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.