Emma Woodhouse, a rich, clever, and beautiful young woman, has just seen her friend, companion, and former governess, Miss Taylor, married to a neighboring widower, Mr. Weston. While the match is suitable in every way, Emma cannot help sighing over her loss, for now only she and her father are left at Hartfield. Mr. Woodhouse is too old and too fond of worrying about trivialities to be a sufficient companion for his daughter.
The Woodhouses are the great family in the village of Highbury. In their small circle of friends, there are enough middle-age ladies to make up card tables for Mr. Woodhouse, but there is no young lady to be a friend and confidant to Emma. Lonely for her beloved Miss Taylor, now Mrs. Weston, Emma takes under her wing Harriet Smith, the parlor boarder at a nearby boarding school. Although not in the least brilliant, Harriet is a pretty seventeen-year-old girl with pleasing, unassuming manners and a gratifying habit of looking up to Emma as a paragon.
Harriet is the natural daughter of some unknown person; Emma, believing that the girl might be of noble family, persuades her that the society in which she has moved is not good enough for her. She encourages Harriet to give up her acquaintance with the Martin family, respectable farmers of some substance though of no fashion. Instead of thinking of Robert Martin as a husband for Harriet, Emma influences the girl to aspire to the Reverend Philip Elton, the young rector.
Emma believes from Elton’s manner that he is beginning to fall in love with Harriet, and she flatters herself on her matchmaking schemes. Her landowner neighbor George Knightley, the brother of a London lawyer married to Emma’s older sister and one of the few people who can see Emma’s faults, is concerned about her intimacy with Harriet. He warns her that no good can come of it for either Harriet or herself, and he is particularly upset when he learns that Emma has influenced Harriet to turn down Martin’s proposal of marriage. Emma herself suffers from no such qualms, for she is certain that Elton is as much in love with Harriet as Harriet—through Emma’s encouragement—is with him. Emma suffers a rude awakening when Elton, finding her alone, asks her to marry him. She suddenly realizes that what she had taken for gallantries to Harriet had been meant for herself. Elton has taken what Emma had intended as encouragement to his pursuit of Harriet as encouragement to aspire for her own hand. His presumption is bad enough, but the task of breaking the news to Harriet is much worse.
Another disappointment occurs in Emma’s circle. Frank Churchill, who has promised for months to come to see his father and new stepmother, again puts off his visit. Frank, Mr. Weston’s son by a first marriage, has taken the name of his mother’s family. Knightley believes that the young man now feels superior to his father. Emma argues with Knightley, but she finds herself secretly agreeing with him. Although the Hartfield circle is denied Frank’s company, it does acquire an addition in the person of Jane Fairfax, a niece of the garrulous Miss Bates. Jane rivals Emma in beauty and accomplishment; this is one reason why, as Knightley hints, Emma has never been friendly with her. Emma blames Jane’s reserve for their somewhat cool relationship.
Soon after Jane’s arrival, the Westons receive a letter from Frank that sets another date for his visit. This time he actually appears, and Emma finds him a handsome, well-bred young man. He frequently calls on the Woodhouses and also on the Bates family, because of a prior acquaintance with Jane. Emma, rather than Jane, is the recipient of Frank’s gallantries, however, and Emma can see that the Westons are hoping that the romance will prosper.
About this time, Jane receives the handsome but anonymous gift of a pianoforte. It is presumed to have come from wealthy friends with whom Jane, who is an orphan, has lived, but Jane seems embarrassed at the present and refuses to discuss it. After Mrs. Weston points out to Emma that Knightley seems to show great preference and concern for Jane, Emma begins to wonder if the gift has come from him. Emma cannot bear to think of Knightley’s marrying Jane; after observing them together, she concludes to her own satisfaction that he is motivated by friendship, not love.
It is now time for Frank to end his visit, and he departs with seeming reluctance. During his last call at Hartfield, he appears desirous of telling Emma something of a serious nature; but she, believing him to be on the verge of a declaration of love, does not encourage him because in her daydreams she always sees herself refusing him and their love ending in quiet friendship.
Elton returns to the village with a hastily wooed and wedded bride, a lady of small fortune, extremely bad manners, and great pretensions to elegance. Harriet, who had been talked into love by Emma, cannot be so easily talked out of it. What Emma has failed to accomplish, however, Elton’s marriage does, and Harriet at last begins to recover. Her recovery is aided by Elton’s rudeness to her at a ball. When he refuses to dance with her, Knightley, who rarely dances, offers himself as a partner, and Harriet, without Emma’s knowledge, begins to think of him instead of Elton. Emma has actually begun to think of Frank as a husband for Harriet, but she resolves to do nothing to promote the match. Through a series of misinterpretations, Emma thinks Harriet was praising Frank when she was really referring to Knightley.
The romantic entanglement is further complicated because Mrs. Weston continues to believe that Knightley is becoming attached to Jane. In his turn, Knightley sees signs of some secret agreement between Jane and Frank. His suspicions are finally justified when Frank confesses to Mr. and Mrs. Weston that he and Jane have been secretly engaged since October. The Westons’ first thought is for Emma, for they fear that their stepson’s attentions to her might have had their effect. Emma assures Mrs. Weston that she had at one time felt some slight attachment to Frank, but that time is now safely past. Her chief concerns now are that she has said things about Jane to Frank that she would not have said had she known of their engagement, and also that she has, as she believes, encouraged Harriet in another fruitless attachment.
When she goes to break the news of Frank’s engagement gently to Harriet, however, Emma finds her quite unperturbed by it; after a few minutes of talking at cross-purposes, Emma learns that it is not Frank but Knightley upon whom Harriet has now bestowed her affections. When she tells Emma that she has reasons to believe that Knightley returns her sentiments, Emma suddenly realizes the state of her own heart; she herself loves Knightley. She now wishes she had never seen Harriet. Aside from wanting to marry Knightley herself, she knows a match between him and Harriet would be an unequal one, hardly likely to bring happiness to either.
Emma’s worry over this state of affairs ends when Knightley asks her to marry him. Her complete happiness is marred only by her knowing that the marriage will upset her father, who dislikes change of any kind; she is also aware that she has unknowingly prepared Harriet for another disappointment. The first problem is solved when Emma and Knightley decide to reside at Hartfield with Mr. Woodhouse as long as he lives. Harriet’s situation remains problematic; when Knightley was paying attention to her, he was really trying to determine the real state of her affections for his young farm tenant. Consequently, Knightley is able to announce one morning that Robert Martin has again offered himself to Harriet and has been accepted. Emma is overjoyed that Harriet’s future is now assured. She can reflect that all parties concerned have married according to their stations, a prerequisite for their true happiness.