Emma thinks about her agitation upon hearing of Frank’s impending arrival and decides that she feels such apprehension more on his behalf than her own—her attachment to him is not very strong. When she sees him again, he is friendly and spirited but visits for only fifteen minutes. Frank’s short visit convinces Emma that his feelings as well must have weakened. Because of his aunt’s demands, Frank is kept away for ten days after this first visit. Mrs. Churchill eventually determines that her family must move from London to Richmond, which places Frank closer to Highbury. Mr. Weston is delighted to have his son nearer, and a date is set for the long-postponed ball.
The day of the ball arrives. Emma is invited by Mr. Weston to come early and give her opinion on the arrangements, and she believes that this opportunity will give some privacy to her second meeting with Frank, who will be with his father. But Emma is not the only one of Mr. Weston’s “favourites” that he has entreated to come early, and all the while Frank seems excited but restless, constantly moving to see who has arrived. Finally, when Jane and Miss Bates arrive, Frank rushes out to help them with umbrellas. Mrs. Elton pronounces Frank a very fine young man. Miss Bates overwhelms everyone with exclamations of gratitude and pleasure. Frank tells Emma that he dislikes Mrs. Elton and her familiar manner with Jane, and he runs off again to ask his father when the dancing will begin.
Mr. and Mrs. Weston suddenly realize that Mrs. Elton expects to be asked to lead the dance and that they cannot give Emma that honor, as they had hoped. Despite this slight disappointment, Emma enjoys the beginning of the festivities, though she is disturbed that Mr. Knightley will not dance. She admires the figure he cuts among the other men, and he notices that he is watching her. The ball is a success, and only one episode mars Emma’s enjoyment. During one dance, Harriet is left without a partner, and Mr. Elton, the one dancer who is disengaged, pointedly refuses to ask her. Mr. Knightley soothes Harriet’s embarrassment by asking her to dance, and Emma is very pleased with him. Later, she expresses her gratitude, and he asks her why the Eltons are her enemies. She admits that she wanted Mr. Elton to marry Harriet and acknowledges that Knightley was right about his character. Knightley in return admits that Harriet has more admirable qualities than he originally thought. Emma and Knightley cement their new mutual understanding with a dance.
Emma looks back on her talk with Mr. Knightley at the ball with pleasure, and she rejoices that the Eltons’ rudeness has cured Harriet of her infatuation with Mr. Elton. Suddenly, Frank appears with Harriet, fainting, on his arm. When revived, Harriet tells the story of how she was walking with a friend, Miss Bickerton, when a Gypsy child approached to beg from them. Miss Bickerton, frightened, ran away, but Harriet was unable to follow because of a cramp she had gotten at the ball. Just as she started to panic, a group of Gypsies surrounded her and demanded money. Frank happened to be walking along and frightened the Gypsies away. Emma cannot help but wonder whether this romantic circumstance might make Harriet and Frank interesting to each other. The episode alarms Mr. Woodhouse and is occasion for gossip, but the Gypsies leave the neighborhood and no harm is done.
Emma’s honest reflections about her lack of substantive feelings for Frank reveal her growing maturity. She no longer sees him as a character in the scenes she imagines for herself, someone who is important simply because he gives her the opportunity to show off her accomplishments and elegance. She recognizes that if their two-month separation has not cooled his love, “there were dangers and evils before her: caution for him and for herself would be necessary.” Rather than anticipating a dramatic scene, she now hopes that “she might be able to keep him from an absolute declaration. That would be so very painful a conclusion of their present acquaintance.” Emma’s decision to observe Frank to see how he feels, rather than to begin with an assumption about how he feels, enables her to understand that Frank is not in love with her. The narrator makes clear that Emma’s vanity is not at issue in this case—she is relieved, not offended, that Frank’s feelings are cooled, and at the dance, she seems to find more interest in puzzling about his odd mood than in courting his attention. When Frank and Emma dance, instead of imagining how elegant they look to others, she admires how elegant Mr. Knightley looks. Emma has become more concerned with observing others, and less concerned with being observed by others.
The Gypsies Harriet describes encountering in Chapter 39 seem a strange intrusion into the domestic realism of the story. It is almost as if they have wandered in from a different novel entirely. In the episode, Austen plays with the conventions of romantic melodrama, one of which was the rescue of a “damsel in distress” as the beginning to a romantic relationship. Yet, in the calculating context established by the novel, the encounter seems to predict a lack of destiny rather than a fated match. The improbability of Harriet’s encounter with Frank alerts us to the improbability of their ending up together. We can see that the extraordinary circumstances that have thrown Harriet and Frank together owe nothing to their shared values or qualities—a chance meeting and rescue present no evidence that the two belong together. And while Harriet’s passivity is in keeping with the conventions of a romance, it is not something that we would expect Austen’s novel to reward. The happiest women in the novel are not weak and passive, but both mentally and physically vigorous.
Emma’s willingness to accept the improbability of Harriet’s encounter with Frank as proof that there must be some sort of connection between the two indicates that her fancy has not been entirely cured of its tendency toward ungrounded speculation. Emma may be learning to place Mr. Knightley’s approval of her more recent actions above Frank Churchill’s charms, but she has a few more lessons to learn before she gains a full understanding of herself.