Here, finally, in Chapter 16 of Emma is where I first start to really, truly like Emma Woodhouse as a person. (Er, make that "as a character".) I mean, I've been enjoying the book from its start, and I found things to admire in Emma's character - she's high-spirited and extremely intelligent, and I know she's well-meaning - but there were always "buts". But she's so meddlesome. So high-handed. So certain she's right that she won't listen to others. (And so many of those "buts" are the sorts of flaws I possess myself, if I'm being honest, although hopefully not to Emma's degree. *cringes*)
The start of this chapter, however, reveals to us that Emma possesses true depth of feeling, and that her affection runs deep and her intentions truly were good, if misguided. Because while Emma is mortified over the way Mr Elton behaved in the carriage - taking her hand, speaking familiarly and declaring his (most unwelcome and unsought) love for her - she would readily accept far worse mortification and deal with far more presumption on Mr Elton's part if only she weren't hurting Harriet.
Emma sat down to think and be miserable.—It was a wretched business indeed!—Such an overthrow of every thing she had been wishing for!—Such a development of every thing most unwelcome!—Such a blow for Harriet! —that was the worst of all. Every part of it brought pain and humiliation, of some sort or other; but, compared with the evil to Harriet, all was light; and she would gladly have submitted to feel yet more mistaken—more in error—more disgraced by mis-judgment, than she actually was, could the effects of her blunders have been confined to herself.Emma thinks things over
"If I had not persuaded Harriet into liking the man, I could have borne any thing. He might have doubled his presumption to me—but poor Harriet!"
Emma replays arrives at the correct conclusion up front - "She had taken up the idea, she supposed, and made every thing bend to it." But then she replays things in her mind to try to figure out whether she should have realized what Mr Elton was up to.
I will say that not only the Knightley brothers, but most readers, figure out what Mr Elton is up to, and that Emma's failure to realize his attentions are the result of her inexperience in dealing with flirtation and her active disinterest in the idea of romance at the start of the novel. Harriet, who is only 17 to Emma's 21, has more actual experience with men (in that respect) than does Emma, since Harriet has been in love with Mr Robert Martin and now with Mr Elton already, whereas Emma professes her disinterest in love. Perhaps it is because she is inexperienced that she did not recognize Elton's behavior. Or perhaps she has willfully turned a blind eye to it. Or it could be related to her final determination: that Mr Elton is NOT, in fact, in love with her, but was seeking a wealthy marriage partner and therefore turned his eyes toward her.
I rather suspect that the root of Emma's problems here is a mix of all three of the above possibilities, but I do want to point out some of Emma's conclusions in this scene:
1. In thinking of Mr Elton's riddle, she observes that "ready wit" seems to describe her, but that "soft eyes" does not - it suits Harriet. His charade actually suits neither of the ladies, when taken as a whole. I like Emma's honest assessment of things - her willingness to disclaim the softness that Mr Elton wanted to attribute to her shows that she sees herself clearly. She is too sharp to be soft, and she knows it.
2. She thought his unnecessarily gallant manners were the result of his less-than-stellar upbringing and pedigree, and she found them off-putting, but she just assumed it was him trying too hard to please her as Harriet's friend. She is mixing two things up here - his obsequiousness and her own naiveté - but it's worth mentioning that she really didn't see this coming.
3. The Knightley brothers are both credited for their penetration. John Knightley spotted Mr Elton's interest in Emma and warned her of it, and Mr Knightley had cautioned her that Elton would never marry someone like Harriet, but aspired to marry someone rich and with status.
4. Emma is embarrassed to learn that Mr Knightley was right, and she was wrong, yet she doesn't flinch from admitting that's the case.
5. Emma thinks less of Mr Elton now than she did before (when she thought him okay, in an "okay for my friend" sort of way). She has realized that he is not modest, but proud and conceited. Not kind and caring, but greedy and unconcerned with the feelings of others. She goes so far as to be "insulted by his hopes." While he was insulted by the thought of marrying someone as low in society as Harriet, Mr Elton is not in the same category on the hierarchy as Emma is, and in aspiring to marry her, he is trying to move up a couple of notches - and she can't believe his nerve.
He wanted to marry well, and having the arrogance to raise his eyes to her, pretended to be in love; but she was perfectly easy as to his not suffering any disappointment that need be cared for. There had been no real affection either in his language or manners. Sighs and fine words had been given in abundance; but she could hardly devise any set of expressions, or fancy any tone of voice, less allied with real love. She need not trouble herself to pity him. He only wanted to aggrandise and enrich himself; and if Miss Woodhouse of Hartfield, the heiress of thirty thousand pounds, were not quite so easily obtained as he had fancied, he would soon try for Miss Somebody else with twenty, or with ten.Emma's consideration of Elton indirectly implicates Mr Knightley
6. Emma owns up to having inadvertently led Mr Elton on. She is rational enough to objectively assess her behavior towards him from his point of view, knowing what his wishes were, and she realizes that she probably encouraged him (unknowingly) and gave him the impression that she liked him.
Emma was obliged in common honesty to stop and admit that her own behaviour to him had been so complaisant and obliging, so full of courtesy and attention, as (supposing her real motive unperceived) might warrant a man of ordinary observation and delicacy, like Mr Elton, in fancying himself a very decided favourite. If she had so misinterpreted his feelings, she had little right to wonder that he, with self-interest to blind him, should have mistaken hers.7. Emma resolves to give up match-making, realizing that's the source of the current situation.
8. She is really pulled up short by this turn of events, and is extremely remorseful, although her nature being what it is, she wakes up far more optimistic than she went to bed.
The distressing explanation she had to make to Harriet, and all that poor Harriet would be suffering, with the awkwardness of future meetings, the difficulties of continuing or discontinuing the acquaintance, of subduing feelings, concealing resentment, and avoiding eclat, were enough to occupy her in most unmirthful reflections some time longer, and she went to bed at last with nothing settled but the conviction of her having blundered most dreadfully.The weather precludes Emma from attending church on Christmas Day (a church-going event in Regency times) or on Sunday, so she needn't run into Mr Elton, and with the weather as bad as it is, she can't get to Harriet (and vice-versa). Mr Knightley, however, is a Man of Action, and therefore still manages to get around despite the weather.
To youth and natural cheerfulness like Emma's, though under temporary gloom at night, the return of day will hardly fail to bring return of spirits. The youth and cheerfulness of morning are in happy analogy, and of powerful operation; and if the distress be not poignant enough to keep the eyes unclosed, they will be sure to open to sensations of softened pain and brighter hope.
Emma got up on the morrow more disposed for comfort than she had gone to bed, more ready to see alleviations of the evil before her, and to depend on getting tolerably out of it.
Speaking of Mr Knightley . . .
In assessing Mr Elton's inferiority - coming from a family of nobodies, etc. - the narrator makes clear that Emma's family's estate extends back generations. And frequent mention is made of Donwell Abbey, the home of Mr Knightley. "The landed property of Hartfield certainly was inconsiderable, being but a sort of notch in the Donwell Abbey estate, to which all the rest of Highbury belonged; but their fortune, from other sources, was such as to make them scarcely secondary to Donwell Abbey itself, in every other kind of consequence[.]" The estates adjoin, with Hartfield being the smaller piece nestled against Mr Knightley's property, but in fortune the Woodhouses are pretty much Mr Knightley's equals. Clever Jane Austen, foreshadowing using real estate!