Emma Woodhouse—Protagonist of the novel; youngest daughter of Mr. Woodhouse and his deceased wife; sister of Isabella (Woodhouse) Knightley; mistress of Hartfield estate.
Mr. Woodhouse—Emma’s father; elderly, sedentary master of Hartfield.
Mrs. Weston (Miss Taylor)—Emma’s former governess, now friend; wife of Mr. Weston; mistress of Randalls country house.
Mr. Weston—(Captain Weston)—Retired militia; husband of Mrs. Weston; biological father of Frank Churchill; master of Randalls.
Mr. Knightley (George)—Gentleman farmer and magistrate; master of Donwell Abbey; neighbor and friend of Emma and Mr. Woodhouse.
Mr. Elton—Vicar of Highbury; young bachelor.
Harriet Smith—Illegitimate daughter of unknown persons; placed in Mrs. Goddard’s Boarding School in Highbury; befriended by Emma.
Mrs. and Miss Bates—Widow of former Vicar of Highbury and her spinster daughter; social friends of the Woodhouses; aunt and cousin of Jane Fairfax.
Jane Fairfax—Orphaned niece of Mrs. Bates; taken in by Colonel and Mrs. Campbell who undertook her education; secret fiancée of Frank Churchill.
Mr. and Mrs. Churchill—Aunt and uncle of Frank Weston Churchill whom they adopt; brother and sister-in-law to Miss Churchill, deceased first wife of Mr. Weston.
Frank (Weston) Churchill—Son of Mr. Weston and the deceased Miss Churchill; adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Churchill; brought up in fashionable London society; secret fiancé of Jane Fairfax.
Augusta (Hawkins) Elton—Social climbing wife of Mr. Elton; daughter of tradesman, eager to break into society at Highbury.
John and Isabella (Woodhouse) Knightley—Lawyer brother-in-law and sister of Emma Woodhouse; residing in Brunswick Square in London.
Robert Martin—Tenant of Abbey Mill farm, rented from Mr. (George) Knightley; fond of Harriet Smith.
Elizabeth Martin—Sister of Robert; resident of Abbey Mill; schoolfriend of Harriet.
Mr. and Mrs. Coles—Tradespeople of the village of Highbury, rising in fortune and rank to the upper middle class.
Mrs. Goddard—Mistress of a boarding school.
Mr. and Mrs. Cox—Lawyer family.
The major plot of Knightley's pursuit and mentorship of Emma is set against the subplot of Frank Churchill's pursuit of Jane, creating a dynamic set of main characters who act as foils, revealing each others strengths and weaknesses. Another subplot is Emma's manipulation of Harriet out of the engagement to Robert Martin, and into brief attachments to Mr. Elton, Frank Churchill, and Mr. Knightley, before she independently accepts Robert Martin's second proposal. Since Martin remains in the background and Harriet Smith is largely Emma's pawn, it is the Churchill-Fairfax liaison that speaks most precisely to the situation between Knightley and Emma. First Knightley, the older, socially established man exposes the limitations in the younger, still socially dependent Churchill's character: Frank is impulsive, self-centered, garrulous, overtly passionate, and secretly engaged, thus putting Jane Fairfax in a compromised position socially and financially. Knightley is by contrast generous, judicious in his speech, only covertly passionate, and trying to find the right moment to propose to Emma, whom he would never dream of compromising in any social, financial, or other way. The very most he does is annoy her with advice giving. Yet Churchill's pursuit of Jane, and his ultimate good luck, suggest that Knightley is perhaps too reserved and restrained in his passions, and perhaps a bit weary and too easily wounded, refreshingly unlike Churchill, but slightly the loser because of it.
Likewise, Jane Fairfax is held as a mirror up to Emma. Jane is poor (and therefore under pressure to marry) where Emma is wealthy, mature where Emma is young and headstrong, of a developed character while Emma's is still being formed, and suffering herself, whereas Emma is...
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causing suffering in others. Jane is also hemmed in by her role of the poor, secretly engaged female, while Emma is given free movement and center stage by her role of the wealthy, unattached female, suggesting that Jane's virtues may be partly owing to her restrained circumstances. Emma moves the plot, although it occasionally lays her low, while Jane almost continuously endures the plot.
The more minor characters fill in the social picture and comment on the greater actions of the main four characters. Miss Bates, "a great talker on little matters," lives with her mother and is the aunt of Jane Fairfax. She is essential because her garrulous nature makes her a gold mine of information, often trivial, but necessary to round out the picture of life in the novel. It is on her that Mr. Woodhouse, the hypochondriac widower and Emma's father, depends for such information (just as he depends on Mr. Perry, the apothecary, to minister to his supposed stomach ailments). Her innate kindness and generosity, and simple content, heighten our sense of Emma's cruelty during the Box Hill episode. Harriet Smith, the object of Emma's manipulation, also exposes Emma's shortcomings, particularly her penchant for physical beauty, and sometimes even her talents as a mentor, but even more importantly the hypocrisy of society that stigmatizes an innocent child for the sexual exploits of the parents. With delightful irony, the narrator pronounces: "Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody."
Her twice betrothed Robert Martin also shows up a society that holds a man in low esteem who earns his living as a farmer, even though he buys and reads novels. Harriet has attended Mrs. Goddard's school, a place whose virtues appear to document by contrast some educational abuses of the time: There children get enough to eat, enough exercise, and "learn a reasonable quantity of accomplishments ... at a reasonable price" (Chapter 3, Volume 1). Miss Nash is the head teacher there. Emma's educator has been Miss Taylor, who at the outset of the novel has married Mr. Weston; she, unlike Knightley, is not suspicious of the relationship between Emma and Harriet Smith. Mr. Weston is Frank Churchill's real father: the widowed Weston has placed Frank at age three with his deceased wife's brother's family, the Churchills at their request, for they are childless. Because of Mrs. Churchill's snobbery, the relationship between Weston and the Churchills is chilly. The dead wife has been extravagant and depleted Weston's fortune, but without the burden of the child, Weston quits the military, spends twenty years building up his fortune in trade, and becomes a landowner. Although Weston sees him once a year in London, Frank never visits his biological father at Highbury until he is a grown man. He has indeed been legally adopted by his aunt and uncle, and has been made the heir of his deceased mother's brother. Frank is an example, like Jane Austen's own brother Edward, of the loosening of ties of kinship for financial and social gain.
Mr. Elton is a clergyman who is Emma's first prospect for Harriet. He is described by Emma as "good-humoured, cheerful, obliging, and gentle" and "without any deficiency of useful understanding or knowledge of the world" (Chapter 4, Volume 1). Emma persuades Harriet, despite John Knightley's advice to the contrary, that Elton would be interested in her as a mate. She persuades her that he means to address her in a charade about courtship. She even arranges for them to be in the same room together at his cottage, but the proposal does not happen. Instead Elton, flushed with wine, proposes to Emma herself when they are mistakenly put into the same carriage while traveling from Randalls to Hartfield. Not much later, Elton finds a fiancee, Miss Hawkins, at Bath, marries her, and brings her to Highbury. She is a pushy busybody who tries to catapult Jane Fairfax into a governess job with a friend of a friend. Claudia Johnson notes how Mrs. Elton's gauche, publicity-seeking behavior highlights by contrast some of Emma's restraint in showing off her best qualities. Elton is a slightly toned down version of Mr. Collins from Pride and Prejudice. Aside from the pain that Emma's contrivance causes Martin—she has engineered a refusal from Harriet—the Elton-Harriet plot is a lighter, comical event that foreshadows the more sinister Emma-Frank Churchill flirtation at Box Hill.
Other minor characters include Knightley's brother and wife, John and Isabella Knightley, who have five children and represent to Knightley the picture of domestic bliss that is lacking in his life. It is to them Knightley flees when disillusioned by Emma's behavior at Box Hill. There are also Colonel and Mrs. Campbell, Jane Fairfax's guardians, who pay for her education, but who are away in Ireland at the crucial time when she becomes depressed over Frank's behavior and breaks the engagement. The Campbell's only daughter is married to Mr. Dixon, and the marriage has intensified Jane's feelings of being an outsider in the Campbell household. A character like Mrs. Coles functions like Miss Bates and Mrs. Elton as a purveyor of information: It is she who tells Emma that Elton has become engaged.