How could she have been so brutal . . . to Miss Bates! . . . And how suffer him to leave her without saying one word of common kindness!
The Box Hill trip is not a success. Mr. and Mrs. Elton keep to themselves; Mr. Knightley, Miss Bates, and Jane form a second exclusive party; and Emma stays with Harriet and Frank. Emma is disappointed by Harriet’s and Frank’s dullness. Later, Frank becomes excessively lively and gallant. Emma is confident that there is nothing behind his flirtations, but she is aware that others can pick up on their flirtation. The party sits about listlessly, and Frank says that Emma demands to know what they are thinking of. Mrs. Elton is offended by Frank’s deference to Emma, and Knightley asks dryly if she would really like to know what he is thinking. Frank then demands a piece of cleverness from each member of the party, asking them to produce either “one thing very clever . . . or two things moderately clever; or three things very dull indeed.” Miss Bates good-naturedly comments that the she will have no trouble meeting the last requirement, but Emma responds, “Ah! ma’am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me, but you will be limited as to number—only three at once.” Mr. Weston offers a conundrum in praise of Emma, and the Eltons leave in disgust for a walk.
Frank comments that sometimes matches made in public places become regrettable on further acquaintance and that, as a result, Mr. and Mrs. Elton are lucky that they are compatible. Jane demurs and leaves for a walk with her aunt and Mr. Knightley. Emma, left with Frank, grows tired of his flattery. Later, Mr. Knightley takes Emma aside and reprimands her for her conduct toward Miss Bates, reminding Emma that Miss Bates has had an unfortunate life and deserves compassion. Emma has never felt “so agitated, so mortified, [so] grieved” in her life; she cries almost all the way home.
On reflection, Emma decides that the Box Hill party was a disaster. Still feeling horrible about her treatment of Miss Bates, Emma soothes her conscience by visiting the Bateses first thing the following morning. Miss Bates’s humility and kindness are a further reproach to Emma’s bad behavior. During Emma’s visit, Jane remains in the bedroom with a headache.
Jane has just accepted the governess position recommended by Mrs. Elton, and Emma expresses surprise and genuine concern for the unhappiness Jane’s departure must cause everyone. Jane will leave within a fortnight (two weeks). Emma is surprised to learn that Frank departed the previous evening for Richmond, and she is struck by the difference between Mrs. Churchill’s power and Jane’s. She is ashamed of her earlier conjectures about Jane’s relationship with Mr. Dixon.
Emma returns to Hartfield to discover that Mr. Knightley and Harriet have arrived in her absence. Knightley is about to depart for London to visit John and Isabella. His hastiness surprises Emma. Mr. Woodhouse inquires about Emma’s visit with the Bateses, and Emma blushes and exchanges a glance with Knightley. She believes he understands her feelings and forgives her. He makes an unusual gesture, taking her hand and almost kissing it. She is gratified, though a little puzzled about his scruple in completing the kiss.
The next day, unexpected news arrives: Mrs. Churchill has died. Emma thinks this event may improve Harriet’s chances with Frank. Meanwhile, she attempts to provide assistance to Jane, inviting her to Hartfield, sending her healthful foods, and attempting to visit her. Jane pleads ill health, but Emma hears that Jane has been taking outside exercise, and she feels hurt that Jane seems to be particularly avoiding her.
In Emma, Austen presents cleverness as a generally favorable attribute by making it one of her protagonist’s admirable qualities. Austen’s depiction of cleverness was not so kind in previous novels, however. In Mansfield Park, the novel Austen wrote before Emma, the heroine is unfailingly earnest and good, and her main adversary is a woman who is clever and superficial, implying that cleverness is a dangerous quality, not one to be confused with virtue.
Though cleverness is depicted favorably in general in Emma, the Box Hill scene presents cleverness as a hurtful force. Frank Churchill’s ability to deceive everyone into believing he is infatuated with Emma is powered by his restless frustration. Fortunately, Emma is sensible enough not to be taken in by his flirtations, but a less perceptive woman might have been hurt when she discovered they were not serious. Moreover, Frank’s attentions, and Emma’s acceptance of them, cause pain to Mr. Knightley, and we later realize that Frank’s flirting with Emma is also hurtful to Jane.
Emma’s hurtful response to Miss Bates in Chapter 43 is the most blatant example of cleverness as a harmful quality and a clear sign that Frank’s lack of seriousness has had a bad effect on Emma. In tone and substance, Emma’s sarcastic remark to Miss Bates squarely hits its target, but it displays a casual cruelty that we have never seen in Emma before. Mr. Knightley’s reprimand and Emma’s subsequent chagrin may qualify as the greatest emotional crisis in the novel—it is certainly the crisis that is described with the most directness and at the greatest length. Unlike Emma’s unpleasant surprise regarding Mr. Elton and the emotional fluctuations that have accompanied her experiences with Frank, Knightley’s disapproval drives Emma to tears.
When Mr. Knightley reminds Emma that Miss Bates “is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age must probably sink more,” he reveals the harsh realities faced by single women in Austen’s time. Genteel women who were not able to marry and who did not inherit enough wealth to support themselves were threatened not only with a loss of social privilege, but also with a fall in material comforts. Or, as in Jane Fairfax’s case, they were forced into a kind of work that amounts to an almost complete loss of freedom. Emma is protected from this threat by her father’s wealth, but we and Emma become increasingly aware that other women in Emma’s society are not so lucky.