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Emma is the story of Miss Emma Woodhouse, a well-to-do young woman in a small English town. After her governess, Miss Taylor, marries and becomes Mrs. Weston, Emma is left with her hypochondriac, hyper-concerned father as her sole companion. She therefore takes the poor, unconnected, yet gentle Harriet under her wing. Emma's love of matchmaking leads her to meddle in Harriet's love life, and to set up some romantic misadventures of her own! A humorous, satirical work, where the plot is often secondary to the characters themselves. From the garrulous Miss Bates, to the querulous Mr Woodhouse, to the gallant Mr. Knightley and erratic Mr. Churchill, a fascinating and highly readable example of Jane Austen's prowess with the English language.--Submitted by Caitlin

Emma Woodhouse, the heroine of our novel, is bored. Who wouldn’t be? A constantly dozing father who is always cold and worried when he is awake, a sister who is in London and a gratifying governess who has just married Mr Weston, a house friend, and no other useful past-times. What else is to remain but chatting to Mr Knightly, also a house friend and bachelor proprietor of neighbouring Donwell Abbey, and looking for another fun amusement? Surely, it was she who made the match between Miss Tailor, her governess, and Mr Weston! Indeed, she foresaw the match already long before anyone did… Thus, a new useful employment has presented itself in front of her: matchmaking. She will now take on the charge of Miss Harriet Smith, a girl who is the illegitimate daughter of some gentleman or other and who lives in the school nearby, but who she fancies must be a baronet’s daughter, surely. Mr Knightley’s advice therefore of leaving her alone, is of no consequence. Harriet Smith must and shall be guided, away from Mr Martin, a gentleman farmer, onto honourable Mr Elton, the new curate. But are his attentions meant for Harriet at all? Are his interests with a beautiful face or rather something else beautiful, a purse perhaps? When he proves a disappointment, an old acquaintance turns up in the name of Jane Fairfax (surely disliked because of her reserve alone) and Mr Weston’s son Frank Churchill appears, the carrier of a great fortune to be inherited from his maternal side in Yorkshire, everyone matches Emma with him, including soon she herself in thought, though she dismisses him and matches him with several people, apart from the right one. Surely the sub-plot around Frank Churchill was crystal-clear to Regency readers… All will come to a head at Box Hill where Emma cruelly offends Miss Bates, an old spinster of her acquaintance and aunt of Jane, something which earns her a severe reproof of Mr Knightley. But by what was that reproof motivated? As he moves off to his brother in London and she stays behind, all will be revealed, but is it not too late? Is he not attached? Has she matched everyone well or would some humble pie be in its place?--Submitted by kiki1982

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Frank Churchill

I was listening to an on-line radio show about Jane Austen again. A TV adapter of P&P said that Frank Churchill was a borderline psychopath, who probably seduced Jane Fairfax at Weymouth, and who made cruel jokes about her. Is that fair? Jane and Frank had their arguments behind scenes, but Frank seems to care about her. He bought her that piano, which was a nice present. At the ball when Mrs Elton refers to Miss Fairfax as "Jane", he reacts as if offended on her part through the over-familiarity. When they are playing that word game and Frank spells out "Dixon", Jane was upset, but I thought it was more a joke on Emma.

Mrs Elton and interference

I have been reading the York notes on Emma. Several things occurred to me: The notes say that Mrs Elton is an exaggeration of Emma's own character. Mrs Elton is an interfering, self-absorbed, snobbish, boastful, insensitive woman who always has to be the centre of attention. Mrs Elton seems unaware of how people see her, but Emma is unaware of the real situation too. Are they really comparable? Mrs Elton seems far more objectionable to me. The notes say that while some of the characters have faults, they must be tolerated or even indulged. For example, Mr Woodhouse deserves respect because of his age and social status. The notes say that while Mr Woodhouse is selfish and incapable of believing that other people may think differently to him, his selfishness is not of a damaging kind. Miss Bates talks too much, but she must be tolerated because she is a) kind, b) self-aware, and c) relatively poor. However, Mrs Elton is not to be tolerated gladly. Emma and Frank must learn to improve their behaviour before they can gain everyone's respect. So there are two characters capable of change (Emma and Frank), two characters who must be respected although incapable of change (Mr Woodhouse and Miss Bates), which leaves Mrs Elton. Is the reason Mrs Elton is so intolerable is that she could change but doesn't, or is it for some other reason. Emma is criticized for interfering with the lives of others, in particular of Harriet Smith. Mrs Elton's interference in Jane Fairfax's life comes across as very objectionable. However, I strongly suspect Mr Knightly interfered to bring Mr Martin and Harriet together. iirc Emma wangles an invitation for Harriet to spend some time in London with her sister and brother-in-law. Harriet needs to see a dentist, Mr Knightly sends Mr Martin to London on an errand, so that he too spends time with Emma's sister and brother-in-law. Surely Mr Knightly did not need to send Mr Martin to London. Harriet and Mr Martin get back together. Couldn't this be considered manipulation too? Perhaps Mr Knightly is just a better judge at it than Emma.

Emma and the Poor Law

I read this section in Friedrich Engels' The Condition of the Working Class in England, which reminded me of some things in Emma, as well as some other C19th books. Since, however, the rich hold all the power, the proletarians must submit, if they will not good-temperedly perceive it for themselves, to have the law actually declare them superfluous. This has been done by the New Poor Law. The Old Poor Law which rested upon the Act of 1601 (the 43rd of Elizabeth), naively started from the notion that it is the duty of the parish to provide for the maintenance of the poor. Whoever had no work received relief, and the poor man regarded the parish as pledged to protect him from starvation. He demanded his weekly relief as his right, not as a favour, and this became, at last, too much for the bourgeoisie. In 1833, when the bourgeoisie had just come into power through the Reform Bill, and pauperism in the country districts had just reached its full development, the bourgeosie began the reform of the Poor Law according to its own point of view. A commission was appointed, which investigated the administration of the Poor Laws, and revealed a multitude of abuses. It was discovered that the whole working class in the country was pauperized and more or less dependent upon the rates, from which they received relief when wages were low; it was found that this system by which the unemployed were maintained, the ill-paid and the parents of large families relieved, fathers of illegitimate children required to pay alimony, and poverty, in general, recognized as needing protection, it was found that this system was ruining the nation... The old Poor Law required fathers of illegitimate children to pay alimony. Harriet Smith was illegitimate. I thought Harriet's father paid for her upkeep out of a sense of duty, but it may be that he was required to by law. There was a detail in one of the later chapters that the ostler was not actually poor, but that he had applied for parish relief for his father, who was getting old. It seems Mr Elton, the vicar, was responsible for administering parish relief. This clears something up. In C19th and earlier British literature, the clergy was considered one of the great professions, which required an education and which was quite well paid. Previously I considered it a bit of a racket, a sort of well-remunerated non-job for younger sons of the gentry. They had to write a sermon every week, visit the sick, perform funerals, marriages and christenings. However, I gather they also had this administration of welfare role. I actually thought there was no system of social welfare before the C20th. In the C19th taxes were low, the majority of which was spent either on the military or paying off the debts accrued from past wars. However, there was a system of social welfare, only it was administered locally and paid by rates. I have often wondered how the well off in books like Austen's felt at ease with themselves, considering the poverty that surrounded them, especially when they went to church every Sunday to listen to Jesus's parables about the rich burning in hell if they don't help the poor. I suppose in part it was because they were paying a lot on rates. George Elliot's book Middlemarch was set at the time of the Great Reform Act, shortly before the change to the Poor Law. I thought the Great Reform Act was a positive law, which removed some of the abuses in the British system of government, such as rotten boroughs. Friedrich Engels did not seem to think so. If Dickens wrote about workhouses, this was because he was writing after the change to the Poor Law. In Austen's time, society was still mostly rural. As the century progressed, England became more and more urban and the cities, over-crowded. The traditional parish system may have broken down under the strain. I don't know, but I imagine in one of Austen's market towns, everyone knew everyone, and probably knew their parents and grandparents. The peasants felt they had certain rights and the gentry, certain obligations. However, the industrialists in the big cities did not see things the same way. They had read Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and Thomas Malthus and did not believe in interfering with the markets. Besides, fewer working class people went to church, and if they did, they may well have belonged to one of the non-conformist churches. So, who would administer poor relief?

How much did it cost to keep a carriage back then?

Mrs Elton tediously boasts about their barouche-landau, which seems to the the Porsche Cayanne of carriages. In chapter 41, Frank Churchill puts his foot in it by commenting on Mr Perry's intention to keep a carriage, which was information he was not supposed to know. Mr Weston says he is glad he could afford it. Mr Perry was a doctor, so a respectable member of the community, a gentleman, and presumably not poor. Mr Woodhouse has a carriage of course. So does Mr Knightly, who (iirc) sent it to take the Bates to a ball to ensure they arrived in similar style to their richer neighbours. I think a man was mentioned somewhere who kept two carriages, as if this were an astonishing occurrence. It seems odd in these days of multi-car households that only the elite of society could afford to own a carriage. Mr Knightly and Mr Woodhouse live in properties which you have to be a millionaire to own these days. Carriages are much less complicated to build than cars. Why were they relatively so expensive? Is it actually the carriage that is expensive or is it the stabling and feeding of the horses? Or is it that you need to employ a coach driver?

The black gentleman

In chapter 35, Mr Weston comes late to the party and tells everyone his son, Frank Churchill, is coming back soon: 'Well, he is coming, you see; good news, I think. Well, what do you say to it? - I always told you he would be here again soon, did I not? Anne, my dear, did not I always tell you so? In town next week, you see - at the latest, I dare say, for she is impatient as the black gentleman when anything is to be done; most likely they will be there tomorrow or Saturday." Who is the black gentleman? The devil I suppose. It is not a phrase I have come across before. I could google it, but where's the fun in that. Interestingly, there is a reference to slavery and its abolition in that chapter. Mrs Elton says one of her friends, Mr Suckling was a friend to the abolition. I notice Emma was published in 1816. Wikipedia says the UK introduced a law abolish the slave trade in 1806, although slavery was abolished throughout the empire until 1833.

Mr Woodhouse's age

I have been wondering a bit about Mr Woodhouse. He is a lovely, old man who dotes on his daughters, but he seems so old. He must be sixty-five if he's a day. He is possibly even getting a touch senile, all that hypochondria about colds and rich wedding cake and not wanting to go out at all, and then only if driven by his careful coach driver, James. I don't think the book says if he was married before he married Emma's mother, but presumably Emma's mother was much younger than her father. Emma is twenty. Emma's sister is about six years older than her iirc, so that would put Mr Woodhouse in his late 30s or early 40s when he married. SPOILER I have watched Clueless, so understand that Emma and Mr Knightly eventually get it together. I was surprised that, unlike Clueless, Mr Knightly is sixteen years older than Emma. I wonder if Emma's desire to marry Mr Knightly was influenced by the age of her mother and father.

Secret snog in Emma

Apparently, Jane Austen expert, Professor John Mullan, has found a snog in Emma: "The appearance of the little sitting-room as they entered was tranquillity itself; Mrs Bates, deprived of her usual employment, slumbering on one side of the fire, Frank Churchill at a table near her, most deedily occupied about her spectacles, and Jane Fairfax, standing with her back to them, intent on her pianoforte.” I did not really pick up on this, but I did think it was odd that Frank Churchill was still trying to fix Mrs Bates' spectacles when they came in. Miss Bates had just been telling Emma and everyone how Frank Churchill had offered to replace the screw into the spectacles earlier on. I imagine it would be a fiddly job, but it wouldn't take that long.


I was a bit puzzled to read that Emma was set in Highbury. Highbury is in north London. I used to hear it most in connection with Arsenal football club. It is quite a built up area. I wondered whether in Austen's time it was just a village miles away from London. However, I am sure it was not sixteen miles away. Then I watched a YouTube debate on who was greater: Austen or Emily Bronte; and the professor supporting Austen said that in Surrey Mr Elton is what evil looks like. Highbury is definitely not in Surrey. The county borders have not been redrawn that much. I wondered if there was a small village called Highbury in Surrey somewhere, but I have never heard of one. I gather the name is fictional in Emma. I suppose it would have to be as the community is so small. If Austen had situated Emma in a real village or small market town, there would be a temptation to identify characters in the books with real people.

Novel to compare & contrast to Emma

For an English assignment, I am comparing and contrasting Austen's 'Emma' to another novel. I need to look into things like characters, themes, settings, style, structure, plot, climax etc. If anyone could recommend a second novel for my assignment that they enjoyed and believe to be relevant to 'Emma', please post the title and author below. Thank you!

Evidence of class destabilisation in the novel 'Emma' by Jane Austen?

How is social mobility and the blurring of class distinctions represented? Where do we see the rise of the middle class? Interested to hear your thoughts :)

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