Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Highbury. English village sixteen miles southwest of London. Although Jane Austen says it is a populous place, readers find it quite small indeed. A short walk away from the village center are Ford’s, a clothing and fabric store; a bakery; the Bates apartment, over a place of business; a church and a vicarage; the Crown Inn; and Mrs. Goddard’s school. Less than a mile from Emma’s home is Randalls, a little estate belonging to the Westons. Adjoining Highbury is Donwell and its most important estate, Donwell Abbey, the old-fashioned home of Mr. George Knightley and the center of his large farming enterprise. Located on his land is Abbey Mill Farm.

The novel tells of Emma’s growth into adulthood. The isolated and restricted village in which she lives reflects her own initial isolation. For the first twelve chapters, she never strays far from home, which she shares with her unmarried father. Besides Mr. Knightley, her most frequent visitor is a silly school girl named Harriet Smith. Soon Emma’s horizons begin to expand, until, by the end of the novel, she has learned a great deal about many other people—and herself. This movement is expressed geographically. Sometimes Emma makes journeys from home. She socializes more with the people of Highbury, even attending a party given by her social inferiors. She goes to Randalls on Christmas Eve; she visits Donwell Abbey. More often, however, Emma’s expanding horizons are suggested by people coming to Highbury from other parts of England.


*London. Capital and largest city in Great Britain. Emma’s sister Isabella and her family live in Brunswick Square and travel often to Hartfield. Frank Churchill rides to London, ostensibly to get his hair cut.


*Bath. City in the southwest of England, about one hundred miles from Highbury. After he is spurned by Emma, Mr. Elton travels to Bath, where he meets and marries Augusta Hawkins, who lives with her sister Selina at Maple Grove near Bristol. These places suggest the less-than-admirable nature of Mr. Elton’s marriage: Bath was a fashionable and racy pleasure resort, not the place to contract a serious engagement. Maple Grove was situated in a part of England which did not have the social standing of Hartfield.


*Weymouth. English seaside resort slightly more than one hundred miles southwest of Highbury, a place suggesting youthful frivolity. Frank Churchill saved Jane Fairfax’s life in a boating accident there. Both these characters complicate Emma’s life.


Enscombe. Yorkshire estate located perhaps two hundred miles north of Highbury, belonging to the Churchill family. Like Bristol, any place in Yorkshire is a long way from this novel’s favored locations. The Churchills, including Frank, show their restive nature by traveling. Near the end of the novel they live in Richmond, a town nine miles from Highbury.


Balycraig. Estate of Mr. Dixon somewhere in Ireland, far away from Highbury and the woman Emma suspects is the object of his passion.

*Box Hill

*Box Hill. Famous high hill near Dorking in Surrey, about seven miles from Highbury. Near the end of the novel, Emma’s widening perspective is shown when she makes two journeys. At Donwell Abbey she learns more about two of her friends and admires the expanse of the English countryside. The next day she and others take a picnic to Box Hill, where one of the climaxes of the novel occurs: Emma insults Miss Bates and is reprimanded by Mr. Knightley.


Hartfield. Emma Woodhouse’s own residence, in which many indoor scenes are set. Hartfield combines civilization and nature: a comfortable large mansion is set amid pleasant walks and shrubbery—a good place for a proposal of marriage.


*Southend-on-Sea. English seaside resort thirty-six miles east of London on the bank of the Thames estuary. Mr. Woodhouse objects to the Knightley family’s bathing there.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Emma, a romantic comedy of manners, paints a sparkling and amusing picture of genteel village life in Great Britain during the brief Regency period preceding the Victorian period. Marriage and social position are the primary focus of this work as the women characters, faithful to the social dynamics of the time, seek financial and social security through advantageous marriages. Of the many genteel women in the novel, only Emma can choose to stay single without serious financial and social sacrifice. The other unmarried women of the story are either prospective brides or the “unfortunate” ones, such as Jane Fairfax’s aunt Miss Bates, obliged to earn a living looking after others and receiving pity or indifference from most of their neighbors. Though the picture of village life drawn by Jane Austen is filled with humorous scenes and characters, the underlying grim reality of unmarried women’s lives is a sobering one.

Emma clearly understands that marriage is the only answer to her new friend Harriet Smith’s uncertain social position and undecided future. Emma quickly dismisses Harriet’s eager suitor Robert Martin as unacceptable because he lacks sufficient social position to be worthy of her friend; he is merely a hardworking, modest farmer. When Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law, points out that Emma has grand plans for a young woman lacking virtually any social position, and in fact one who could be a member of a disreputable family, Emma strongly objects to his negative comment, countering that her protegée can as likely be a romantic heroine, a lost heiress of a noble family. She later learns from Mr. Knightley that Harriet is the illegitimate daughter of a prosperous businessman, not a lost heiress.

Each suitor whom the matchmaking Emma considers for Harriet proves to be unsatisfactory and to have matchmaking plans of his own. The handsome village minister, Mr. Elton, coldly refuses to consider the match, for Harriet is unworthy of his social position; to Emma’s amazement, he declares himself interested in and worthy of her own hand. Frank Churchill, a very charming and eligible bachelor who soon appears in Highbury to visit his father, is far too independent and much too preoccupied with his own affairs to fall for Emma’s romantic scheme of marrying him to the docile Harriet; in fact, at times he seems to intimate to Emma that he would propose to her instead, but he never does so. Later he reveals his long-standing secret engagement to beautiful but poor Jane Fairfax. Finally, Mr. Knightley seems to be a possible husband for her compliant friend, for he does admire Harriet. At this point in Emma’s matchmaking efforts, she realizes that Mr. Knightley is not for anyone but herself and that, unexpectedly, she is ready for marriage.

In each case, Emma herself has been an obstacle to her plans for her protegée’s happiness. She is humbled by her inept handling of Harriet’s marriage prospects and withdraws from her friend. With Mr. Knightley’s help, the abandoned Harriet finally does become engaged to her long-suffering admirer Robert Martin.

This theme of marriage and social position is treated not only in the main plot of Emma’s elaborate designs to marry off Harriet but in three romantic subplots as well. The already-married couple of Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston gradually settle into happy domestic life and announce that they expect a child of their own. Next, the unexpected marriage of Mr. Elton to his unknown bride, Arabella Hawkins, brings social conflict to Highbury as the new Mrs. Elton jealously and arrogantly challenges Emma’s role as social leader of the village. Third, the melodramatic secret engagement of Frank Churchill and the destitute Jane Fairfax shows the desperate means that lovers used to stay together despite financial problems and parental disapproval. Finally, the novel ends with a flurry of weddings, those of the three couples created in the story but not yet married: Harriet Smith and Robert Martin, Emma Woodhouse and Mr. Knightley, and Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Through marriages, these young women find their social identities and positions.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Emma, considered one of Jane Austen’s finest works, was received with considerable praise and public interest. Even the great novelist of that time, Sir Walter Scott, admired her work for its artistry and elegance. Austen’s novels followed and improved on a tradition begun by the popular writer Fanny Burney (1752-1840), the author of Evelina (1778). This genre of social comedy novel presented women’s stories more naturally than other English novels had. Unlike the popular fantasies of exotic places and melodramatic events, such as the gothic thriller The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), by Ann Radcliffe, Emma is a comic story of rather ordinary events in a typical English village. The characters could be found around many card tables in country houses of those days.

Though the domestic events in novels such as Emma may seem ordinary or even trivial to modern readers, Austen and others were attempting to present a clear and fair picture of the very restricted domestic world women lived in at that time. Women in these novels seem preoccupied with making advantageous marriages simply because marriage was the sole respectable occupation available to well-bred women. Some readers may also criticize Emma for its excessive emphasis on marriage as a calculated means to acquire money and materialistic possessions—houses, land, servants. In truth, these possessions often ruled the marital choices that women made as they considered their life’s prospects. For women to make marital choices without considering such material advantages meant risking hardship, poverty, and even death to themselves and their children. Alternatives to marriage were to remain unmarried, like Miss Bates, dependent on relatives’ generosity, or to enter domestic service as an upper servant, a housekeeper, lady’s maid, or governess, as Jane Fairfax was destined to become. Those who entered domestic service became independent of their families’ incomes but lost their social positions in exchange for security and the tiny income earned.

Because a prosperous marriage was an eligible woman’s best economic choice, entertaining novels treating this choice and its alternatives in entertaining and thoughtful ways became popular reading for women. Austen’s novels presented these issues in humorous and lively ways, using dialogue brilliantly to draw out the comic aspects of well-known character types and devising clever plots to point out absurdities in courtship and marriage situations. Her gentle humor and insight into human motivations are subtle, sometimes leaving readers to wonder what she thought of the events and people portrayed in her novels.

Historical Background

(Novels for Students)

In 1801, the first official census was taken in Great Britain. By 1851, the population had doubled due to the decline in infectious diseases,...

(The entire section is 417 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Mary Lascelles points out that in Emma Jane Austen has perfected a narrative technique of "self-effacement" that allows her to control...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Emma is admired by many readers for its vivid, complex characters, its artistry, its sense of play, and also a sense of the limits of...

(The entire section is 739 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The dominant social danger explored in Emma is the propensity exhibited by the heroine to control others by manipulating their social...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Austen's erudition as the daughter of an educator and an avid reader of novels, and her blending of the two traditions, rooted in Richardson...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

An early, unfinished novel "The Watsons" is believed by some critics to be an early form of Emma, but the similarity appears to me to...

(The entire section is 281 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

There have been six motion picture adaptations of Emma and one sequel. The best of the recent film versions of the novel are the 1996...

(The entire section is 2137 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Austen, Jane. Emma: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds, Reviews, and Criticism. Edited by Stephen M. Parrish. New York: W. W. Norton, 1972. An excellent beginning for the student first reading Emma, this collection brings together the definitive text, the background materials that Austen may have used, and important critical articles. A selected bibliography is included.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Jane Austen’s “Emma.” New York: Chelsea, 1987. In this representative selection of criticism, Austen scholars focus on aspects such as Emma’s imagination and Austen’s power of understatement. Also includes consideration of Emma in terms of feminist literary criticism. Index and bibliography.

Burrows, J. F. Jane Austen’s “Emma. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1968. A detailed study of the novel considering important critical interpretations and the use of language and comic style. A selected bibliography is included.

DiPaolo, Marc. Emma Adapted: Jane Austen’s Heroine from Book to Film. New York: P. Lang, 2007. This work offers an enlightening look at several film adaptations of Emma and the ways in which they differ from and are similar to the novel. To do this, DiPaolo categorizes the adaptations by their genre and purpose, and discusses the statements that the films make about the novel. The result is an excellent resource for anyone who hopes to gain a better understanding of the novel.

Dwyer, June. Jane Austen. New York: Continuum, 1989. A good basic reference for the general reader. The chapter on Emma gives a reading of the novel and discusses the novel’s focus on the problems that life poses for someone like the title character. Includes a bibliography.

Kirkham, Margaret. Jane Austen, Feminism and Fiction. New York: Methuen, 1986. Kirkham asserts that Austen’s viewpoint on such topics as the status of women, female education, marriage and authority, and women in literature is strikingly similar to that of eighteenth century English feminists. Includes a twenty-page chapter on Emma.

Lascelles, Mary. Jane Austen and Her Art. London: Oxford University Press, 1963. A classic study of Austen’s life and fiction, with emphasis on how she developed her literary taste and style. Refers to specific novels to show her evolving art and her mastery of the novel form.

Lauber, John. Jane Austen. New York: Twayne, 1993. The chapter on Emma gives a reading of the novel with special attention to the title character. It also discusses the novel’s place in Austen’s canon. The novel is also considered in the chapter “Austen and Her Critics.” Includes a chronology, annotated bibliography, and index.

Lodge, David, ed. Jane Austen: “Emma.” 1968. Rev. ed. London: Macmillan, 1991. Part of a highly regarded series of critical studies on well-known authors and their works. Includes reviews and critical readings by Austen contemporaries and more recent writers that were collected from books and journals. For the seriously interested reader.

Monaghan, David. Jane Austen: Structure and Social Vision. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980. This critical work examines the moral ideas presented in Austen’s novels and considers their sources in the traditional social values and the new individualistic ethics of her time.

Sherry, Norman. Jane Austen. New York: ARCO, 1969. A general introduction to Austen’s works, this critical review offers a balanced approach to her work, covering background, themes, characterization, style, and tone.

Watt, Ian, ed. Jane Austen: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1963. A collection of critical, interpretive essays on Austen and her works, focusing on her style and themes with reference to broader human values and conditions.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Austen, Jane. Emma. The Penguin English Library, 1982.

Rogers, Pat. An Outline of English Literature. Oxford...

(The entire section is 17 words.)