Fulfilling a social obligation, Emma plans a dinner party for Mrs. Elton. Harriet asks to be excused from attending, which gives Emma the opportunity to ease her conscience regarding Jane Fairfax, who, at Harriet’s announced absence, is promptly invited to fill the empty eighth seat. Mr. John Knightley is also included because he will be in Highbury, accompanying his two eldest sons on a visit to their aunt and grandfather.
At the party, Mr. John Knightley gently reproaches Jane for fetching letters from the post office that morning in the rain. Jane acts as if the situation is not a big deal but ends up blushing and watery-eyed, and soon the rest of the party begins discussing the matter. Mrs. Elton insists that her servant should be given the task of retrieving Jane’s letters, and Jane firmly resists. The conversation moves to handwriting. Mr. Knightley praises Emma’s penmanship but dissents when she praises the penmanship of Frank Churchill. Jane’s eagerness to fetch her own letters rouses Emma’s suspicions, but she decides not to trouble Jane by questioning her.
The women gather in the drawing room after dinner, and Mrs. Elton pursues the subject of letter-retrieval with Jane. She also insists on helping Jane find a governess position, though Jane explains that she will not seek a place until after she sees the Campbells in midsummer. The men come in, and Mr. Weston, who has been on business in London, appears. He brings a letter from Frank, reporting that Mrs. Churchill has decided that the household should make an extended visit in London. This news means that Frank will be able to be in Highbury a good deal. Mr. and Mrs. Weston are pleased, Emma is somewhat agitated, and Mr. Knightley seems unexcited by the news.
Mr. Weston and Mrs. Elton have a long-winded conversation in which they pursue comically different purposes. Mrs. Elton fishes for compliments and goes on about Maple Grove, the estate where her wealthy brother and sister-in-law live. Mr. Weston talks about Frank and explains the illness of Frank’s aunt (and Mr. Weston’s sister-in-law), Mrs. Churchill. Before the conversation becomes too heated, they are interrupted by tea. Mr. John Knightley gives Emma final instructions regarding his sons and wonders if they will be in the way at Hartfield, now that Emma has become so social. She rejects John Knightley’s implication and insists that she is more of a homebody than Mr. (George) Knightley, who seems pleased and amused by the assertion.
Austen’s use of three chapters to narrate a single dinner party marks an interesting narrative development for English literature. In novels by previous writers, the description of the events of a dinner party would have taken up at most a page or two, but Austen turns the dinner party into an opportunity to trace extensively the ins and outs of human personality and interaction. In doing so, she provides a model for later writers as disparate as Henry James and Virginia Woolf.
During the dinner party, we are given our first extended view of Jane Fairfax, who begins to come out of her reserved shell and speak more. Her well-crafted comments exemplify an ideal balance between openness and propriety. For example, when Mr. John Knightley observes, “When you have lived to my age, you will begin to think letters are never worth going through the rain for,” Jane answers, “I must not hope to be ever situated as you are, in the midst of every dearest connection, and therefore I cannot expect that simply growing older should make me indifferent about letters.” This answer is politely vague but also expresses real emotion. It engages our pity, but it tactfully avoids any suggestion of self-pity on Jane’s part. Furthermore, when she firmly resists Mrs. Elton’s aggressive offers of assistance, we realize that Jane’s quietness and reserve do not indicate that she is dull or passive—she clearly has a mind of her own. In fact, Jane is the character who voices the novel’s most explicit social protest, which seems to come directly from Austen herself. Jane speaks against the “governess-trade,” which involves “the sale, not quite of human flesh, but of human intellect.” She admits that offices that advertise for governess positions are less morally deplorable than slave traders, but she adds, “[B]ut as to the greater misery of the victims, I do not know where it lies.”
Our experience of the dinner party is also enlivened by Austen’s depiction of the absurdity that often characterizes forced social dialogue. The conversation between Mrs. Elton and Mr. Weston is full of ridiculous, discontinuous shifts of topic. Mrs. Elton continually turns the conversation to the topic of herself and her relations, and Mr. Weston is every bit as determined to turn the conversation back to his son, at one point jumping in when Mrs. Elton is interrupted by a coughing fit. Mrs. Elton’s affected airs are completely lost on Mr. Weston—when she protests that her sister is “no fine lady,” she means that her sister is not overly fussy, but Mr. Weston takes her quite literally. Mrs. Elton’s affected speech and her tactic of fishing for compliments reinforces our sense of her superficiality, while Mr. Weston’s remarks suggest that there is something a little automatic and absentminded in his perpetual sociability.