Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure; seldom can it happen that something is not a little disguised. . . .
Emma goes for a walk in the garden. To her surprise, Mr. Knightley joins her. He has just returned from London. She worries that Knightley will confess his feelings for Harriet, and she offers her news about Frank and Jane’s secret engagement. Knightley already knows about it and offers his consolation, but Emma assures him she has never had feelings for Frank. She explains and expresses regret for her behavior, and Knightley is strangely silent. Finally, he admits he may have underrated Frank and expresses envy at his circumstances. Worried that Knightley is about to discuss Harriet, Emma quickly silences him. He is mortified, and seeing his pain Emma invites him to speak after all, saying she will be glad to hear him as a friend. He says he does not wish her friendship and declares his love. She is surprised, thrilled, and by the time they reach the house they are engaged to marry. Knightley is surprised as well—he was convinced that Emma was in love with Frank; he departed for London to cool his feelings for her, and he has returned thinking she would need comfort. He has moved from resigned despair to perfect happiness in half an hour.
Emma can barely conceal her feelings as she and Mr. Knightley join her father for tea. That night, Emma lies awake worrying about Harriet and her father. She decides she will write a letter to Harriet explaining what has happened and arrange for Harriet to visit Isabella in London to give both of them some time to adjust to the new situation. She decides that she and Knightley must postpone their wedding until after her father dies.
Mrs. Weston forwards Emma a letter from Frank in which he explains that all of his actions, including his attentions to Emma, were guided by a need to maintain the secrecy of his engagement to Jane. He apologizes for his behavior, but explains that he could tell Emma was not attached to him, and says that he was under the impression that Emma already knew about him and Jane. He adores Jane and is miserable that he has made her suffer. The couple quarreled the morning of the Donwell Abbey party because Jane was upset about his behavior toward Emma, thinking it an inappropriate way to maintain their secret. Frank was upset about Jane’s caution, which he interpreted as coldness. Frank then left for Richmond, and Jane wrote to him to break off the engagement. He received the letter from Jane the morning his aunt died, and in the flurry of subsequent correspondence failed to send his conciliating response to her. She sent his letters back to him, indicating that he could return her letters at her governess post. This was the first news Frank had heard of her new position, and he threw himself at his uncle’s mercy, receiving approval for the match. He then sped to Highbury to find Jane very ill. They reconciled, and Frank admits that he is happier than he deserves to be.
Emma, in her own happiness, cannot help but forgive Frank. When Knightley comes to her, she shares the letter with him. He reads the letter, telling Emma his impressions as he goes along, and he is less softened than she but willing to admit that Frank has some good qualities. He and Emma discuss her father, and he agrees that Emma cannot leave Hartfield and that Mr. Woodhouse cannot be expected to move to Donwell Abbey. He suggests that he move to Hartfield, and Emma is moved by his sacrifice. She promises to think it over, and soon likes the plan—her only sadness is that this engagement and relocation will estrange her and Harriet further.
Nearly every sentence that passes between Emma and Knightley in Chapter 49 is misinterpreted, reinforcing the picture the novel has given us of the difficulty of correctly interpreting social exchanges. Emma is reserved because she fears that Knightley will confide his attachment to Harriet, but Knightley mistakes Emma’s reserve for grief at the loss of Frank. He also mistakes Emma’s flush, when he says that he knows already about Frank and Jane, for suppressed unhappiness, when in truth Emma is worried that Knightley’s knowledge of the situation comes from Harriet. When Emma congratulates Knightley on his insight into their relationship and sighs, “I seem to have been doomed to blindness,” Knightley believes Emma is expressing her regret for having been attached to Frank, while Emma actually refers to her blindness with regard to Knightley himself.
The emotional release of Chapter 49 owes to both Knightley and Emma removing the restraints of verbal carefulness and propriety. Emma’s forthright statement about her lack of feelings for Frank encourages Knightley, though he expects opposition and doubts whether his words are appropriate, to confess his feelings for Emma.
Mr. Knightley’s declaration of his love to Emma contrasts starkly with Mr. Elton’s elaborate compliments and with Frank’s light, playful flirtations. Knightley says, “I cannot make speeches, Emma. . . . If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more. But you know what I am. You hear nothing but truth from me.… Yes, you see, you understand my feelings.” One of the novel’s messages is that such sincere, direct expressions are more valuable than ornate speech. The narrator’s indirect description of Emma’s response to Knightley—“She spoke then, on being so entreated. What did she say? Just what she ought, of course”—embodies the idea that often the truest feelings are best expressed through simple speech. Just as Knightley declares that the absence of speech can express love as strongly as its presence, perhaps we are to imagine that Emma’s emotion is proportional to the degree to which we actually hear her speak. Social codes often thwart perfect sincerity in speech, but sincere feelings are a remedy to this problem.