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Although convinced that
she herself will never marry, Emma Woodhouse, a precocious twenty-year-old
resident of the village of Highbury, imagines herself to be naturally
gifted in conjuring love matches. After self-declared success at
matchmaking between her governess and Mr. Weston, a village widower,
Emma takes it upon herself to find an eligible match for her new
friend, Harriet Smith. Though Harriet’s parentage is unknown, Emma
is convinced that Harriet deserves to be a gentleman’s wife and
sets her friend’s sights on Mr. Elton, the village vicar. Meanwhile,
Emma persuades Harriet to reject the proposal of Robert Martin,
a well-to-do farmer for whom Harriet clearly has feelings.
Harriet becomes infatuated with Mr. Elton under Emma’s encouragement,
but Emma’s plans go awry when Elton makes it clear that his affection
is for Emma, not Harriet. Emma realizes that her obsession with
making a match for Harriet has blinded her to the true nature of
the situation. Mr. Knightley, Emma’s brother-in-law and treasured
friend, watches Emma’s matchmaking efforts with a critical eye.
He believes that Mr. Martin is a worthy young man whom Harriet would
be lucky to marry. He and Emma quarrel over Emma’s meddling, and,
as usual, Mr. Knightley proves to be the wiser of the pair. Elton,
spurned by Emma and offended by her insinuation that Harriet is
his equal, leaves for the town of Bath and marries a girl there
Emma is left to comfort Harriet and to wonder about the
character of a new visitor expected in Highbury—Mr. Weston’s son,
Frank Churchill. Frank is set to visit his father in Highbury after
having been raised by his aunt and uncle in London, who have taken
him as their heir. Emma knows nothing about Frank, who has long
been deterred from visiting his father by his aunt’s illnesses and
complaints. Mr. Knightley is immediately suspicious of the young
man, especially after Frank rushes back to London merely to have
his hair cut. Emma, however, finds Frank delightful and notices
that his charms are directed mainly toward her. Though she plans
to discourage these charms, she finds herself flattered and engaged
in a flirtation with the young man. Emma greets Jane Fairfax, another addition
to the Highbury set, with less enthusiasm. Jane is beautiful and
accomplished, but Emma dislikes her because of her reserve and,
the narrator insinuates, because she is jealous of Jane.
Suspicion, intrigue, and misunderstandings ensue. Mr.
Knightley defends Jane, saying that she deserves compassion because,
unlike Emma, she has no independent fortune and must soon leave
home to work as a governess. Mrs. Weston suspects that the warmth
of Mr. Knightley’s defense comes from romantic feelings, an implication
Emma resists. Everyone assumes that Frank and Emma are forming an
attachment, though Emma soon dismisses Frank as a potential suitor
and imagines him as a match for Harriet. At a village ball, Knightley
earns Emma’s approval by offering to dance with Harriet, who has
just been humiliated by Mr. Elton and his new wife. The next day,
Frank saves Harriet from Gypsy beggars. When Harriet tells Emma
that she has fallen in love with a man above her social station,
Emma believes that she means Frank. Knightley begins to suspect
that Frank and Jane have a secret understanding, and he attempts
to warn Emma. Emma laughs at Knightley’s suggestion and loses Knightley’s
approval when she flirts with Frank and insults Miss Bates, a kindhearted
spinster and Jane’s aunt, at a picnic. When Knightley reprimands
Emma, she weeps.
News comes that Frank’s aunt has died, and this event
paves the way for an unexpected revelation that slowly solves the
mysteries. Frank and Jane have been secretly engaged; his attentions
to Emma have been a screen to hide his true preference. With his
aunt’s death and his uncle’s approval, Frank can now marry Jane,
the woman he loves. Emma worries that Harriet will be crushed, but
she soon discovers that it is Knightley, not Frank, who is the object
of Harriet’s affection. Harriet believes that Knightley shares her
feelings. Emma finds herself upset by Harriet’s revelation, and
her distress forces her to realize that she is in love with Knightley.
Emma expects Knightley to tell her he loves Harriet, but, to her
delight, Knightley declares his love for Emma. Harriet is soon comforted
by a second proposal from Robert Martin, which she accepts. The
novel ends with the marriage of Harriet and Mr. Martin and that
of Emma and Mr. Knightley, resolving the question of who loves whom