Austen for Beginners

Emma - the plot


 

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Here's a summary of the story. If you’d prefer to skip straight to the actual text of the novel, click here:
Emma – the text



Setting the scene...
  • Emma Woodhouse lives with her widowed father at Hartfield in the village of Highbury in Hampshire. When the novel opens they have just returned from the wedding of Miss Taylor, Emma's governess, to Mr Weston, one of their neighbours. Emma considers herself personally responsible for the match, for the simple reason that she thought of it first.
  • Mr Woodhouse is an elderly hypchondriac; Emma is his younger daughter. His elder daughter, Isabella, is already married and living in London with her husband and children. Mr Woodhouse enjoys evening card parties and their social circle is made up of the Westons and other similarly genteel neighbours. These include Mr Knightley, who is the brother of Isabella's husband John, Mr Elton (the vicar), and Mrs Goddard, who runs a small boarding school in the village. One evening, Mrs Goddard brings with her one of her elder pupils, Harriet Smith.
A friendship blossoms
  • Emma befriends Harriet, who is the illegitimate daughter of someone or other, but is otherwise respectable. Emma assumes that Harriet's father at least is a gentleman, and decides to use her matchmaking skills in her favour. She feels Mr Elton would be a suitable husband for her, but Harriet, at the moment at least, prefers young Mr Martin, a local farmer. Emma doesn't think Mr Martin would be suitable at all, and says so. Harriet looks up to Emma and thinks her completely wonderful, so tends to believe every word she says.
  • Mr Elton appears to think favourably of Harriet, and is delighted when Emma announces that she is to paint Harriet's portrait in watercolours. He agrees to take the portrait to London to get it framed.
A proposal is refused and there is a quarrel
  • Mr Martin writes to Harriet and asks her to marry him. Harriet is inclined to accept, but Emma talks her out of it and persuades her to refuse him, telling her that he is not good enough for her. Mr Knightley discovers what Emma has done and quarrels with her about it, saying she is encouraging Harriet to have ideas above her station in life. Emma remains convinced of Mr Elton's intentions, but Mr Knightley disagrees with her on that point, too.
  • Emma's sister, Isabella, arrives from London with her husband and family to stay for Christmas. Emma and her family attend a dinner party at the Westons'. Harriet is invited but cannot attend due to a bad cold. Mr Elton is present, and on the way home, horrifies Emma by proposing to her. She discovers he has never had any interest in Harriet as a prospective wife. She refuses him and resolves to give up matchmaking, since her attempt to get Harriet and Mr Elton together has been so disastrous.
  • Emma is forced to tell Harriet what has happened. Harriet thinks Emma is so wonderful that she doesn't blame Emma at all for what happened. They both have to face the future embarrassment of meeting Mr Elton in the village, but fortunately he has gone away to Bath for a while.
Mr Frank Churchill does not arrive...Mr Frank Churchill arrives
  • The Westons are expecting Frank Churchill, Mr Weston's son from his first marriage, to arrive for a visit. He has lived most of his life with rich relations, rather than with his father, and they are believed to disapprove of his intention to visit his father. The visit is delayed; Emma blames his rich and overbearing aunt, on whom he is dependent, but Mr Knightley thinks that Mr Churchill is just being feeble. They agree to differ. Emma remains interested in Mr Churchill - after all, he might just be a potential match for herself.
  • It is announced that Mr Elton is to marry a Miss Hawkins, an unknown but rich young lady from Bristol. Both Emma and Harriet are embarrassed to meet him on his return to the village, but get over it.
  • Miss Jane Fairfax, the granddaughter of Mrs Bates, the widow of the former vicar, arrives for a visit. She and Emma have known each other all their lives, but Emma for some reason just doesn't like her. They discover on her arrival that Miss Fairfax has met Frank Churchill recently in Weymouth. Emma has a feeling that Mr Knightley may be considering her as a potential wife, but she really hopes she is wrong.
  • Frank Churchill finally arrives for a visit to his father, and is found to be both handsome and charming. He gets on well with everyone - although dents his reputation slightly by returning briefly to London, merely to get his hair cut!
Is Emma in love? And if she isn't, who is?
  • Emma thoroughly enjoys Frank Churchill's visit, but can't quite make up her mind whether or not he is in love with her. And even if he is, is she in love with him? She thinks probably not, but it is fun while it lasts. Perhaps Harriet would be better for him.
  • The new Mrs Elton arrives in Highbury. Emma finds her vulgar and pretentious, but most of the rest of the village think her charming, and Jane Fairfax seems to be her new best friend, which Emma cannot understand. But Mr Knightley confirms that he is not interested in Jane Fairfax, and Emma is relieved on that point, at least. She doesn't realise that Mr Knightley suspects her of being in love with Frank Churchill. 
  • Mrs Elton proves to be just as much a pain in the neck as Emma thought she would be. Jane Fairfax is due to leave Highbury, but she must first find a post as a governess. Mrs Elton tries to be helpful; Jane resists.
  • There is a dance; most of our various characters attend. Mrs Elton is vulgar; Mr Elton refuses to dance with Harriet; everyone else is charming; Frank returns in time to come to the dance. Emma decides she isn't in love with him - at least, not enough to marry him, and wonders again if Harriet might be the woman for him. Even Mr Knightley agrees that Mr Elton has not chosen well for his wife and would have done better to marry Harriet. Emma is happy to be on good terms with Mr Knightley again, and gladly dances with him. Mr Knightley also dances with Harriet, after Mr Elton snubs her
  • Mr Knightley thinks Frank Churchill is attached to Jane Fairfax, but Emma does not agree. Frank saves Harriet from being molested by some gipsies and Emma is quite sure that Harriet must fall in love with him after that. At least it ought to help her get over Mr Elton.
  • Emma is rather rude to Miss Bates at a picnic, and Mr Knightley scolds her for it, so she calls on Miss Bates the following day to make it clear that she did not mean what she said. She learns that Jane Fairfax has accepted a post as a governess, which was found for her by Mrs Elton.
A secret engagement is revealed
  • Mrs Churchill, Frank's rich and awkward aunt, dies suddenly, and Frank is free to make a surprising announcement. Mr Knightley is proved right - Frank and Jane has been secretly engaged for months. Emma isn't worried on her own behalf, although she is rather cross with both Frank and Jane for being so sly, but she is worried that Harriet will once again have her heart broken.
  • It emerges that Harriet isn't in love with Frank Churchill at all, but with Mr Knightley. Emma is horrified, and it dawns on her that she is in love with Mr Knightley herself. But it's all her own fault - if she hadn't encouraged Harriet to think herself better than she was, she would have married Robert Martin in the first place, and this would never have happened. 
  • Mr Knightley proposes to Emma and she accepts. But there are a few problems to solve before they can be married....
Three weddings!
  • Harriet takes the news about Emma and Mr Knightley well. Robert Martin proposes once again to her and this time she accepts him. Emma is delighted. It emerges that Harriet's father was in fact a rich tradesman, so there is no shame in her marrying a farmer after all. Now there are three couples engaged to be married - who will tie the knot first?
  • Harriet and Robert Martin marry first. Emma and Mr Knightley still have to reconcile Mr Woodhouse to the idea of their marrying. Emma cannot leave her father, so they plan to live at Hartfield rather than Donwell Abbey, Mr Knightley's home. But Mr Woodhouse sees no rush - why can they not wait a few years? Fortunately the frustration ends when some local robberies convince Mr Woodhouse that he would be safer if Mr Knightley lived at Hartfield. So Emma and Mr Knightley marry quickly, before Mr Woodhouse has a chance to change his mind.
  • Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax, in spite of having been engaged for many months, must wait a few months longer to be married, out of respect for Frank's deceased aunt.

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