Mr. Weston arrives to escort Emma to see Mrs. Weston—clearly something is amiss. Assured that Mrs. Weston is well, Emma’s first concern is for Isabella’s family and for Mr. Knightley in London, but Mr. Weston assures her that the news does not involve them. At Randalls, Emma is greeted by Mrs. Weston, who explains that Frank has just revealed that he and Jane have been secretly engaged. Emma is shocked, embarrassed by the things she has said to Frank about Jane, and concerned for Harriet’s feelings.
Emma quickly relieves Mrs. Weston by assuring her that she has no feelings for Frank. She is angry, however, about his behavior toward her and Jane. Mrs. Weston defends her stepson, telling Emma that there were misunderstandings between him and Jane and that he will be writing her a letter detailing the extenuating circumstances. Mr. Churchill has given his consent to the match, though he has requested that it remain secret until more time has passed after his wife’s death. Mr. Weston enters the room, and Emma assures him that the news of Frank’s engagement has not caused her any pain.
It darted through her with the speed of an arrow that Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!
Emma is filled with concern for Harriet. She is angrier at herself than she is at Frank, because she believes that she should have discouraged Harriet’s attachment to him. Jane’s behavior since her arrival in Highbury is also put into perspective. Emma realizes that Jane has been avoiding her because she has seen her as a rival. Emma dreads telling Harriet the news, but when Harriet arrives at Hartfield she has already heard the story from Mr. Weston. Emma is surprised at Harriet’s composure, and it turns out that Harriet never cared for Frank; she has been harboring feelings for Mr. Knightley. Harriet knows that Mr. Knightley is of higher rank than she, but she affirms that Emma has given her hope that she may raise herself enough to be acceptable to him.
Emma makes a startling discovery—she herself is in love with Mr. Knightley! She conceals her emotion from Harriet, asking Harriet whether she has reason to believe that Knightley returns her feelings. Harriet recounts a number of instances in which Knightley has shown her special attention, many of which Emma’s memory corroborates. When Harriet departs, Emma is left to reflect that she has been wrong about everything, including her own heart. Now Knightley may debase himself by marrying Harriet, and she has made it all possible.
Emma rethinks all of the events of the past months. She realizes that it has always been important to her to be “first” with Mr. Knightley and that he has always had special concern for her, but she cannot believe he could return her feelings, especially when he has just been so angry with her about her rudeness to Miss Bates. She still believes she would not marry him, even if he asked, because she cannot leave her father. She anticipates having the opportunity to observe him and Harriet together.
Mrs. Weston arrives to report that she has just visited with Jane and that Jane admitted to having suffered a good deal since entering into the secret engagement. She blames herself for her misjudgment and acknowledges Emma’s kindness during her sickness. Hearing this account, Emma again expresses anger at Frank’s behavior. Mrs. Weston again defends him, though she has not yet received his explanatory letter, but Emma is too distracted by her thoughts about Mr. Knightley to pay attention. Emma regrets once more that she was not a better friend to Jane, as Knightley had advised, and she reflects on how desolate life will be without Knightley’s constant visits to Hartfield.
The novel’s narrative pace speeds up in these chapters, as instead of facing a slow accumulation of details that require interpretation, we begin to be given the key detail for interpreting all that has transpired thus far—the answer to the question of who is in love with whom.
Austen’s narrator finally describes Emma’s development explicitly, rather than implicitly, as she does throughout the novel. At the same time, Harriet finally realizes Emma’s limitations. Harriet begins her conversation with Emma about her feelings for Knightley with an assertion that Emma can “see into everybody’s heart,” but she soon understands that she has been wrong. Rather than waiting for Emma’s approval of a match between herself and Knightley, Harriet proceeds to explain in a self-confident manner why she believes their disparity in rank need not be a hindrance. She goes so far as to express hope that Emma will not present obstacles to the match, demonstrating that her attachment to Knightley is stronger than her loyalty to her friend. When Emma asks whether Harriet has reasons to believe that her feelings are returned, Harriet answers “modestly, but not fearfully” in the affirmative.
The brief, general way in which the narrator describes Emma’s realization of her love for Knightley makes Emma’s previous inability to discover the truth about her feelings seem almost ridiculous.
A few minutes were sufficient for making her acquainted with her own heart. A mind like hers, once opening to suspicion, made rapid progress; she touched, she admitted, she acknowledged the whole truth . . . Mr. Knightley must marry no one but herself!
As with Emma’s emotional confrontation with Mr. Elton in Chapter 15, Austen shies away from describing in too much detail the shock of Emma’s realization. Instead, the narrator moves on to Emma’s reflections regarding her own conduct. The novel seems more comfortable making fine distinctions between social obligations and moral duties than in describing human passion directly. But perhaps the picture we have been given of the small gestures that continually pass between Emma and Mr. Knightley communicate their feelings more strongly than any direct description could.
There is something disturbing about the nature of Emma’s realization that she has treated Harriet badly. Using free association to relate Emma’s thoughts, the narrator comments, “She saw it all with a clearness which had never blessed her before. How improperly had she been acting by Harriet! How inconsiderate, how indelicate, how irrational, how unfeeling, had been her conduct!” Yet, following her mistake with Mr. Elton, Emma has already recognized the inappropriateness of meddling with Harriet’s romantic life, and she has adjusted her behavior accordingly. Furthermore, Harriet now seems to have achieved the success Emma wished for her—a match with Knightley would raise her position in the world immensely. It is clear that Emma believes she has done wrong not because she has injured Harriet, but because she has injured herself, and possibly Mr. Knightley (by exposing him to an undignified match).