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Emma thinks about her agitation upon hearing of Frank’s
impending arrival and decides that she feels such apprehension more
on his behalf than her own—her attachment to him is not very strong. When
she sees him again, he is friendly and spirited but visits for only
fifteen minutes. Frank’s short visit convinces Emma that his feelings
as well must have weakened. Because of his aunt’s demands, Frank
is kept away for ten days after this first visit. Mrs. Churchill eventually
determines that her family must move from London to Richmond, which
places Frank closer to Highbury. Mr. Weston is delighted to have
his son nearer, and a date is set for the long-postponed ball.
The day of the ball arrives. Emma is invited by Mr. Weston
to come early and give her opinion on the arrangements, and she
believes that this opportunity will give some privacy to her second
meeting with Frank, who will be with his father. But Emma is not
the only one of Mr. Weston’s “favourites” that he has entreated
to come early, and all the while Frank seems excited but restless,
constantly moving to see who has arrived. Finally, when Jane and
Miss Bates arrive, Frank rushes out to help them with umbrellas.
Mrs. Elton pronounces Frank a very fine young man. Miss Bates overwhelms everyone
with exclamations of gratitude and pleasure. Frank tells Emma that
he dislikes Mrs. Elton and her familiar manner with Jane, and he
runs off again to ask his father when the dancing will begin.
Mr. and Mrs. Weston suddenly realize that Mrs. Elton
expects to be asked to lead the dance and that they cannot give
Emma that honor, as they had hoped. Despite this slight disappointment,
Emma enjoys the beginning of the festivities, though she is disturbed
that Mr. Knightley will not dance. She admires the figure he cuts
among the other men, and he notices that he is watching her. The
ball is a success, and only one episode mars Emma’s enjoyment. During
one dance, Harriet is left without a partner, and Mr. Elton, the
one dancer who is disengaged, pointedly refuses to ask her. Mr.
Knightley soothes Harriet’s embarrassment by asking her to dance,
and Emma is very pleased with him. Later, she expresses her gratitude, and
he asks her why the Eltons are her enemies. She admits that she wanted
Mr. Elton to marry Harriet and acknowledges that Knightley was right
about his character. Knightley in return admits that Harriet has
more admirable qualities than he originally thought. Emma and Knightley
cement their new mutual understanding with a dance.
Emma looks back on her talk with Mr. Knightley at the
ball with pleasure, and she rejoices that the Eltons’ rudeness has
cured Harriet of her infatuation with Mr. Elton. Suddenly, Frank
appears with Harriet, fainting, on his arm. When revived, Harriet
tells the story of how she was walking with a friend, Miss Bickerton,
when a Gypsy child approached to beg from them. Miss Bickerton,
frightened, ran away, but Harriet was unable to follow because of
a cramp she had gotten at the ball. Just as she started to panic,
a group of Gypsies surrounded her and demanded money. Frank happened
to be walking along and frightened the Gypsies away. Emma cannot
help but wonder whether this romantic circumstance might make Harriet
and Frank interesting to each other. The episode alarms Mr. Woodhouse and
is occasion for gossip, but the Gypsies leave the neighborhood and
no harm is done.
Emma’s honest reflections about her lack of substantive
feelings for Frank reveal her growing maturity. She no longer sees
him as a character in the scenes she imagines for herself, someone
who is important simply because he gives her the opportunity to
show off her accomplishments and elegance. She recognizes that if
their two-month separation has not cooled his love, “there were
dangers and evils before her: caution for him and for herself would
be necessary.” Rather than anticipating a dramatic scene, she now
hopes that “she might be able to keep him from an absolute declaration. That
would be so very painful a conclusion of their present acquaintance.”
Emma’s decision to observe Frank to see how he feels, rather than
to begin with an assumption about how he feels, enables her to understand
that Frank is not in love with her. The narrator makes clear that
Emma’s vanity is not at issue in this case—she is relieved, not
offended, that Frank’s feelings are cooled, and at the dance, she seems
to find more interest in puzzling about his odd mood than in courting
his attention. When Frank and Emma dance, instead of imagining how
elegant they look to others, she admires how elegant Mr. Knightley
looks. Emma has become more concerned with observing others, and
less concerned with being observed by others.
The Gypsies Harriet describes encountering in Chapter 39 seem a
strange intrusion into the domestic realism of the story. It is
almost as if they have wandered in from a different novel entirely.
In the episode, Austen plays with the conventions of romantic melodrama, one
of which was the rescue of a “damsel in distress” as the beginning
to a romantic relationship. Yet, in the calculating context established
by the novel, the encounter seems to predict a lack of destiny rather
than a fated match. The improbability of Harriet’s encounter with
Frank alerts us to the improbability of their ending up together.
We can see that the extraordinary circumstances that have thrown
Harriet and Frank together owe nothing to their shared values or
qualities—a chance meeting and rescue present no evidence that the
two belong together. And while Harriet’s passivity is in keeping
with the conventions of a romance, it is not something that we would
expect Austen’s novel to reward. The happiest women in the novel
are not weak and passive, but both mentally and physically vigorous.
Emma’s willingness to accept the improbability of Harriet’s encounter
with Frank as proof that there must be some sort of connection between
the two indicates that her fancy has not been entirely cured of
its tendency toward ungrounded speculation. Emma may be learning
to place Mr. Knightley’s approval of her more recent actions above
Frank Churchill’s charms, but she has a few more lessons to learn
before she gains a full understanding of herself.