The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself….
The narrator opens the novel by introducing us to Emma Woodhouse, a girl endowed with “some of the best blessings of existence,” including good looks, intelligence, riches, and an affectionate father. Emma’s only disadvantages are that she is slightly spoiled and that she thinks “a little too well of herself.” Emma’s mother died before Emma could form many memories of her, but her gentle governess, Miss Taylor, provided a motherly love. After Emma’s older sister, Isabella, was married and moved to London, Miss Taylor and Emma became best friends.
As the novel begins, Miss Taylor has just left Hartfield, the estate of Emma and Mr. Woodhouse, to marry a widower named Mr. Weston, and Emma is left without a companion. She attempts to comfort her despondent father, who hates change, with the thought that they will see the new Mrs. Weston often, but Emma only partially succeeds in comforting herself. At this moment, neighborhood resident Mr. Knightley, the brother of Isabella’s husband, pays a visit, having returned from visiting their mutual relations in London. He affirms the appropriateness of the match between Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor and gently chides Emma when she claims credit. Emma declares that she will repeat her matchmaking success by finding a wife for Mr. Elton, the village rector.
The narrator recounts Mr. Weston’s history. His first marriage was to a woman named Miss Churchill, who came from a higher class than his. They had a son, named Frank, but the marriage was overshadowed by the disapproval of Mrs. Weston’s brother and sister-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Churchill. When Mrs. Weston died after three years of marriage, Frank was essentially adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Churchill and made their heir. Mr. Weston, left impoverished by the expectations of his first wife, spent the next twenty years of his life rebuilding his fortune. He eventually purchased Randalls, the small estate where he lives with the second Mrs. Weston.
The village has always been curious to see Frank Churchill, who writes a kind letter to Mrs. Weston indicating that he will pay a visit to his father and stepmother.
The Woodhouses give a small dinner party, to which they invite other members of their social circle: the widow Mrs. Bates; her single, middle-aged daughter, Miss Bates; and Mrs. Goddard, the mistress of the local boarding school. Mrs. Goddard brings one of her boarders, Harriet Smith, a girl whose parentage is unknown. Emma admires Harriet for her beauty and for her respect of Emma and Hartfield. She resolves to pursue friendship with Harriet, and to improve the naïve girl by detaching her from the inferior acquaintance of the farming Martin family. She plans to introduce Harriet to higher society.
The narration of these opening chapters creates a complicated portrait of Emma as a young, beautiful, clever, and confident character who exercises her influence in a constricted and complex environment and has much to learn about friendship, love, and the ways of the world. Emma’s affection for Miss Taylor and her kindness to her foolish and somewhat tiresome father reveal Emma’s capacity for true warmth and generosity. But, at the same time, the narrator quickly alerts us to the ways in which Emma is spoiled by her advantages and blinded by her own self-regard. Most explicitly, we are told at the novel’s beginning: