Emma, Volume III, Chapter 7 (Chapter 43)
Finally, we get to Box Hill.
First, a little side story about Box Hill that I learned at a speech given at Camden County College a few years ago. Turns out that there was another place in England, Bexhill, where people often staged "gypsy" outings of the sort proposed by Mrs. Elton in a previous chapter.
Also, you should know that there's a Huguenot named Peter Labilliere who is buried atop Box Hill. He thought the world was haywire – topsy-turvy, really – so he asked to be buried head-down. Austen would have known this, of course, since it was all rather famous when Labilliere was buried in 1800.
Also-also, that at the bottom of the hill, where the Highbury party might have left their carriages, is the town of Westhumble. So that when you come down the hill, that's where you arrive – in humble (or Westhumble). So at the end of the day, Emma is "humbled" as she gets into her carriage.
The foreshadowing provided by this choice of topography is genius, and all (or nearly all) of Austen's contemporary readers would have known these things. So when the outing goes south, as it is about to, the symbolism of the place would have resonated far more deeply with Regency readers.
As I said . . . Finally, the outing to Box Hill is taking place!
Only it's not the wonderful outing everyone was looking forward to. For one thing, Mrs Weston stayed behind with Mr Woodhouse, which makes Mr Woodhouse happy, I guess, and serves a purpose for not taxing the pregnant Mrs Weston. Everyone is wandering about in small groups: the Eltons keep to themselves, mostly, Frank Churchill is with Emma and Harriet, and Mr Knightley is being sweet to Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax. Frank is depressed (or so it seems), and Harriet is also dull, and Emma is bored nearly to tears by the time they all sit down, when Emma starts to have a better time, as Frank makes a virtual show of dancing attendance on her, flirting in a most pronounced manner. Why, it's almost as if he wants everyone to notice it. Ahem.
Frank declares that Emma wants to know what they're all thinking. People like Harriet, Miss Bates, and Mr Weston laugh good-naturedly, but Mrs Elton gets pissed, and Mr Knightley inquires whether she is certain she wants to know what they're thinking – his implied censure of her conduct (and Frank's) rather plain. Emma is smart enough to know that some of the company – Jane Fairfax, perhaps, definitely the Eltons and Mr Knightley – are likely not thinking kind thoughts of her, so she demurs.
Mrs Elton's offense is so plain that Frank Churchill decides to up the ante by making a bigger to-do of things, and says that Emma commands them all to share one very clever thing, or three things "very dull indeed", and Emma will be forced to laugh at them.
And this, dear friends, is where the outing turns well and truly mortifying, as Emma insults the one truly good-natured, good-hearted woman in the group: Miss Bates. Miss Bates, who is always so happy, even when she has so little. Miss Bates, who always sees the good in everyone. Miss Bates makes a cute joke about saying three dull things without effort, and Emma zings her with a comment about being limited only to three dull things.
Emma's conduct is wrong for several reasons:
1. Miss Bates is her elder, and entitled to respect.
2. Miss Bates is a gentlewoman, as Emma is, but her financial circumstances are so far below Emma's that Emma should be condescending (in the sense that word originally existed, which is to say that she should be kind to her and treat her as an equal, and not as inferior).
3. Miss Bates is an old family friend, to boot.
4. They are in public, and she has just set Miss Bates down in front of the key players in Highbury society.
Poor Miss Bates, who only ever sees the good in anyone, and who immediately tries to make excuses for why Emma is correct in her statement.
And, of course, you can just picture Mr Knightley's reaction. He must be disappointed and horrified by Emma's conduct, of course, and quite livid at her, yet his first response is to tend to Miss Bates and try to ameliorate the damage. Because Mr Knightley is, as I've already said, a Man of Action, and also, he always does what is right.
Frank Churchill, on the other hand, does not do what is right, and continues along with his day, encouraging the playing of games. (More on that in a minute.) Mr Weston, who is a lovely man, immediately proffers a "conundrum", a sort of riddle that must be solved, the solution of which is a high compliment to Emma, who deserves no such praise at the moment. Mr Knightley goes so far as to almost call bullshit on the compliment by commenting that "perfection should not have come quite so soon", and Mrs Elton rails against the playing of games outside, then says nobody else will play, and her husband (who once gave that courtship riddle to Emma) says he has "nothing to say that can entertain Miss Woodhouse, or any other young lady" and he grabs his wife and walks off. (Take that, Emma!)
Frank takes their departure as an opportunity to mention that they are well-suited, and then comments on how they met at a seaside place and fell in love and formed a quick attachment that seems to work for them, when so many young men in the same circumstance end up regretting such a thing for their entire lives, to which Jane Fairfax makes a reply that indicates that such attachments can be broken, leaving Frank to turn to Emma in an appeal to have her pick a wife for him – one that she will school to be like herself, and that he'll marry when he returns from Switzerland in 10 years. Emma is, of course, thrilled with the idea, since she wants to marry him off to Harriet, even though he seems to everyone else to be referring to Emma.
Jane and Miss Bates leave to find the Eltons, and Mr Knightley goes, too, leaving Harriet and Emma alone with Frank and his father. Emma is grateful to get called to go to her carriage, until she realizes that her walk to the carriage comes with a set-down from Mr Knightley.
Or, if you prefer to see the Paltrow/Northam version:
This chapter is where everything goes topsy-turvy indeed, just as M Labilliere predicted. Winter parlor games are being played outside in summer, some things are clearly not as they seem (what on earth was that conversation between Frank and Jane about?), people who know better are behaving badly . . . why, there's a positive Twelfth Night vibe to things, where the servants are the masters of revels and society is turned on its head.
And now there's little to be done but for Emma to feel the full weight of her own mortification and to cry herself home.