I hope you'll forgive me for the shortness of today's post. In a later one, I'll explain more about the "whys" of it, but for now, trust me when I say that I don't have a longer one in me.
The very best thing I could think of to share with you is actually this clip from the 1995 film production of Emma starring the dishy Jeremy Northam as Mr Knightley to Gwyneth Paltrow's Emma Woodhouse. The important bits of dialogue - and several of my favorites of Mr Knightley's quotes - are included in the archery scene that replaces the parlour scene Austen crafted. I love the way the hits and misses of both shooters provides additional commentary/subtext here. The clip opens with some of Emma's and Harriet's conversation about Robert Martin, then proceeds to the conversation between Emma and Mr Knightley. If you do not wish to move ahead, I suggest stopping the clip once Mr Knightley walks off, somewhere around the 5:33 mark.
I will say that Austen's proto-feminism is showing in this scene, as Emma seethes about men, who are only interested in a pretty face and a pleasing disposition. Mr Knightley (one of Austen's two favorites of her own heroes) argues to the contrary, saying that Emma's views on what men want in their wives is balderdash. The thing is, they are both right: Some men of the time valued beauty and disposition over intelligence and education, so Emma is not entirely wrong - and certainly any prospective spouse (male or female) would probably prefer someone nice-looking and good-natured to someone hideous and/or cross.
Harriet has her looks and temperament going for her, but she comes up way short on intelligence, education, and plain old good sense - as Mr Knightley is quick to point out. Still, he reckoned that since Robert Martin was so desperately in love with her and is himself a rational, clever man, he'd be able to manage with a pretty, foolish wife whom he loved. (My - Harriet has rather a lot in common with Mrs Bennet from Pride and Prejudice, come to think of it - low connections (lower than Mrs Bennet's, actually), beauty but little intelligence or education. Harriet, however, is good-natured and not inclined to hypochondria. But I digress.)
It's really Mr Knightley's arguments that express Austen's protofeminism. He argues that (rational) men want rational wives, not just pretty airheads, and he denies Emma's accusation that men expect women to accept any offer of marriage that comes their way. In response to Emma's teasing that Harriet would be the perfect spouse for Mr Knightley, were he inclined to marry, Mr Knightley reasserts his earlier position that no good will come from Emma's and Harriet's relationship: he believes that Emma will puff Harriet up so far that she won't look at any one who might be willing to marry her, but that Harriet will eventually want to marry, and wil end up settling for someone far worse than Robert Martin, all as a result of Emma's meddling.
Gosh, I love this chapter. It's one of my favorites in the entire book. Heck, it's among my favorites in all of Austen, really.