Austen is reported to have told her family that Emma is "a heroine whom perhaps no one but myself will like", something I find rather funny, as I'm far more likely to attribute that phrase to the heroine of Mansfield Park, Fanny Price. But I digress already, and since I'd like to catch us up so we can continue on in Volume III starting next week, I figure I'd better limit myself to discussing Emma.
At the start of the book, we learned that Emma is a rather spoiled girl from a well-off family who has a bit too much free reign and a bit too much time on her hands - something that proves to be a slightly unfortunate combination when Miss Emma Woodhouse decides to meddle in the lives of those around her. The book starts just after the wedding of Emma's governess and friend, Miss Taylor, to a local gentleman, Mr. Weston. Emma fancies that she was somehow responsible for the match, a conclusion disputed by her neighbor, who happens to be both family friend and brother-in-law, Mr. George Knightley. Mr. Knightley assures Emma that she made a lucky guess in figuring out that Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor were interested in one another, as opposed to being a material part in their match.
"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich" could also be described as headstrong, imaginative, and bored, and she decides to turn her attention to finding a match for the local clergyman, Mr. Elton. She is oblivious to the fact that Mr. Elton would very much like to marry Emma - not out of an abundance of affection, mind you, but for her fortune - even though readers can see it coming a mile away. Emma wants to set Mr. Elton up with her new friend and protegée, Harriet Smith, "the natural daughter of somebody", a way of saying that she was likely the product of a dalliance. Harriet has been raised without knowing her own parentage, and has been educated at a local school for girls. Too old for the school room, Harriet nevertheless remains at Mrs. Goddard's school as a boarder.
We learn just a bit about Harriet's back story, which includes the information that Harriet has a crush on Mr. Robert Martin, a local farmer (who turns out to be one of Mr. Knightley's tenants). Emma doesn't associate with farmers, who she considers to be "beneath" her. In a fascinating turn, illogical Emma overlooks Harriet's social circumstances, convincing herself that her pretty little friend must be a gentleman's daughter, despite zero evidence in support of such a notion.
Mr. Knightley observes to her friend and former governess, Mrs. Weston, that Emma's "elevation" of Harriet Smith is going to prove disastrous, and that Emma needs to cool her jets (not his phrasing) and find something useful to do with herself. Mrs. Weston thinks that Emma's decision to look out for someone else is a useful thing.
Emma not only convinces Harriet to decline a marriage proposal from Robert Martin, but she also encourages Harriet to have feelings for Mr. Elton, whom she invites to a variety of events for the purpose of spending time with Harriet. The reader (and Mr. Knightley) quickly deduces that Emma is barking up the wrong tree and is, in fact, encouraging Mr. Elton in his pursuit of Emma.
Meanwhile, Mr. Knightley tells Emma off for having convinced Harriet to turn down a proposal from his tenant and friend, Robert Martin, in one of my favorite exchanges in the whole book, which is set out for you below to give you a better idea of (a) their points of view, (b) the nature of the relationship between Mr. Knightley and Emma, and (c) the plot points and observations about society. Mr. Knightley's views reflect an intelligent, objective appraisal of Harriet's status and intellect, as well as of Emma's.
"Come," said she, "I will tell you something, in return for what you have told me. He did speak yesterday—that is, he wrote, and was refused."
This was obliged to be repeated before it could be believed; and Mr. Knightley actually looked red with surprise and displeasure, as he stood up, in tall indignation, and said,
"Then she is a greater simpleton than I ever believed her. What is the foolish girl about?"
"Oh! to be sure," cried Emma, "it is always incomprehensible to a man that a woman should ever refuse an offer of marriage. A man always imagines a woman to be ready for any body who asks her."
"Nonsense! a man does not imagine any such thing. But what is the meaning of this? Harriet Smith refuse Robert Martin? madness, if it is so; but I hope you are mistaken."
"I saw her answer!—nothing could be clearer."
"You saw her answer!—you wrote her answer too. Emma, this is your doing. You persuaded her to refuse him."
"And if I did, (which, however, I am far from allowing) I should not feel that I had done wrong. Mr. Martin is a very respectable young man, but I cannot admit him to be Harriet's equal; and am rather surprised indeed that he should have ventured to address her. By your account, he does seem to have had some scruples. It is a pity that they were ever got over."
"Not Harriet's equal!" exclaimed Mr. Knightley loudly and warmly; and with calmer asperity, added, a few moments afterwards, "No, he is not her equal indeed, for he is as much her superior in sense as in situation. Emma, your infatuation about that girl blinds you. What are Harriet Smith's claims, either of birth, nature or education, to any connection higher than Robert Martin? She is the natural daughter of nobody knows whom, with probably no settled provision at all, and certainly no respectable relations. She is known only as parlour-boarder at a common school. She is not a sensible girl, nor a girl of any information. She has been taught nothing useful, and is too young and too simple to have acquired any thing herself. At her age she can have no experience, and with her little wit, is not very likely ever to have any that can avail her. She is pretty, and she is good tempered, and that is all. My only scruple in advising the match was on his account, as being beneath his deserts, and a bad connection for him. I felt that, as to fortune, in all probability he might do much better; and that as to a rational companion or useful helpmate, he could not do worse. But I could not reason so to a man in love, and was willing to trust to there being no harm in her, to her having that sort of disposition, which, in good hands, like his, might be easily led aright and turn out very well. The advantage of the match I felt to be all on her side; and had not the smallest doubt (nor have I now) that there would be a general cry-out upon her extreme good luck. Even your satisfaction I made sure of. It crossed my mind immediately that you would not regret your friend's leaving Highbury, for the sake of her being settled so well. I remember saying to myself, 'Even Emma, with all her partiality for Harriet, will think this a good match.'"
"I cannot help wondering at your knowing so little of Emma as to say any such thing. What! think a farmer, (and with all his sense and all his merit Mr. Martin is nothing more,) a good match for my intimate friend! Not regret her leaving Highbury for the sake of marrying a man whom I could never admit as an acquaintance of my own! I wonder you should think it possible for me to have such feelings. I assure you mine are very different. I must think your statement by no means fair. You are not just to Harriet's claims. They would be estimated very differently by others as well as myself; Mr. Martin may be the richest of the two, but he is undoubtedly her inferior as to rank in society.—The sphere in which she moves is much above his.—It would be a degradation."
"A degradation to illegitimacy and ignorance, to be married to a respectable, intelligent gentleman-farmer!"
"As to the circumstances of her birth, though in a legal sense she may be called Nobody, it will not hold in common sense. She is not to pay for the offence of others, by being held below the level of those with whom she is brought up.—There can scarcely be a doubt that her father is a gentleman—and a gentleman of fortune.—Her allowance is very liberal; nothing has ever been grudged for her improvement or comfort.—That she is a gentleman's daughter, is indubitable to me; that she associates with gentlemen's daughters, no one, I apprehend, will deny.—She is superior to Mr. Robert Martin."
"Whoever might be her parents," said Mr. Knightley, "whoever may have had the charge of her, it does not appear to have been any part of their plan to introduce her into what you would call good society. After receiving a very indifferent education she is left in Mrs. Goddard's hands to shift as she can;—to move, in short, in Mrs. Goddard's line, to have Mrs. Goddard's acquaintance. Her friends evidently thought this good enough for her; and it was good enough. She desired nothing better herself. Till you chose to turn her into a friend, her mind had no distaste for her own set, nor any ambition beyond it. She was as happy as possible with the Martins in the summer. She had no sense of superiority then. If she has it now, you have given it. You have been no friend to Harriet Smith, Emma. Robert Martin would never have proceeded so far, if he had not felt persuaded of her not being disinclined to him. I know him well. He has too much real feeling to address any woman on the haphazard of selfish passion. And as to conceit, he is the farthest from it of any man I know. Depend upon it he had encouragement."
It was most convenient to Emma not to make a direct reply to this assertion; she chose rather to take up her own line of the subject again.
"You are a very warm friend to Mr. Martin; but, as I said before, are unjust to Harriet. Harriet's claims to marry well are not so contemptible as you represent them. She is not a clever girl, but she has better sense than you are aware of, and does not deserve to have her understanding spoken of so slightingly. Waiving that point, however, and supposing her to be, as you describe her, only pretty and good-natured, let me tell you, that in the degree she possesses them, they are not trivial recommendations to the world in general, for she is, in fact, a beautiful girl, and must be thought so by ninety-nine people out of an hundred; and till it appears that men are much more philosophic on the subject of beauty than they are generally supposed; till they do fall in love with well-informed minds instead of handsome faces, a girl, with such loveliness as Harriet, has a certainty of being admired and sought after, of having the power of choosing from among many, consequently a claim to be nice. Her good-nature, too, is not so very slight a claim, comprehending, as it does, real, thorough sweetness of temper and manner, a very humble opinion of herself, and a great readiness to be pleased with other people. I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess."
"Upon my word, Emma, to hear you abusing the reason you have, is almost enough to make me think so too. Better be without sense, than misapply it as you do."
"To be sure!" cried she playfully. "I know that is the feeling of you all. I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in—what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment. Oh! Harriet may pick and choose. Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you. And is she, at seventeen, just entering into life, just beginning to be known, to be wondered at because she does not accept the first offer she receives? No—pray let her have time to look about her."
"I have always thought it a very foolish intimacy," said Mr. Knightley presently, "though I have kept my thoughts to myself; but I now perceive that it will be a very unfortunate one for Harriet. You will puff her up with such ideas of her own beauty, and of what she has a claim to, that, in a little while, nobody within her reach will be good enough for her. Vanity working on a weak head, produces every sort of mischief. Nothing so easy as for a young lady to raise her expectations too high. Miss Harriet Smith may not find offers of marriage flow in so fast, though she is a very pretty girl. Men of sense, whatever you may choose to say, do not want silly wives. Men of family would not be very fond of connecting themselves with a girl of such obscurity— and most prudent men would be afraid of the inconvenience and disgrace they might be involved in, when the mystery of her parentage came to be revealed. Let her marry Robert Martin, and she is safe, respectable, and happy for ever; but if you encourage her to expect to marry greatly, and teach her to be satisfied with nothing less than a man of consequence and large fortune, she may be a parlour-boarder at Mrs. Goddard's all the rest of her life—or, at least, (for Harriet Smith is a girl who will marry somebody or other,) till she grow desperate, and is glad to catch at the old writing-master's son."
Should you be interested in reading along and not own a copy of have one readily available, I highly recommend reading the e-text for free over at Mollands.com.
I believe we shall leave off for today with this argument, which puts Emma and Mr. Knightley out of sorts with one another for quite some time.