I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”

(Jane Austen)

Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’ is a novel about a young, wealthy girl named Emma Woodhouse who was very confident about her matchmaking abilities. Emma attempts to manipulate the romantic lives of those around her, leading to a series of misunderstandings and personal revelations about love, friendship, and self-awareness.

About the Author

The author of Emma, Jane Austen (1775-1817) is an English novelist from Romantic Age. She was born in Cleveland, London to a rector (clergyman). She lived within a limited neighborhood of minor landed gentry (the class next below nobility) and country clergy. She was to use these in her novels. She was educated at home and had developed a good taste in the choice of reading material under the influence of her father. On the death of her father, she moved to the neighborhood of Southampton with her mother and beloved sister, Cassandra, her closest companion. It is here where she wrote the majority of her novels.

Her first published works were issued anonymously. She died of Addison disease (adrenal gland doesn’t produce enough harmones) in middle age, before she received recognition and fame.

Her Novels

Jane Austen’s earliest writings are parodies of sentimental fiction. She wrote 6 novels, four of which were published during her lifetime and two posthumously. Her novels were not published in the order that they were written:

1. Pride and Prejudice (1796-97, published 1813)

2. Sense and Sensibility (1797-98, published 1811)

3. Northanger Abbey (1798, published posthumously 1818)

4. Mansfield Park (1811-13, published 1814)

5. Emma (1815, published 1816)

6. Persuasion (1815-16, published posthumously along with Northanger Abbey in 1818)

Austen is known for giving the ‘novel’ its distinctive modern character through her treatment of ordinary people in everyday life. In her novels, she gave vivid description of the English middle-class life during the early 19th century. Her novels are the ‘novels of manners’ of their era. But they also became ‘timeless’ classics, popular and critical, even after two centuries of Austen’s death. They are remembered for their use of wit, realism, shrewd (clever) sympathy and brilliant prose style.

Her Accomplishments

Jane Austen’s excellence lies in the fact that she wrote about unremarkable people in unremarkable situations of everyday life, yet shaped such material into remarkable works of arts. Her artistic mastery lies in the economy, precision, and wit of her prose style and the shrewd amused sympathy towards characters. The skillfulness of her characterization and storytelling mesmerise readers.

Historical Context

Conditions in Europe

The 18th century was one of the most turbulent times in European history, with a lot of social unrest. It was a time of increased trade, communication, and travel, bringing economic gains and cross-cultural interaction due to imperialism. This period was also associated with revolution. The middle class was angry about taxes used to support an expensive aristocracy that did not contribute much to society. The most extreme example was the French Revolution, but its impact was felt all over Europe.

The French Revolution started in 1789. This led to the storming of the Bastille (The Bastille was a fortress and prison in Paris, symbolizing royal authority, which was stormed by revolutionaries on July 14, 1789, marking the start of the French Revolution) and the removal of King Louis XVI. The Revolution became more radical, with the Reign of Terror and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. It had a big impact on British politics and philosophy. At first, English radicals supported the Revolution. However, its violence changed their minds. Poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge eventually became disappointed with it, as they realised that far from its professed aims of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, it had come to mean anarchy and cruelty.

Conditions in England

In 18th-century England, class divisions were strict, though Jane Austen’s novels show the beginnings of class mobility. This period was one of the most violent in English history since the English Civil War (1642 to 1651), marked by restrictions on citizen rights, freedom of speech, and assembly. The majority of the population struggled to survive, with extreme wealth and poverty existing side by side, causing widespread dissatisfaction. Rapid population growth led people to move to new industrial areas, while the enclosure of land for larger farms increased agricultural poverty. Many poor people relocated to crowded cities, where high mortality rates were common. Dr. Johnson estimated that over a thousand people died yearly in London from hunger and related diseases. Although social reform was starting to take shape, it was weak due to a strong fear of unrest.

During this time, modern capitalism emerged, shifting the economy from farming to industrialization. The political revolution of the 17th century allowed democracy to develop, despite the restoration of the monarchy. In 1688, King James II was overthrown by William of Orange, who then ruled with his wife, Mary, under laws that greatly limited royal power.

During the 18th century, alongside economic and political changes, there was a shift in how people viewed society. Writers like Jane Austen questioned society’s role as a civilizing force with set values. This doubt spread gradually but didn’t immediately change middle-class values. The era believed in human progress through ‘Nature’ and ‘Reason’ but also critiqued the optimism that saw mankind as enlightened. This optimism was epitomized by the phrase “the Age of Improvement,” reflecting a pride in the advancement of human knowledge, evident in the emergence of encyclopedias. Despite this, there remained a lingering acknowledgment of the divine, even within the humanism of the Renaissance. One area where this notion of improvement was evident, and satirized by Austen, was in the transformation of landscapes and old country houses like Southerton Court in “Mansfield Park.” In “Pride and Prejudice,” Elizabeth Bennet admires the natural appearance of the grounds at Pemberley, contrasting it favourably with estates that underwent such artificial enhancements, a feature Austen used to commend the character of Darcy.

Novels of Manners

A novel of manners is a type of novel that focuses on the behaviour and social customs of a particular social class or group of people, usually in a particular time period. It typically represents the interactions, relationships, and customs of characters within a social hierarchy, paying close attention to social expectations, manners, and conventions.

The genre is known for its emphasis on character development and social critique, often satirizing the values, customs, and behaviours of the class it portrays. It typically involves a sophisticated interaction among its characters, often in humorous ways. These novels typically focus on the behaviour and interactions of the characters in their daily life exploring their relationships, marriages, and social rituals such as parties and dinners. Novels of manners are often set in a specific time and place such as the 18th or the 19th Century England or America.

The characters in novels of manners are often members of upper classes and the narrative usually involves themes of social climbing, marriage, and the role of women in society. The genre is often associated with authors like Jane Austen. Some well known examples of the genre include Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, and Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady.


1. Emma Woodhouse:  The protagonist of the novel, a 21-year-old rich and beautiful young woman who is privileged and lives a comfortable life. She is the mistress of Hartfield, a large estate (property). She lives with her elderly father, Mr. Henry Woodhouse. She takes care of running the household and organizing social events for the high society of Highbury. The novel describes her in these words:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Her mother died when she was young, and since then, she was spoiled by her governess, who later became Mrs. Weston after getting married.

At the start of the novel, Emma’s major flaw (defect) is a combination of vanity (excessive belief in one’s own abilities) and pride (a feeling of deep satisfaction derived from one’s own achievements). She is self-deluged (allowing oneself to believe something that is not true) and thinks too highly of herself, believing she has excellent match-making abilities. Despite her flaws, Emma’s understanding and good nature allow her to learn from her mistakes and cultivate kindness and humility. Although she has vowed never to marry, she becomes briefly infatuated with Frank Churchill. However, by the end of the novel, she realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley.

2. Mr. George Knightley: Mr. Knightley is a 37-year-old neighbour and close friend of Emma. He is also the elder brother of Mr. John Knightley, who is married to Emma’s older sister, Isabella. Mr. Knightley is a true gentleman, coming from a good family and having good manners. He is very kind and always thinks about the feelings of others. His behaviour and decisions are very good and well-respected.

Mr. Knightley is the only person who openly criticizes Emma, showing his dedication to helping her improve as a person. He can balance his own needs with the needs of others and is not driven only by self-interest. He is more thoughtful and fair than many other characters in the story.

3. Frank Churchill: Mr. Weston’s son and Mrs. Weston’s stepson, Frank, was raised by his maternal aunt and uncle in Enscombe, an estate in Yorkshire owned by the Churchill family. People expect him to be a suitor (a man who pursues a relationship with a particular woman, with a view to marriage) for Emma, but his true love is Jane. Frank’s lively spirit and charm make him immediately likable. However, Mr. Knightley sees him as immature and selfish because he did not visit his father after his father’s wedding.

Frank’s uncle was his mother’s brother, and by his aunt’s command, he took the name Churchill (replacing his father’s name, Weston) when he came of age. Frank loves dancing and leads a carefree life. He is secretly engaged to Jane Fairfax, whom he met at Weymouth, but he fears his aunt will forbid the match because Jane is not wealthy. To keep his engagement to Jane a secret, Frank manipulates and plays games with the other characters.

Despite his faults, Frank, like Emma, has the potential to improve. He has a good understanding and ultimately wants to do what is right for those he loves.

4. Jane Fairfax: Miss Bates’ niece, and Mrs. Bates’ granddaughter, Jane is an orphan. She is a beautiful, bright, and elegant woman with excellent manners. Her beauty, talents, and elegance make Emma both jealous and admiring. Jane is the same age as Emma and is extraordinarily well-educated. She is very good at singing and playing piano.

Colonel Campbell, an army friend of Jane’s father, provided her with an excellent education. She lived with Colonel Campbell and his family from the age of nine. Despite coming from a good family, Jane has no fortune. This implies that she must rely on the kindness of others and seek work as a governess. However, her marriage to Frank saves her from this fate. Although, the secret engagement with Frank distresses Jane, as it goes against her principles.

5. Mr. Henry Woodhouse: Emma’s father and the head of the Woodhouse family. He is a rather silly (absurd and foolish), overly nervous, and frail (weak and delicate) old man who loves his daughter, Emma, very much. He believes that many things are dangerous to his health. He dislikes change and has a narrow-minded and selfish view on things like the marriages of his eldest daughter, Isabella, and Miss Taylor. He sees their marriages as tragedies because they took away familiar and beloved company from him.

When his wife died, Mr. Woodhouse did not remarry. Instead, he brought in Miss Taylor to educate his daughters and become part of the family. Despite his minor flaws, he is loved and comforted by Emma and his close friends.

6. Harriet Smith: She is a beautiful but simple young girl with uncertain parentage (the identity and origins of one’s parents). Just seventeen when the story begins, she is a good friend to Emma. Harriet is good-tempered but not very clever and lives at Mrs. Goddard’s school. She loves Emma, who has taken her under her guidance to teach her about the world. Because of this, she becomes the target of Emma’s misguided matchmaking efforts.

In the last chapter of the novel, it is revealed that she is the natural daughter of a respectable tradesman, though he is not a gentleman. Following Emma’s advice, she Yes rejects a marriage proposal from Mr. Martin, a young tenant-farmer (a farmer who rents land for farming). However, she later accepts his second proposal and marries him. As Emma gains wisdom throughout the novel, she comes to approve of this match.

7. Mr Robert Martin:

Mr. Martin is a wealthy 24-year-old tenant farmer living at Abbey-Mill Farm with his mother and sisters. He is a sensible, good-hearted, and generous man. Although he comes from a lower class of farmers, Mr. Knightley sees him as a kind and virtuous person with qualities usually associated with a higher social class.

Mr. Martin meets Harriet during her two-month stay at Abbey-Mill Farm. This stay was arranged by his sister, Elizabeth Martin, who is Harriet’s friend from Mrs. Goddard’s school. Mr. Martin grows fond of Harriet during this time. He first proposes to Harriet in a letter, but she turns him down under Emma’s influence. However, he proposes again later, and this time Harriet accepts. Emma, now wiser, approves of the match. Harriet and Mr. Martin become the first of three happy couples to marry in the end.

8. Mrs. Weston (earlier Miss Taylor): Mrs. Weston was Emma’s governess for 16 years and remains her closest friend and intimate companion after marrying Mr. Weston. She is kind and dedicated to Emma, having pampered her as a child. Mrs. Weston is a sensible woman and sometimes acts as a voice of moderation and reason for Emma. The Weston and Woodhouse families visit each other almost daily. Near the end of the novel, the Weston’s have a baby.

9. Mr. Weston: He is a widower and a friendly, sociable businessman living in Highbury. He enjoys spending time with his friends and his son from a previous marriage, Frank Churchill. In his early 40s, he marries Miss Taylor (who becomes Mrs. Weston) after buying a house called “Randalls.”

10. Philip Elton: Philip Elton is a good-looking and initially well-mannered vicar who is 27 years old and unmarried at the beginning of the story. Emma wants him to marry her friend Harriet, but Philip is very ambitious and focused on money. He hopes to marry Emma to gain her £30,000 dowry. When Emma rejects him, he quickly marries another woman with a smaller fortune, Augusta Elton, who has £10,000.

11. Augusta Elton (aka Mrs. Elton):

Mrs. Elton, formerly Miss Augusta Hawkins, is Mr. Elton’s wife from Bath. She is a self-important, vain, and vulgar woman. She takes great pride in her limited fortune and her rich brother-in-law. Mrs. Elton boasts a lot and is very pretentious, expecting special treatment as a new bride in the village.

Emma is polite to her but does not like her. Mrs. Elton acts superior toward Jane, which makes others feel sympathy for Jane. Her lack of social graces makes her a foil to other well-mannered characters like Miss Fairfax and Mrs. Weston. This difference shows the contrast between true gentility and mere wealth.

12. Miss Bates: Miss Bates is the middle-aged spinster aunt of Jane Fairfax. She is a talkative woman without beauty, fortune, or wealth. Despite this, her good nature and kindness make her well-liked in the neighborhood. She grew up in better circumstances as the vicar’s daughter, but now she and her family are poor. One day, during an outing in the country, Emma humiliates Miss Bates for talking too much.

13. Mrs. Bates: Miss Bates’ mother and Jane’s grandmother, Mr Woodhouse’s good friend.

14. Isabella Knightly:  Emma’s older sister and John Knightley’s wife.

15. John Knightly: Mr Knightley’s brother and Emma’s brother-in-law.


Emma is Jane Austen’s fourth novel, published in 1815 in three volumes. It is set in the early 19th century in Highbury, England, and centres around Emma Woodhouse, the title character and protagonist. Emma is a young woman who tries to play matchmaker, but her efforts lead to several romantic misunderstandings.

The novel’s introduction to Emma Woodhouse is one of the most famous in literature:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition… had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”

Emma is beautiful, wealthy, and smart, but she is also spoiled, interfering, and overconfident about her abilities. She lives with her hypochondriac (generally depressed or worried about health) father and was raised by her governess, Miss Taylor (her mother died when she was five).

The novel begins with the wedding of Mr. and Mrs. Weston (formerly Miss Taylor). Emma believes she arranged their match and is pleased to see them happy, though she is sad to lose her closest friend. Emma soon finds a new friend in Harriet Smith, a 17-year-old student at a local boarding school run by Mrs. Goddard, whose background is unknown.

Emma thinks Harriet is a sweet girl and decides to help her, taking her under her guidance. Harriet is friends with the Martin family and is fond of their son, Robert Martin. Emma disapproves of Harriet’s relationship with Robert, a farmer. When Robert proposes to Harriet by letter, Emma persuades her to reject him, wanting Harriet to marry Mr. Elton, the Vicar of Highbury. Mr. Knightley, a friend of Robert, scolds Emma when he learns of her role in the rejection and warns her that meddling in others’ lives will not end well.

Emma believes Mr. Elton has feelings for Harriet and encourages this. However, after a ball, Mr. Elton proposes to Emma in a carriage. She rejects him, and he leaves for Bath, where he soon finds a wife.

Two new visitors arrive in Highbury i.e. Jane Fairfax, the beautiful orphaned niece of Emma’s neighbour, Miss Bates, and Frank Churchill, the charming son of Mr. Weston. Frank’s wealthy aunt, Mrs. Churchill, who raised him, is possessive and does not like to share Frank with anyone. Frank is secretly engaged to Jane and has come to visit his father. Jane has come to spend time with her family before starting work as a governess. Frank keeps the engagement secret because he knows his aunt will not approve of him marrying a poor girl.

Initially, Emma dislikes Jane and criticises her for being too reserved. The narrator suggests that Emma is jealous of Jane because Jane had previously met Frank, whom Emma had started to like. However, Emma’s interest in Frank does not last. She begins to see Frank as a possible match for Harriet. When Harriet confesses her love for a man of higher social status, Emma assumes she means Frank. But Harriet is actually in love with Mr. Knightley, who recently saved her from embarrassment at a village ball when Mr. and Mrs. Elton ignored her. Suddenly, Emma realises she loves Mr. Knightley too. She understands that if she had let Harriet marry Robert, she could have avoided these complications, and the resolution of the story begins.

Soon after Harriet’s confession, Frank leaves Highbury suddenly. Not long after, Emma and others in Highbury learn that Frank’s aunt, Mrs. Churchill, has died. Frank writes a letter to Emma explaining that he and Jane have been secretly engaged and that his flirtation with Emma was just a way to pass time until his relatives agreed to his marriage with Jane. Frank’s uncle eventually agrees to the marriage. Emma feels bad about misleading Harriet once again in matters of the heart.

When Mr. Knightley hears about Frank’s engagement, he returns from London to comfort Emma, thinking she is in love with Frank. When he finds her in the garden, Emma reveals she has never been in love with Frank. Mr. Knightley then confesses his love for her, and she accepts his marriage proposal.

Emma has to tell Harriet once more that the man Harriet loves has proposed to her. Harriet goes to London to stay with Isabella for a while. During this time, Mr. Knightley arranges for Mr. Martin to go to London on business, where he reunites with Harriet. Soon, they announce their engagement, and Emma is happy that her friend has found happiness despite Emma’s interference.

Mr. Knightley decides to move into Hartfield so that Mr. Woodhouse’s life is not disrupted by Emma’s marriage. By the end of the novel, Mr. Martin marries Harriet, Mr. Knightley marries Emma, and Frank is set to marry Jane after the mourning period for his aunt is over.



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