A 19th-Century Analysis and Plot Summary of Emma by Jane Austen

Jane Austen Emma stamp 2013

Jane Austen by Sarah Fanny Malden (1889) offers views of Jane Austen‘s life and work from a 19th-century perspective. The following analysis and plot summary of Emma (1815) focuses on what some readers and critics believe to be the author’s finest novel (some might beg to differ, of course).

Mrs. Malden said of her sources, “The writer wishes to express her obligations to Lord Brabourne and Mr. C. Austen Leigh for their kind permission to make use of the Memoir and Letters of their gifted relative, which have been her principal authorities for this work.”

The 1889 publication of Malden’s Jane Austen was part of an Eminent Women series published by W.H. Allen & Co., London. The following excerpt is in the public domain:


The summit of Jane Austen’s Literary Powers

Many readers of Jane Austen will agree in thinking that in Emma she reached the summit of her literary powers. She has given us quite as charming individual characters both in earlier and later writings, but it is impossible to name a flaw in Emma; there is not a page that could with advantage be omitted, nor could any additions improve it.

The story, as usual with Jane Austen, is a mere thread of the most everyday kind: the loves, hopes, fears, and rivalries of a dozen people, with all their home lives and surroundings. But every one of the characters stands out clearly from the canvas, and all are life-like and delightful.

It has all the brilliancy of Pride and Prejudice, without any immaturity of style, and it is as carefully finished as Mansfield Park, without the least suspicion of prolixity.

In Emma, too, as has been already noticed, she worked into perfection some characters which she had attempted earlier with less success, and she gave us two or three, such as Mr. Weston, Mrs. Elton, and Miss Bates, which we find nowhere else in her writings.

Moreover, in Emma, above all her other works, she achieved a task in which many a great writer has failed; for she gives us the portrait of a thorough English gentleman, drawn to the life.

Edmund Bertram (of Mansfield Park) in the best sense of the word, a gentleman, but he is a very young one; Mr. Darcy (of Pride and Prejudice) and Henry Tilney (of Northanger Abbey) at times are on the verge of not being quite thoroughbred; but Mr. Knightley is from head to foot a gentleman, and we feel that he never could have said or done a thing unworthy of one.

Jane Austen herself classed Knightley with Edmund Bertram as “far from being what I know English gentlemen often are.” I think she was unjust to both her heroes, but, above all, to Mr. Knightley, for it is difficult to see how he could be surpassed.


Introducing Emma Woodhouse

Emma Woodhouse, too, is very good. Her faults, follies, and mistakes are completely those of a warm-hearted, rather spoilt girl, accustomed to believing in herself, and to be queen of her own circle.

She deserves the amount of punishment she gets, but we are glad it is no worse; and, with Mr. Knightley to look after her, she will do very well. Her position would be a spoiling one for any girl:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate indulgent father, and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses, and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.”

Emma Woodhouse is, of course, the most prominent character, and a considerable part of the plot turns upon the strenuous attempts at matchmaking for a friend, which she takes up to amuse and occupy herself when the marriage of her beloved governess has left her alone in her father’s house.

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Emma by Jane Austen

Quotes from Emma by Jane Austen
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Matchmaking for Harriet Smith

This friend, Harriet Smith, is pretty, silly, and second-rate, of unknown parentage, and educated at a neighboring boarding-school; but Emma, fascinated by her beauty and simplicity, ignores her worst defects, and resolves upon marrying her to the vicar of the parish, Mr. Elton, who is young, handsome, and a good imitation of a gentleman.

Her eagerness for the marriage is quickened by finding that Harriet has a pronounced admirer in a neighboring young farmer, whom Emma considers quite beneath her; and she directs much of her energy to quell this rising attachment on Harriet’s part, honestly believing it to be a very bad connection for her.

Harriet herself has never aspired higher than Mr. Robert Martin, and, but for Emma’s interference, his course of true love would have run exceedingly smooth. An unexpected meeting with him out walking gives Emma an opportunity for lowering him in Harriett’s eyes.


Mr. Elton vs. Robert Martin

Emma is persuaded that very little encouragement will bring Mr. Elton forward as Harriet’s declared suitor, and, under this belief, she throws the two together in every possible way at Hartfield.

Having further convinced herself that Mr. Elton’s pretty speeches, which would suit every woman equally well, are solely intended for Harriet through her, she receives them all with the utmost graciousness, quite unconscious of the presumptuous hopes for himself which he builds upon her manner to him.

She begins a portrait of Harriet, which, she trusts, may someday be a wedding present to Mr. Elton, and her eyes are not opened to his real views even by his remarks upon the picture when finished.

Perhaps Mr. Robert Martin hears enough of what is passing at Hartfield to alarm him; at all events, he determines to put his fate to the touch; and the very day of Mr. Elton’s going to London Harriet comes to Emma:

“… with an agitated hurried look, announcing something extraordinary to have happened which she was longing to tell. Half a minute brought it all out. She had heard, as soon as she had got back to Mrs. Goddard’s, that Mr. Martin had been there an hour before . . . had left a little parcel for her from one of his sisters, and gone away; and, on opening this parcel, she had actually found, besides the two songs which she had lent Elizabeth to copy, a letter to herself, and this letter was from him—from Mr. Martin—and contained a direct proposal of marriage.

Who could have thought it? She was so surprised, she did not know what to do. Yes, quite a proposal of marriage; and a very good letter, at least, she thought so. And he wrote as if he really loved her very much—but she did not know—and so she had come as fast as she could to ask Miss Woodhouse what she should do.”

It is clear enough what she wants to do; but Emma, still bent upon saving her friend from a supposed mésalliance, is indignant with Mr. Martin’s presumption, and only wishes Harriet to lose no time in giving him his dismissal.

There can be no better picture of a strong, decided nature bearing down a weak, vacillating one, yet entirely unconscious of its own tyranny.

But Emma’s triumph is of short duration. She has first to endure a sharp lecture from Mr. Knightley, who, from his position in the family as brother to her sister’s husband, is on terms of full intimacy with her and her father, and is, moreover, “one of the few people who could see faults in Emma Woodhouse, and the only one who ever told her of them.”

Robert Martin has confided his hopes to him, and, when they are crushed, Mr. Knightley is much grieved for him, and, guessing the part which Emma has had in the business, is much annoyed with her for dissuading Harriet from a safe and respectable connection.

Emma has hardly tranquilized him, when, to her intense vexation, Mr. Elton declares himself her lover, and she then perceives the truth, to which she has been so blind, and sees how all her efforts for Harriet have been set down by him to dawning attachment on her own part.

Of course, Harriet has to be comforted and talked out of love—a far harder task than talking her into it; and even Mr. Elton’s very speedy engagement to “a Miss Hawkins of Bath” has not all the success Emma has hoped for.


Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax

In the interval before his marriage, we are introduced to Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, who may be considered the secondary hero and heroine of the story. She is the granddaughter of a Mr. Bates, a former clergyman of Highbury.

Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax have met at the house of a friend, and he having fallen violently in love, and being a young man with little regard for anyone’s feelings but his own, has persuaded her, against her better judgment, into a secret engagement.

The plea for it is that his family might disinherit him if they knew of the engagement too soon, and, for a time, the secret is easy enough to keep; but when Jane comes for her usual visit to her grandmother and aunt at Highbury, Frank Churchill immediately finds the opportunity for a visit to his father there, and the connection between him and his fiancée necessitates an amount of double-dealing which is very painful to her though it greatly amuses him. Emma narrowly escapes being a sufferer by this.

“In spite of Emma’s resolution of never marrying, there was something in the name, in the idea, of Mr. Frank Churchill which always interested her. She had frequently thought—especially since his father’s marriage with Miss Taylor—that if she were to marry, he was the very person to suit her in age, character, and condition. He seemed, by this connection between the families, quite to belong to her. She could not but suppose it to be a match that everybody who knew them must think of.”

When Mr. Frank Churchill appears, he is pleasant, lively, and well-bred, quite willing to carry on a graceful flirtation with Emma in order to cover his real attraction at Highbury; and both the Westons and Emma believe him to be seriously falling in love with the latter.


Is Emma falling in love?

Emma, having much time on her hands, and a lively imagination, tries to convince herself that she is falling in love with him; and her attempt at this is an excellent passage in the book. She is quite unsuspicious of his secret engagement, in spite of the sharp-sightedness on which she prides herself, but the real superiority of her own nature enables her to see a certain shallowness in his.

Quite unconsciously to herself, she is always comparing him with Mr. Knightley, and the comparison is not favorable to Frank; but, having made up her mind that she will not marry at present, and that Frank is in love with her, she magnanimously decides not to give him any further encouragement, and begins to consider if he could be induced to fall in love with Harriet Smith.

On her own side she honestly believes that she has fallen in love with him—which she has never done for a moment—and considers herself heroic for determining not to leave her father. Meanwhile Mr. Elton has returned to Highbury with his bride, and Emma feels bound to call upon her. Mrs. Elton duly returns the visit, and Emma tries to be civil.

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Emma by Jane Austen

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Secrets revealed

The secret of Frank Churchill’s engagement at last comes out unexpectedly and is a very startling revelation to a good many people, even to Emma, though not in the way she might have expected. In his effort to conceal his real attachment, Frank Churchill has flirted with Emma to an extent that has exasperated Jane Fairfax, whose nerves are over-wrought and irritable beyond measure, and she at length hastily decides on taking a situation as a governess which has been offered to her by friends of Mrs. Elton.

She has carefully concealed this step from her lover up to the last moment; but when he learns it, all his better feelings are roused, and he announces the engagement to his family, determined to brave all possible consequences.

Emma, in addition to being much displeased at this secrecy, which is so repugnant to her whole nature, is sincerely grieved for Harriet Smith, who, she believes, is as much attached to Frank Churchill as she can be to anyone.

For some time past it has been clear that there is a successor to Mr. Elton in Harriet’s somewhat unstable affections; and though Emma, taught by experience, has resolutely held her tongue on the subject, she has been delighted at a prospect which promised so much happiness to her friend.

Now, when the truth is known, she is preparing to pity and sympathize with Harriet over Frank Churchill’s unjustifiable concealment, when, to her amazement, she finds herself again completely mistaken, and learns with dismay that Mr. Knightley is the man on whom Harriet’s present ideas are fixed.

“A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress; she touched, she admitted, she acknowledged the whole truth. Why was it so much worse that Harriet should be in love with Mr. Knightley than with Frank Churchill? Why was the evil so dreadfully increased by Harriet’s having some hope of a return? It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!”

Poor Emma! It is impossible not to feel for her in her agony of self-revelation and self-reproach, and to hope that her sufferings may not last long, as, indeed, they do not. Mr. Knightley, who is away in London at his brother’s, hears, while there, of Frank Churchill’s engagement.

He has always had some suspicion of the real state of affairs between Mr. Churchill and Miss Fairfax, and has even tried to warn Emma, who had repelled the suggestion with scorn; but he has feared that Emma’s own affections were ensnared, and he has suffered much from the belief that his own cause was hopeless.

Now all other feelings are swallowed up in his distress for what he supposes Emma is suffering; and when he makes his way to Hartfield, and sees her melancholy and depressed, his belief in her heart-broken state is confirmed.

Nevertheless, during a walk in the garden, he is undeceived as to her supposed attachment for Frank Churchill, and, in the rush of delight that follows upon such a discovery, he cannot resist speaking for himself, with what rapturous results for both may be imagined.


Everyone marries well

Emma’s one remaining piece of compunction must be for her unlucky little protégée, Harriet Smith; but even this difficulty is surprisingly soon smoothed out of her way. Harriet, while on a visit to Emma’s sister, Mrs. John Knightley, in London, again comes across Robert Martin, and, as he has always been faithful to her, the result is easily guessed; although Emma, true to her mistaken estimates of character, is greatly amazed when the engagement is announced. She is pacified, however, and accepts Mr. Knightley’s quiet opinion of the story.

“You ought to know your friend best, but I should say she was a good-tempered, soft-hearted girl, not likely to be very determined against any young man who told her he loved her”— which is, of course, the precise truth.

The three marriages of the story take place within a very short time of each other, Harriet Smith’s being the first; “and Mr. Elton was called on within a month from the marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Martin to join the hands of Mr. Knightley and Miss Woodhouse.

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