In Emma, Austen presents cleverness as a generally favorable attribute by making it one of her protagonist’s admirable qualities. Austen’s depiction of cleverness was not so kind in previous novels, however. In Mansfield Park, the novel Austen wrote before Emma, the heroine is unfailingly earnest and good, and her main adversary is a woman who is clever and superficial, implying that cleverness is a dangerous quality, not one to be confused with virtue.
Though cleverness is depicted favorably in general in Emma, the Box Hill scene presents cleverness as a hurtful force. Frank Churchill’s ability to deceive everyone into believing he is infatuated with Emma is powered by his restless frustration. Fortunately, Emma is sensible enough not to be taken in by his flirtations, but a less perceptive woman might have been hurt when she discovered they were not serious. Moreover, Frank’s attentions, and Emma’s acceptance of them, cause pain to Mr. Knightley, and we later realize that Frank’s flirting with Emma is also hurtful to Jane.
Emma’s hurtful response to Miss Bates in Chapter 43 is the most blatant example of cleverness as a harmful quality and a clear sign that Frank’s lack of seriousness has had a bad effect on Emma. In tone and substance, Emma’s sarcastic remark to Miss Bates squarely hits its target, but it displays a casual cruelty that we have never seen in Emma before. Mr. Knightley’s reprimand and Emma’s subsequent chagrin may qualify as the greatest emotional crisis in the novel—it is certainly the crisis that is described with the most directness and at the greatest length. Unlike Emma’s unpleasant surprise regarding Mr. Elton and the emotional fluctuations that have accompanied her experiences with Frank, Knightley’s disapproval drives Emma to tears.
When Mr. Knightley reminds Emma that Miss Bates “is poor; she has sunk from the comforts she was born to; and if she live to old age must probably sink more,” he reveals the harsh realities faced by single women in Austen’s time. Genteel women who were not able to marry and who did not inherit enough wealth to support themselves were threatened not only with a loss of social privilege, but also with a fall in material comforts. Or, as in Jane Fairfax’s case, they were forced into a kind of work that amounts to an almost complete loss of freedom. Emma is protected from this threat by her father’s wealth, but we and Emma become increasingly aware that other women in Emma’s society are not so lucky.