Summary of Jane Austen’s Emma

Emma is a comic novel by Jane Austen, first published in 1816, about the perils of misconstrued romance.


Emma Woodhouse is a young woman in Regency England. She lives in Surrey in the village of Highbury with her father, a valetudinarian (one who is afraid he will become ill) who is principally characterized by excessive concern for the health and safety of his loved ones. Emma’s friend and only critic is the gentlemanly Mr. Knightley, her neighbour from the adjacent estate of Donwell, and brother of her elder sister Isabella’s husband. As the novel opens, Emma has just attended the wedding of Miss Taylor, her old governess and best friend. Having introduced Miss Taylor to her future husband, Mr Weston, Emma takes credit for their marriage, and decides that she rather likes matchmaking.

Against Mr. Knightley’s advice, Emma forges ahead with her new avocation; this time she tries to match her new friend Harriet Smith, a sweet but none-too-bright girl of seventeen — described as “the natural [illegitimate] daughter of somebody” to Mr. Elton, the local vicar. However, first she must persuade Miss Smith to refuse an advantageous marriage proposal from a respectable young farmer, Mr. Martin, whom Emma believes is too socially inferior for Harriet. Against her wishes, the easily-influenced Harriet refuses the proposal. However, soon her schemes go awry when Mr. Elton, a social climber himself, declares he wants to marry Emma — not the socially inferior Harriet. After Emma rejects Mr. Elton, he leaves for a while for a sojourn in Bath, and Harriet fancies herself heartbroken. Emma now tries to convince Harriet that Mr. Elton is beneath her after all.

An interesting development is the arrival in the neighbourhood of Frank Churchill, Mrs Weston’s stepson, whom Emma has never met, but has a long-standing interest. Also, Mr.Elton (who will reveal himself to be more and more arrogant and pompous as the story continues — much like Mr. Collins of Pride and Prejudice) returns with another newcomer — a common, vulgar but rich wife who becomes part of Emma’s social circle, though the two women soon loathe each other. A third new character is the orphaned Jane Fairfax, the re-served but beautiful niece of Emma’s impoverished neighbour, the loquacious Miss Bates.Miss Bates is an aging spinster, who is well-meaning but increasingly poor; Emma strives to be polite and kind to her, but is irritated by her dull and incessant chattering. Jane, who is very accomplished musically, is Miss Bates’ pride and joy; Emma, however, envies her talent and initially dislikes her for her apparent coldness and reserve. Jane had lived with Miss Bates until she was nine, but Colonel Campbell, a friend indebted to her father for seeing him through a life-threatening illness, welcomed her into his own home where she became fast friends with his unfortunately plain daughter and received a first-rate education. On the marriage of Miss Campbell, Jane returned to her relations, ostensibly to regain her health and prepare to earn her living as a governess.

In her eagerness to find some sort of fault with Jane — and also to find something to amuse her in her pleasant but dull village — Emma indulges in the fantasy, apparently shared with Frank, that Jane was an object of admiration for Miss Campbell’s husband, Mr. Dixon,and that it is for this reason she has returned home, rather than going to Ireland to visit them.This suspicion is further fuelled by the arrival of a piano for Jane from a mysterious anonymous benefactor.

Emma tries to make herself fall in love with Frank largely because everyone says they make a handsome couple. Frank seems to everyone to have Emma as his object, and the two flirt together in public, including on a day-trip to Box Hill, a local beauty spot. Emma ultimately decides, however, that he would suit Harriet better after an episode where Frank ‘saves’ her protégée from a band of Gypsies. At this time, Mrs. Weston wonders if Emma’s old friend Mr. Knightley might have taken a fancy to Jane. Emma promptly decides that she does not want Mr. Knightley to marry anyone, but rather than further explore these feelings, she claims that this is because she wants her nephew Henry to inherit the family property.

When Mr. Knightley scolds her for a thoughtless insult to Miss Bates, Emma is privately ashamed, and tries to atone. Though the kind-hearted Miss Bates readily forgives her,Jane initially refuses to see her or accept her gifts causing Emma to despair of ever making amends for her behaviour. She believes that Jane’s dislike of her stems from her behaviour towards Miss Bates. However, Emma learns that Jane and Frank have been secretly engaged for almost a year. In striving to disguise the love between them, Frank pretends to admire Emma. Jane’s distress was due to the fact that she believed that Frank’s behaviour towards Emma was genuine. Emma is discomfited at her lack of insight into others’ behaviour, as she has seen only what she wanted to see, rather than the truth.

When Harriet confides that she thinks Mr. Knightley is in love with her, jealousy forces Emma to realize that she loves him herself. Mr. Knightley has been in love with Emma for the duration of the book and after the engagement of Jane and Frank had been discovered, he proposes to her. Shortly thereafter Harriet reconciles with her young farmer Mr. Martin and Jane and Emma reconcile and everyone lives happily.

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