A comedy of manners, Emma portrays the spoilt, snobbish, yet charming Emma Woodhouse as she delightfully interferes in the relationships of others without taking much notice of her own heart. Although quick to make prejudgments and decisions, Emma is eventually able to notice her mistakes, and it is this revelation that makes her an endearing heroine and an inspiration to women throughout. Austen has not only created, but also brought to life the world inhabited by her characters through her vivid depictions and clever use of wit. The novel begins with the introduction of the twenty-year-old protagonist described by the all-knowing narrator as “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich with a comfortable home and happy disposition”. He also warns readers of Emma’s high self-confidence and her efforts of having everything her way. Living on the large estate of Hartfield in Surrey with her elderly widowed father, Emma is satisfied with her life and sees no need for romance or a marriage of her own. Instead she views herself to be quite the matchmaker after attending the wedding of her former governess and best friend Anne Taylor and Mr. Weston, whom she has introduced to one another. This new role as matchmaker is further inflamed when she befriends the sweet but not so bright seventeen-year-old Harriet Smith. Emma is determined to find a suitable match for her new best friend and believes that Harriet deserves a gentleman and nothing less. A trusted friend and brother-in-law, George Knightley appears to be the only person openly criticizing Emma’s actions and pointing out her faults. As the novel progresses so does the positive transformation of Emma as she evolves from her self-centered ways into a sympathetic woman well aware of others and her own desires. Emma is often labeled as Austen’s most flawless piece of work, as she explores social issues concerning the difficulties women face living in a society and time when social status defined their very existence. A classic depiction of youthful pride and a misinterpretation of signs, Emma is not without reason celebrated as one of the most revered social comedies.
Frank Churchill, Mr. Weston's son, arrives for a two-week visit and makes many friends. Frank was adopted by his wealthy and domineering aunt, and has had few opportunities to visit before. Mr. Knightley tells Emma that, while Frank is intelligent and engaging, he has a shallow character. Jane Fairfax also arrives to visit her aunt, Miss Bates, and grandmother, Mrs. Bates, for a few months, before starting a governess position due to her family's financial situation. She is the same age as Emma and has received an excellent education by her father's friend, Colonel Campbell. Emma has remained somewhat aloof with her because she envies Jane's talent and is annoyed by everyone, including Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley, praising her. The patronizing Mrs. Elton takes Jane under her wing and announces that she will find her the ideal governess post before it is wanted. Emma feels some sympathy for Jane's predicament.
Emma decides that Jane and Mr. Dixon, Colonel Campbell's new son-in-law, are mutually attracted, and is the reason she arrived earlier than expected. She confides this to Frank, who met Jane and the Campbells at a vacation spot a year earlier; he apparently agrees with Emma. Suspicions are further fuelled when a piano, sent by an anonymous benefactor, arrives for Jane. Emma feels herself falling in love with Frank, but it does not last to his second visit. The Eltons treat Harriet poorly, culminating with Mr. Elton publicly snubbing Harriet at the ball given by the Westons in May. Mr. Knightley, who had long refrained from dancing, gallantly asks Harriet to dance. The day after the ball, Frank brings Harriet to Hartfield; she fainted after a rough encounter with local gypsies. Emma mistakes Harriet's gratitude to Frank as her being in love with him. Meanwhile, Mrs. Weston wonders if Mr. Knightley fancies Jane, but Emma dismisses that. When Mr. Knightley says he notices a connection between Jane and Frank, Emma disagrees, as Frank appears to be courting her instead. Frank arrives late to a gathering at Donwell in June, while Jane departs early. Next day at Box Hill, a local scenic spot, Frank and Emma are bantering when Emma, in jest, thoughtlessly insults Miss Bates.
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