copied because of her social position: she has flouted the bonds holding together the community. His strictures are the harsher because of his growing love for Emma but, not knowing this, she is devastated by them: this misery, unlike the earlier upset, cannot be postponed until after hair-dressing and she weeps, feeling “agitated, mortified, grieved” for the first time in her life. We recall the opening paragraph of the novel and realise that Emma has learned much since then.
Chapters 44 to the end
At Chapter 44 the misunderstandings and errors start to be unravelled and the novel looks towards the tying up of ends that characterises a comedy. Emma takes consolation in the fact that she is a good daughter and “not without heart” with her father. Every word uttered by Mr Knightley has been seared into her mind: she remembers them exactly and, in the recall, we come to realise that they are too harsh. She immediately visits the Bates household and her friendly enquiry after Jane Fairfax has a good result: “The touch seemed immediate.” She wants to please Mr Knightley but she has also learned compassion towards Jane Fairfax. “You are always kind,” says Miss Bates, proving that the insult has not struck deep. Mrs Elton is shown to be a better schemer over finding a position for Jane Fairfax than Emma – but that is not entirely complimentary.
Mr Knightley is delighted and his former open warmth towards Emma returns in Chapter 45, manifesting itself in his taking her hand to kiss it but then letting it go: the “fancy” mentioned is his concern over Frank Churchill and is not a fancy at all. His gesture, apart from that, does speak “perfect amity” but so much more. The paragraph is written from Emma’s point of view and is not omniscient narration. He then leaves suddenly: a rational man behaves irrationally because of love. Mrs Churchill’s death brings her into public repute: with irony her name is “cleared of ill-fame.” Jane Fairfax’s health is now, apparently “completely deranged”: Frank Churchill’s social games could be ruining her youth. Emma is mortified that her gift of arrow-root is spurned but is perplexed that her new friend is seen “wandering about the meadows”.
In Chapter 46 Emma is wide of the mark in guessing what the news may be and amazed when she hears of the secret engagement. She behaves in exemplary fashion, reassuring the Westons that she is not personally affected but then she speaks out against her former choice is strong terms which could hurt them: “impropriety”, “none of that upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle” but she is violently indignant: “What right had he to come among us with affection and faith engaged, and with manners so very disengaged.” The criticisms are partly moral but partly due to the fact that she has been deceived and nearly hurt and may be deceiving Harriet once again. She was duped when she prides herself on her perceptiveness and her language does not soften:” hypocrisy and deceit, espionage and treachery.” By the end of the interview, she has courageously gained control of herself and makes light of her own feeling which finally reassures the Westons. She is kind and is maturing.
Chapter 57 shows that her new self-knowledge is still based on error: her concern for Harriet is misplaced and will soon be directed towards herself. Her criticism of her own actions in the first paragraphs contains a list of all her mistakes, some of them understandable: it was not her fault that Frank Churchill lied to everyone. Now she does look at the evidence instead of seeing what her fancy induces her to believe: Harriet’s behavious is odd. It is ironic that Harriet will not consider Frank Churchill because of “better taste”, a discrimination which Emma has encouraged. At last Emma mentions names and the complexity is untied. Love manifests itself suddenly: “It darted through her, with the speed of an arrow, that Mr Knightley must marry no one but herself.”
There is irony of situation here, as Mr Knightley has shown Harriet attention, but only in the same way as Mr Elton did, to please Emma, except that Mr Knightley’s interest was also genuine. It is also ironic that Emma at last examines what has actually happened and finds examples suggesting Mr Knightley’s affection for Harriet: she has learned from her mistakes but still draws the wrong conclusion: he has shown her attention but not because he is in love with her. Harriet, ironically, has applied Emma’s advice, has observed Mr Knightley’s behaviour and been ruled by it. Emma, like Jane Fairfax, now needs escape to contemplate: with hindsight she sees that she has ignored love in herself while imagining it in others. She does reach “knowledge of herself” although she is now too self-critical where once she was over-confident and finds: “Every other part of her mind was disgusting” except for her love for Mr Knightley. We recall her good aspects: daughter, sister, neighbour despite “insufferable vanity.” She has not made the match for Harriet deliberately but has tried to raise her sights; we note that she still considers Harriet to have “very inferior powers.” The ironies multiply: Mr Knightley now admires her for what she did for Harriet; Harriet’s presumption is Emma’s responsibility and has come back to wound her.
Chapter 48 describes Emma’s painful feelings as she realises how much Mr Knightley means and has meant to her, acknowledging also that she has spurned his criticisms. Here the reader must balance her judgements: we recall that she has always been full of life and spirit and was bound to make some mistakes. In the midst of her love she is rational and can examine events but still with a blindness to reality: she knows she is dear to Mr Knightley but cannot see that such a man could never be content with Harriet. She concludes that: “Marriage, in fact, would not do for her… Nothing should separate her from her father.” Rationalisation though this is, it contains an element of truth: Mr Woodhouse presents a real problem to Emma’s happiness. When she sees Mrs Weston she blames herself unnecessarily for having hurt Jane Fairfax by her flirtatiousness but remains sound in mind and body: “I am always well you know.” She criticises herself for not having befriended Jane Fairfax instaed of Harriet but the former was too reserved for an open disposition such as Emma’s. By pathetic fallacy, the weather is poor and Emma’s valiant efforts to cheer her father “had never cost her half so much before.” It is clear that she cannot devote her life to him in unrequited love, without Mr Knightley “walking in at all hours, as if willing to change his own home for their’s [sic]” This is a prefiguring comment on what is to happen.
The mood changes with a turn in the weather (Ch 49) and Mr Knightley’s concern for Emma over the secret engagement is full of unselfish emotion and physical contact. Mr Knightley is so relieved that his speech becomes as disorganised as that of Miss Bates as Emma reveals that her heart is not devoted to Frank Churchill. Both analyse their past conduct and opinions with honesty and openness. Emma silences his first attempt at a declaration of love: ironically both began the interview convinced that the other was in love with someone else but, in the manner of comedy, all is now clarified. True, deep emotions characterise his announcement made in “sincere, decided, intelligible tenderness” as he praises her tolerance twoards his early criticisms. Emma’s mind is busy and she knows she cannot turn this down for Harriet’s sake for a “flight of generosity, run mad”, most importantly in Jane Austen’s values: “her judgement was as strong as her feelings.” At this moment Jane Austen cuts us off from any expectation of slush: “What did she say? — Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does.” Strong feelings would be vitiated by novelistic romanticism.
Emma must keep Harriet’s secret even though she is uneasy about this minor deceit,but here we have a clear statement of Jane Austen’s opinion in another rare generalisation in the paragraph beginning: “Seldom, very seldom …” This repetition underlines the seriousness of the point made: “in this case, though the conduct is mistaken, the feelings are not.” This important declaration states that life seldom offers the possibility of complete truth and, when it does not, the criterion is feeling. Let no-one say that Jane Austen does not value emotion. “Perfect happiness” concludes this vital chapter and we learn of the misery of both in the past: he has been jealous of Frank Churchill, an emotion which enlightened him as to his love for Emma and has been unable to take comfort with his family since Isabella reminded him of Emma, a touching domestic detail. Rain would not keep him away when anxious over the well-being of “this sweetest and best of creatures, faultless in spite of all her faults.” The reactions of this rational man are as emotional as in the irrational person, quick to change on discovering she is free and “his own Emma, by hand and word”; now that he is not jealous he might find Frank Churchill ” a very good sort of fellow.” They have been held apart by familiarity, age difference and misunderstanding but we are delighted they are together and know each will change the other for the better: Emma will lighten Mr Knightley and he will improve her understanding. We hope for a resolution of the problem of Mr Woodhouse whose ways now seem, not comic, but threatening.
In Chapter 50, Frank Churchill’s letter goes some way to explaining his conduct and excusing him: it would be impossible for him to say such things face-to-face and letters are often a sign of sincerity, though Emma and Mr Knightley are too open to need them. What Emma does need is Mr Knightley’s opinion and he gives it in running detail, feeling that in so doing he is near to her. Yet his attention is on the unresolved problem which he puts in “plain, unaffected, gentleman-like English, such as Mr Knightley used even to the woman he was in love with, how to be able to ask her to marry him, without attacking the happiness of her father.” He proposes to leave Donwell to live with them, a liberal offer since “there would be much, very much, to be borne with.”
Those simple words refer to the endless irritations Mr Woodhouse will cause and which must be tolerated by a man who could live in comfort in a grand house. Emma, now regarding Donwell differently, has no fear for the inheritance of little Henry and realises that she never had any such. Harriet is a concern soon dismissed: Emma can still pick her up and drop her and is still blind to the possibilty of Mr Martin as a suitor when the chapter concludes, humorously, “it really was too much to hope even of Harriet, that she could be in love with more than three men in one year.” The reader can do the sums and see if this is true! The next chapter hold the pace up for a while but concludes with Mr Knightley’s approval of “every thing that is decided and open.” This almost authorial declaration makes us ask ourselves which relationships have been decided and open.
The idea of motherhood is introduced in Chapter 53 and Mr Knightley jokes that he has lost all his bitterness against spoilt children, guessing that the new one will be disagreeable in infancy, “and correct herself as she grows older”, a neat summary of the plot of the novel. They can criticise each other and themselves in fun and semi-seriousness and Mr Knightley once more pithily describes Emma whilst complimenting Mrs Weston in true gallantry: “Nature gave you understanding ; — Miss Taylor gave you principles.” Yet Harriet is rarely mentioned: Emma has learned discretion. The brother’s letter is brief and honest but not unperceptive and we have a moving incident recounted where Mr Knightley “did not play with the children as much as usual” because of his unhappiness.
They try to reconcile Mr Woodhouse to the new situation pointing out that Mr Knightley is “useful … cheerful … attentive … attached” but nothing convinces the self-centred old man. It is explicitly stated that no-one but Mr Knightley could bear with him, certainly not Frank Churchill and, naturally, Mrs Elton disapproves.
Even the matter of Harriet is cleared up when Mr Knightley breaks the news of her engagement to Mr Martin, ironically fearing Emma’s displeasure when it is the best news she could receive. He praises the man for his “good sense and good principles” and Emma at last acknowledges that Harriet may have no status to recommend her. The uncomfortable deception over Harriet’s love for Mr Knightley can now be laughed away as Emma wonders if they were discussing “the dimensions of some famous ox.” Both are agreed on the satisfactory nature of the union: Harriet with her good qualities and “placing her happiness in the affections and utility of domestic life” will gain the warm family she never had. Emma is in “dancing, singing, exclaiming spirits” now that the need for deception is nearly over and she can give her husband-to-be “that full and perfect confidence which her disposition was most ready to welcome as a duty.” Frank Churchill and Emma can also laugh, even though that game was dangerous and, afterwards, Emma “had never been more sensible of Mr Knightley’s high superiority of character.”
The fickle Harriet is a little shamefaced in the final chapter and, ironically, her love for Mr Martin remains a mystery to Emma who has still not learned the full lesson. Harriet is revealed to be illegitimate and the daughter of a tradesman but will become respectable and happy. The heroine and others will now marry as befits the rather rapid conclusion of this comedy and, hilariously, Mr Woodhouse becomes reconciled to Mr Knightley’s living with them because of a turkey theft in Mrs Weston’s poultry house. The wedding takes place without “finery or parade” which disgusts Mrs Elton but her criticism is seen as petty and misplaced when we consider, along with the “small band of true friends … the perfect happiness of the union.”