In Emma, Jane Austen tells the story of a young woman described by the narrator of the novel as “having rather too much her own way” and possessing “a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” Although Austen claimed that her heroine was someone “whom no one would like but myself,” Emma Woodhouse has captivated readers and critics, many of whom have acclaimed the novel as Austen’s finest.
The second daughter of one of the ranking families in the village of Highbury, Emma is accustomed to directing the social lives of her reclusive father and other townspeople. Only her father’s good friend Mr. Knightley, a bachelor nearly twice her age, speaks directly and forcefully to Emma about her meddlesome nature and about her misperceptions of others. The marriage of her governess Miss Taylor to local squire Mr. Weston, described in the opening paragraphs of the novel, convinces Emma that she has been a successful matchmaker. She immediately turns her attention to transforming Harriet Smith, a resident at a local boarding school, into a lady worthy of marrying the village’s highly eligible cleric, Mr. Elton. After persuading Harriet that she is too good to marry a tradesman who genuinely loves her, Emma becomes distressed when she learns that Mr. Elton has no affection for Harriet; instead, he has fallen for Emma herself. With deftness and a touch of cruelty, she rebukes the minister, who departs Highbury for an extended vacation, during which he marries another woman.
Almost immediately thereafter, Emma becomes immersed in the social intrigue surrounding the impending arrival in Highbury of Frank Churchill; the son of Mr. Weston, Frank has been reared by an aunt from whom he has taken the family name. Emma seems almost too willing to flirt with Frank when he finally arrives. Concurrently, Highbury receives another visitor: Jane Fairfax, a polished but reclusive young woman who takes up residence with one of the families in Emma’s social circle. Although Emma seems to have more in common with Jane than with Harriet, she is cool to her—perhaps from unacknowledged jealousy of Jane’s talents.
In a series of social gatherings, Austen shows Emma scheming to make Frank fall in love with her, to marry off Harriet, and to demonstrate her superiority over the new Mrs. Elton. Her imagination and her schemings take her on various flights of fancy, until she is brought back to reality by the announcement that Frank has been secretly engaged to Jane before arriving in Highbury.
Throughout these escapades, Mr. Knightley remains a constant force of reserve and propriety. Considered by virtually everyone in Highbury as the epitome of a gentleman, he continually but gently rebukes Emma for her meddling and poor judgments. Only when she realizes that Harriet has fallen for Mr. Knightley and that he may be returning her attentions, however, does Emma become aware of her own love for him. The brief, matter-of-fact courtship between Emma and Mr. Knightley, her machinations to convince her father that her marriage is a good idea, and Harriet’s reunion with her first love, Robert Martin, provide a comic and satisfying ending to the tale.