In Highbury, there is great speculation about Miss Hawkins, Mr. Elton’s fiancée. Mr. Elton returns to the village long enough to confirm the rumors that his bride-to-be is beautiful, accomplished, and of some fortune. Emma is relieved that his marriage will ease the awkwardness of his return to their social circle, but she has some uncharitable thoughts about Miss Hawkins’s inferior connections. She has difficulty persuading Harriet to share her coolness, however. Only the topic of Mr. Martin puts Mr. Elton out of Harriet’s mind.
Harriet is flustered when Mr. Martin’s sister leaves her a note at Mrs. Goddard’s. Emma decides that Harriet should return the visit but stay only a brief time in order to reinforce the distance that Emma, despite a twinge of conscience, believes Harriet must maintain from the Martin family.
Emma takes Harriet to visit the Martins. Ahead of time, they agree that Emma is to return and retrieve Harriet after fifteen minutes. Harriet has a friendly and emotional visit with Mr. Martin’s mother and sister, but when the visit is cut short, it is clear the Martins understand that they have been slighted. Though pained, Emma still believes she is doing what is best for Harriet.
Emma’s spirits are revived by a meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Weston, who bring the news that Frank Churchill’s arrival is imminent. The following day, Emma unexpectedly meets Frank at Hartfield, and she is pleased to find that he is very good-looking, bright, and charming. Frank has just the right compliment for everyone, especially Mrs. Weston, which pleases Emma. Emma can see that Mr. Weston hopes that she and Frank might form an attachment, and she wonders if the thought has occurred to Frank. When his father departs on an errand, Frank leaves to call on his acquaintance from Weymouth, Jane Fairfax.
Frank Churchill and Mrs. Weston visit Hartfield the next day, and Emma is pleased by Frank’s warmth toward his stepmother. He seems genuinely interested in everything about Highbury as the three walk about the village, especially in the sites that are meaningful to his father. Encountering an unused ballroom, he suggests that they should organize a dance, and he dismisses Emma’s protestations about the village’s lack of worthy families.
Emma inquires about Frank’s visit with the Bateses, and the two share impressions of Jane. Frank says that he finds her unattractive and reserved. He thinks, however, that she is a talented musician and affirms that they saw a good deal of each other in Weymouth. Emma shares her theory about Jane and Mr. Dixon, which Frank seems to resist, but then he gives in to Emma’s greater knowledge of Jane. On the whole, Emma finds Frank even more to her liking than she expected, possessing his father’s warmth and sociability and lacking the proud airs one might acquire from the Churchills.
Though our position with respect to Emma is privileged—the narrator often provides details that allow us to know more about Emma than she knows about herself—the subjectivity of other characters is barely highlighted at all, making it difficult for us to understand their true dispositions and motives any more than Emma does. With hindsight (the novel must be reread to fully appreciate Austen’s subtleties), all of Frank Churchill’s comments and actions become transparent, but without it, we, like Emma, have to be taught how to reach the correct interpretations. From this point in the novel forward, we can no longer witness Emma’s education with detachment; Austen structures her book so that we must share it.
As Emma had predicted in her argument with Mr. Knightley, Frank has a talent for guessing which line of conversation and compliment will please each person, and Frank tailors his behavior accordingly. Remembering Mr. Knightley’s initial distaste for Frank’s demeanor, we wonder if Frank’s talent at compliments is altogether as admirable as it seems. Though Emma may be skeptical of Frank’s remarks, she gives him the benefit of the doubt because she believes he has a kind nature and is impressed by his speech. She recognizes that Frank’s compliments to Mr. and Mrs. Weston are exaggerated, but Emma believes they express genuine gratitude and affection and forgives his exaggeration because it stems from his honorable desire to please. When Frank claims that he has always longed to come to Highbury, Emma wonders why he has not come sooner, but she dismisses her skepticism by concluding, “[I]f it were a falsehood, it was a pleasant one, and pleasantly handled.”
Emma exhibits a healthy detachment during her first meeting with Frank. Where another young woman might manifest admiration for Frank, knowing that others think he may be a proper suitor for her, she expresses reserve: “She must see more of him to understand his ways; at present she only felt they were agreeable.” Whether Emma has affectionate interest for Frank at this point is irrelevant—it would be inappropriate for a reputable woman of her position to display too much interest in a man this early.
Frank’s inconsistent attitude toward Jane Fairfax is the most confusing part of his behavior. An alert reader will suspect that something unusual has passed between Frank and Jane, but it is only on a second reading that we recognize Frank’s behavior as a complicated mixture of honesty and outright deception, vulnerability and manipulation. At this point, he is a good enough liar to fool Emma. At first Frank seems in a rush to visit Jane, but then he is surprisingly willing to postpone the visit. He is unexpectedly firm in refusing the assistance of Mr. Woodhouse’s servant in finding her house, and his insistence on Jane’s unattractiveness is uncharacteristically rude. He attempts to avoid Emma’s question about his relationship to Jane by ducking into a store, but then he himself returns to the subject. The first time we see Frank at a loss for words is when Emma shares her suspicion that Jane has had a relationship with Mr. Dixon. However, Frank recovers his composure enough to assess how well Emma actually knows Jane by asking her more questions.