Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
Emma plans a dinner party for the Eltons. She does not wish to be thought of as overlooking them and thinks people will talk if she doesn’t invite them. Just when everything is set, John Knightley appears with his two sons for a visit with their grandpa, Mr. Woodhouse. Their arrival throws Emma’s seating arrangement into disarray. She must plan to sit across from her brother-in-law whom she knows to be a reluctant conversationalist.
John Knightley surprises her by engaging in a lively conversation with Jane Fairfax. He tells her, and everyone at the table, that he saw her that morning, in the rain, on her way to the post office. Mr. Woodhouse chimes in that rain is unhealthy, and Mrs. Elton adds that she risked a cold going out. Mrs. Elton offers the use of her servant to fetch Jane’s mail, but Jane declines.
Skillfully, Jane deflects the conversation to handwriting and the guests give their impressions of what constitutes beautiful penmanship. Though momentarily uncertain of how to introduce Frank Churchill’s name, Emma blurts out that he has a fine gentleman’s hand. Mr. Knightley finds it too small and lacking strength. Emma promises to produce a specimen that will convince him otherwise. When the guests head to dinner, Emma notices that Jane appears to be glowing with health. She assumes the letter that came is from Ireland and her secret lover, Mr. Dixon. The two go into the dining room arm-in-arm. Once dinner is done, the guests head back to the drawing room, where Mrs. Elton attaches herself to Jane Fairfax. Mrs. Elton urges her to secure a governess position before the spring is over so that she can be employed by fall. Jane is most insistent that Mrs. Elton not put out any feelers for her. She insists she will spend the summer doing just as she is doing. When Mr. Weston comes in late, he brings a letter from Frank Churchill. The letter announces Frank’s arrival next week. The Westons are thrilled, Emma is surprised at her confused feelings, and Mr. Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley remain cool to the prospect. Mr. Weston approaches Mrs. Elton with the news.
There is more to Frank’s news than first reported. Mr. Weston tells Mrs. Elton that Frank is coming first to London with his parents because Mrs. Churchill is ill and needs a more southerly climate. Though that will mean Frank can make more frequent visits to Highbury, it also suggests to Mr. Weston that Mrs. Churchill is using her illness to attach herself to Frank.
Mr. Weston gives Mrs. Elton a history of the Churchills. He characterizes Mr. Churchill as a bit stuffy, but generally amiable. He claims the real ruler in the family is Mrs. Churchill, who was not born into the upper class, but snatched all the privileges of it once she married up. Mrs. Elton seems more interested in the society of Maple Grove than in anything Mr. Weston might reveal.
The spotlight is deflected from Emma in these chapters and focuses on the theme of class. Character behavior cannot be separated from class distinctions. The townspeople of Highbury permit Emma her way because she is from the richest and most powerful family in town. Emma cannot abide Mrs. Elton because she is clearly of a lower rank. What is worse, she pretends to be of higher rank, with her name dropping and self-importance. Mrs. Elton is compared with Mrs. Churchill, who came from lowly beginnings, married into the upper class, and outdid them with her pride and arrogance. Women who put on airs, who step above their rank, are the object of gossip and distrust.
Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill are orphans who were adopted into the upper classes. While Frank has assumed the manners and privilege of that class, Jane is not so fortunate. Her family has given her a good education, and she possesses the beauty and talent to move above her rank, but there are restrictions. She has been trained to become a governess-a kind of educated servant. Happily for Jane, her adoptive parents cannot let go of her and her future is not yet determined.
Emma hopes to polish Harriet in her own image and by associating with her, elevate her to a higher class. Emma is discovering it takes more than association to create a masterpiece.