|Romola Garai, Emma, BBC, 2009|
Emma lives alone with her father in one of the better houses in Highbury, a village in Surrey. She has seen little of the world due to her father’s fearful temperament and his reluctance to leave home. Emma has just lost her best companion, her governess, who is really more of a friend. Neither her father nor her governess have tried to curb Emma’s spirit, though she is very well educated to filial duty and gentle-womanly manners.
Believing that her own efforts have helped her governess find a husband, Emma decides that the village curate must be in need of a wife. She befriends Harriet, only 17, hoping to educate the beautiful girl into the gentry. Harriet has become the beloved of a yoeman farmer, but under Emma’s influence, Harriet rejects him. Emma is certain that Harriet would make Mr. Eliot, the curate, a good wife. Emma’s good friend Mr. Knightley tries to warn her not to interfere in Harriet’s life, but Emma brushes off his advice.
The biddable Harriet falls in love with Mr. Eliot. Emma emphasizes to her all the ways he seems to care for Harriet, but is then horrified to find that Mr. Eliot’s attentions are actually directed towards herself. When she finds herself alone in a carriage with him after Christmas dinner, Emma rejects his advances. Mr. Eliot leaves town in a huff.
The gentry in Highbury seem to have little to do but visit and talk about each other, sharing letters and news. Jane Fairfax visits her old aunt, and Frank Churchill, who was adopted out of the village and into a wealthy family, also returns. Frank is lively and many think he might become attached to Emma. They plan dances together. Emma thinks Jane more accomplished than herself and does not befriend her.
With Frank away, Emma examines her feelings and finds she is not in love with him. She has quarreled with Mr. Knightley about him also. Mr. Knightley does not think Frank a good man. Emma is surprised to find that Harriet has fallen in love with Mr. Knightley for his kindness to her. Emma has compounded the unhappiness, encouraging her because she believed Harriet referred to Frank. The tangle of feelings in Highbury is finally unraveled to reveal that Frank and Jane Fairfax have been secretly engaged. Frank has been covering this up by toying with Emma. This duplicity is felt to be an outrage in the village.
Emma is fearful that Mr. Knightley might prefer Harriet to herself, realizing that she has been foolish. “The only source whence anything like consolation or composure could be drawn, was in the resolution of her own better conduct, and the hope that, however inferior in spirit and gaiety might be the following and every future winter of her life to the past, it would yet find her more rational, more acquainted with herself, and leave her less to regret when it were gone.”
When Mr. Knightley learns that Emma never loved Frank despite their flirtations in company, he reveals that Emma, with all her faults, is his dearest; that he has loved her since she was 13. Emma is transported, her happiness only marred by knowing Harriet’s feelings. She sends Harriet to her sister in London. There Harriet meets with her farmer, who proposes again. Harriet accepts and is married in September.
Emma’s father hates change and always rails against marriage. Emma thinks she cannot leave home while he is still alive. Considering this, Mr. Knightley suggests that he move in with Emma and her father, which is finally agreed to. Emma marries Mr. Knightley in October.
Jane Austen is careful to elaborate the feelings of her characters in delightfully specific language. She wraps up the stories of each of the important characters. Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax are suitably remorseful and their apologies are accepted.
Austen’s clear delineation of values makes her stories useful to us more than two hundred years after she wrote. A progressive, she mocks Emma’s pretensions and, through Mr. Knightley, shows that a person’s character is more important than his class. Lack of real feeling, money-seeking and egotism show up as false in characters that have as much life as those we admire. In fact it is quite astonishing how much Austen endears Emma to us, even though we know she is usually wrong! Emma’s sincere shame and growing self-knowledge contribute and we do not begrudge a happy resolution to her story. If you fall in love with Emma, I do not think there has been a better representation of her than Romola Garai’s in the 2009 BBC production of the novel, clips of which can be found on Youtube.