As a walking companion…Emma had very early foreseen how useful she might find [Harriet]. In that respect Mrs. Weston’s loss had been important…since Mrs. Weston’s marriage her exercise had been too much confined. She had ventured once alone to Randalls, but it was not pleasant; and a Harriet Smith, therefore, one whom she could summon at any time to walk, would be a valuable addition to her privileges.
In Austen-land, the standard for perfection is set by Lizzy Bennet, who, as you’ll recall, was an enthusiastic—in fact a relentless—walker, and so far from being unhappy to walk alone, seemed actively to prefer it. So Austen is clearly inviting us to judge Emma here; this girl’s ego is so big, she can’t stroll half a mile on her own (“it was not pleasant”) without someone trotting along behind her to listen to all her idle thoughts, and to coo and gasp and applaud and fill up the distance from point A to point B with continual affirmations of Emma Woodhouse’s complete and total genius. And Harriet Smith, being “totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to”, is just the gal for the job. You could put a collar on her and throw sticks for her to fetch, and keep her busy for the better part of the day.
Though from Emma’s skewed point of view, Harriet is the one who’s benefiting from the friendship. She means to be “useful” to Harriet—in the way Christian missionaries were useful to happy, guilt-free, self-reliant Pacific islanders—and her “first attempts at usefulness were in an endeavour to find out who were the parents; but Harriet could not tell.” Emma is completely vexed by Harriet’s inability to satisfy her desire to know what isn’t even remotely her business anyway. She “could never believe that in the same situation she should not have discovered the truth. Harriet had no penetration. She had been satisfied to hear and believe just what Mrs. Goddard chose to tell her; and looked no farther.” Just what Emma would have done differently under those circumstances she doesn’t say; maybe get Mrs. Goddard in a chokehold and refuse to let go till she divulged?...Or engage in some Haley Mills-style breaking into the school’s office after lights-out and rifle through Mrs. Goddard’s desk, while a pliant and easily spooked schoolmate (Harriet again) nervously stood watch?
Thwarted in her attempts to suss out her new friends origins, Emma means at least to break off Harriet’s intimacy with the Martins, the lowly farming family who are her only friends outside the school…excepting, of course, now Emma. Not that Emma’s a snob, exactly; in fact at first she actually encourages Harriet to tell her about the Martins, “amused by such a picture of another set of beings”; she enjoys hearing of their “eight cows, two of them Alderneys, and one a very pretty little Welsh cow, indeed; and of Mrs. Martin’s saying, as she was so fond of it, it should be called her cow”. This is all Jules Verne to Emma; if Harriet were to speak of hoeing the chickens and milking the cat, Emma wouldn’t blink.
But she quickly changes her mind when she learns that the household—which she had believed to comprise “a mother and daughter, a son and son’s wife,” are in fact entirely short on the latter; which means that pretty, tail-wagging, eager-to-please Harriet has been lurking in the vicinity of a hot-blooded single fella. Suddenly on red alert, Emma prods Harriet on the subject of Robert Martin, which unleashes a torrent of gushy, girlish anecdote, some of it alarmingly courtly—“He had his shepherd’s son into the parlour one night on purpose to sing to her”, for instance; which, let me just give props to the guy, is a totally smooth move and would probably work even today. If you could find a shepherd’s son. Or a parlour.
Her suspicions confirmed, Emma now switches to another line of questioning—all phrased with such particularity that you can almost see the grimace on her face, as though she’s trying to dislodge something caught in her back teeth. For instance: “Mr. Martin, I suppose, is not a man of information beyond the line of his own business. He does not read?” Fortunately, Harriet is impervious to subtlety of any kind, and responds by enthusiastically listing everything Robert has ever read, from the Agricultural Reports to “some other books that lie in one of the window seats—but he reads all them to himself,” which I’m sorry, just makes me think Robert retires to that window seat on the pretense of reading, then curls up for a good, long snooze. In a house brimming with all those women, could you blame him?
When Emma asks “What sort of looking man is Mr. Martin?”, Harriet begins to explain (not a hottie, it turns out; but the kind whose appearance improves the more you know him), then asks Emma, “But did you never see him?” Because of course it would be incredible if she hadn’t, there being only twenty-three people in all of Highbury. Emma draws herself up, Lady Bracknell style, and says:
“…I may have seen him fifty times, but without any idea of his name. A young farmer, whether on horseback or on foot, is the very last sort of person to raise my curiosity. The yeomanry are precisely the order of people with whom I feel I can have nothing to do. A degree or two lower, and a creditable appearance might interest me; I might hope to be useful to their families in some way or other. But a farmer can need none of my help, and is therefore, in one sense, as much above my notice, as in every other he is below it.”
Right, then. We love us some haughty Emma, but when it comes to it, we won’t be entirely sorry to see her with egg on her face. A fully-loaded bacon-and-three-cheese omelet, even.
When Emma asks how old Robert Martin is, Harriet says, “He was four-and-twenty the 8th of last June, and my birthday is the 23d; just a fortnight and a day’s difference; which is very odd.” These are the kind of lovely little flourishes that reveal Austen’s genius,; because of course a fifteen-day difference in birthdays isn’t remarkable at all; it would only seem so to someone who’s utterly smitten. We see this; and possibly Emma does too, because she now declares him far too young to marry.
“Six years hence, if he could meet with a good sort of young woman in the same rank as his own, and with a little money, it might be very desirable.”
“Six years hence! dear Miss Woodhouse, he would be thirty years old.”
“”Well, and that is as early as most men can afford to marry, who are not born to an independence.”
Emma’s about as subtle as a pile-driver in this scene; fortunately, she’s talking to Harriet, who’s so naïve you could chain her to a radiator for two solid years before she would infer any ill intent. I mean, just listen to the absolutely shameless way Emma goes on from here; a slightly sharper-than-average gibbon would twig to what she’s trying to do.
“I wish you may not get into a scrape, Harriet, whenever he does marry.—I mean, as to being acquainted with his wife; for though his sisters, from a superior education, are not to be altogether objected to, it does not follow that he might marry any body at all fit for you to notice…There can be no doubt of your being a gentleman’s daughter, and you must support your claim to that station by every thing within your own power, or there will be plenty of people who would take pleasure in degrading you.”
Harriet flutters and clucks and curtseys and rolls over on her back, so grateful is she for Emma’s patronage; but Emma tells her, “I would have you so firmly established in good society, as to be independent even of Hartfield and Miss Woodhouse,” and let’s give her the benefit of the doubt, maybe at that moment she actually, honestly believes what she’s saying; but of course she is who she is, and her real motive is to be able to go through life pointing out Harriet at dinner parties and boasting “I made her”—just before pointing to Mr. and Mrs. Weston and nodding, “Them, too.”
Emma gets a chance to judge how well the seeds she’s planted have taken root, because the next day she and Harriet run into Robert Martin in the flesh. Emma—who stands aside during the encounter (because Robert isn’t fit to be introduced to her)—observes him, and finds him presentable enough, but “when he came to be contrasted with gentlemen, she thought he must lose all the ground he had gained in Harriet’s inclination. Harriet was not insensible of manner…Mr. Martin looked as if he did not know what manner was.”
Accordingly, when they part, Emma wastes not a moment in quashing the little tizzy of happiness Harriet has taken away from the encounter, by hammering it hard with a great big gentleman-shaped cudgel.
“He is very plain, undoubtedly, remarkably plain; but that is nothing, compared with his entire want of gentility. I had no right to expect much, and I did not expect much; but I had no idea that he could be so very clownish, so totally without air. I had imagined him, I confess, a degree or two nearer gentility…At Hartfield, you have had very good specimens of well educated, well bred men. I should be surprised if, after seeing them, you could be in company with Mr. Martin again without perceiving him to be a very inferior creature,—and rather wondering at yourself for having thought him agreeable at all.”
Harriet immediately acquiesces—if she had a tail, she’d tuck it between her bloomers—and says yes, of course, you’re right, I’m so stupid, I’m an idiot, and Emma just keeps banging away, relentlessly, asking Harriet only to consider Robert Martin next to gentlemen like, for instance, purely chosen at random, Mr. Weston and Mr. Elton. When Harriet basically gags at the idea of Mr. Weston, who is just so totally ancient (being, ahem, “between forty and fifty”—thanks a lot there, Harriet), Emma admonishes her by asking her to consider what Robert Martin will be like at the same age: “a completely gross, vulgar farmer,—totally inattentive to appearances, and thinking of nothing but profit and loss.”
But then, having defended his honor, Emma sets Mr. Weston aside to focus on Mr. Elton, which has been her plan all along. She bends Harriet’s ear about what a sweet, sweet piece of superfine he is:
“…I think a young man might be very safely recommended to take Mr. Elton as a model. Mr. Elton is good humored, cheerful, obliging, and gentle. He seems to me to be grown particularly gentle of late. I do not know whether he had any design of ingratiating himself with either of us, Harriet, by additional softness, but it strikes me that his manners are softer than they used to be. If he means any thing, it must be to please you.”
And with that, she’s off and running. She can practically smell the flowers strewn about the nuptial altar, already. And she’s congratulating herself for having put it all together, especially because Mr. Elton is that rarest of creatures, being “quite the gentleman himself and without low connections; at the same time not of any family that could fairly object to the doubtful birth of Harriet.” Emma’s only worry is that the match is so obviously a perfect one that it no one will give her “much merit in planning it,” which of course is the real motivation for the whole shebang. But she hopes the sheer speed with which she lashes the young couple together for life will earn her an extra credit or two; and she doesn’t doubt Harriet will fall right in line with what’s expected of her, for “a girl who could be gratified by Robert Martin’s riding about the country to get walnuts for her might very well be conquered by Mr. Elton’s admiration.”
All of Jane Austen’s early novels are to some degree about class—certainly more so than about romance—and we’ve become accustomed to seeing her heroines struggle against the barriers that their unspectacular births have set for them. So it’s a bit of a shock, in this novel, suddenly to see an Austen heroine on the other side of that struggle, in the role usually reserved for the likes of Caroline Bingley or Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Emma’s snobbishness, and her virtual brutality towards Harriet and Robert Martin, seem at first to be ameliorated by good intentions; by being inspired by a desire to help Harriet improve her lot in life. (Women could leap up a class ranking or two by means of marriage; unlike men, who were basically stuck. Occasionally an industrious man might pull himself out of what Emma calls the “yeomanry” by making a fortune, but that didn’t land him in the gentry—it landed him in the brand-new merchant class, which to the gentry was just the same pigs in a different pen.)
But Emma’s presumed kindness to Harriet is, as we have seen, more selfishly motivated than not. And Emma dipping below the class barrier to befriend Harriet isn’t so beneficent a character trait as it might seem, because if she didn’t stoop so low, she’d have pretty much no one to hang out with at all. It’s not like Highbury is crawling with debutantes. Emma’s endeavors on Harriet’s behalf are designed to manufacture, from raw materials, a friend worthy of the great Miss Woodhouse; one whom Miss Woodhouse may also then have the satisfaction of displaying as her own creation, a là Henry Higgins (or, for that matter, Victor Frankenstein).
What follows now is a scene remarkable for Austen; it’s a chapter devoted entirely to a conversation between Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston. Only rarely does Austen tack away from her protagonist’s point of view to give us a slice of narrative from someone else’s perspective; in Pride and Prejudice she occasionally cuts away to Darcy and the Bingley siblings at Netherfield, and in Mansfield Park she teases us with an occasional private bout of banter between Henry and Mary Crawford. What makes the present instance so surprising is that it occurs so early in the narrative; we’re only four chapters in, and Austen’s already abandoning her titular heroine so that other voices can have their say. Clearly she’s feeling her powers—flexing her muscles and extending her reach.
But while Emma may not be present in the flesh, she looms large in Mr. Knightley and Mrs. Weston’s thoughts. Knightley has sought out the former governess to bitch about Emma’s sudden friendship with Harriet Smith; he maintains that “neither of them will do the other any good.” Mrs. Weston disagrees, and warns him, “This will certainly be the beginning of one of our quarrels about Emma”, which tantalizes us with evidence that there have been others…going back how far, we can only wonder. (Given that it’s Emma, infancy wouldn’t strain our credulity.)
Mrs. Weston argues that the two girls will do each other good, accusing Knightley of objecting to Harriet for not being “the superior young woman which Emma’s friend ought to be. But, on the other hand, as Emma wants to see her better informed, it will be an inducement to her to read more herself. They will read together.” Knightley scoffs at this.
“Emma has been meaning to read more ever since she was twelve years old. I have seen a great many lists of her drawing up at various times of books that she meant to read regularly through—and very good lists they were—very well chosen, and very neatly arranged—sometimes alphabetically, and sometimes by some other rule.”
In other words, the road to hell is paved by Emma Woodhouse. Or by her lists, anyway, whether alphabetical or otherwise. Knightley goes on to say that “Emma is spoiled by being the cleverest of her family. At ten years old she had the misfortune of being able to answer questions which puzzled her sister at seventeen. She was always quick and assured”, and the implication here is that she’s so clever she outwits even herself. Emma can talk herself into believing anything she wishes, and can persuade herself that anything she desires, she ought to have. She is, in short, a total Heather.
Mrs. Weston takes this criticism a tad personally, because (ahem) until recently she was in charge of both Emma’s reading and Emma’s character. She tells Knightley she’s glad she didn’t have to leave Hartfield for another post and rely on him for a reference, because he clearly thinks she blew chunks as Emma’s governess. Knightley backpedals, but without quite bothering denying it.
“You are better placed here, very fit for a wife, but not at all for a governess. But you were preparing yourself to be an excellent wife all the time you were at Hartfield…you were receiving a very good education from [Emma], on the very material matrimonial point of submitting your own will, and doing as you were bid…”
Mrs. Weston points out that obedience and submission aren’t exactly skills she requires as the wife of her easygoing, what’s-for-dinner-that-sounds-perfect husband; but she thanks Knightley for the compliment anyway, though we can guess she privately would like to give him a gentle shove out the sitting-room window.
Knightley—who’s on quite a tear, here—then lays into Harriet, calling her “the very worst sort of companion that Emma could possibly have”, given that she “knows nothing herself, and looks upon Emma as knowing every thing. She is a flatterer in all her ways…How can Emma imagine she has any thing to learn herself, while Harriet is presenting such a delightful inferiority?” He adds for good measure that Emma’s company will likewise ruin Harriet, because she “will grow just refined enough to be uncomfortable with those among whom birth and circumstance have placed her home”, which makes me suspect that Knightley has cheated by reading ahead.
Somehow Mrs. Weston manages to steer the conversation onto Emma’s looks, which is one area where she and Knightley can agree, and they spend a few paragraphs going all moony over how luscious and creamy and delicious she is, to the point that it starts to feel just a hair creepy (“oh, what a bloom of full health, and such a pretty height and size; such a firm and upright figure. There is health, not merely in her bloom, but in her air, her head, her glance”). But finally Knightley, who must be having some kind of gastric trouble today, manages to swing the topic back around to something he can bitch about.
“I think her all you describe. I love to look at her; and I will add this praise, that I do not think her personally vain. Considering how very handsome she is, she appears to be little occupied with it; her vanity lies another way.”
Aaaaand then it’s back to the races, with more Harriet Smith bashing and general This-will-not-end-well spouting. Eventually he and Mrs. Weston agree to a truce, which Knightley caps by sighing, “I wonder what will become of her,” then adding:
“She always declares she will never marry, which, of course, means just nothing at all. But I have no idea that she has yet ever seen a man she cared for. It would not be a bad thing for her to be very much in love with a proper object. I should like to see Emma in love, and in some doubt of a return; it would do her good.”
Ah, but what about in love and with every indication of a return?...As we’ll soon find out, Mr. Knightley won’t be quite as sanguine about that, and will be driven to fuming and snorting and stamping his great big foot on the carpet. Because…? Well, we know why, and so does Mrs. Weston, who acknowledges his little outburst while taking care to “conceal some favorite thoughts of her own and Mr. Weston’s on the subject as much as possible”.
And on that note, we check back in on Emma, who’s pretty content with her own favorite thoughts on the subject of Mr. Elton and Harriet Smith. She’s been drawing the two together, and is now “quite convinced of Mr. Elton’s being in the fairest way of falling in love, if not in love already.” Her evidence? “He talked of Harriet; and praised her so warmly”—but hold on, let’s just hear a little bit of that warmth and ardor, shall we?
“You have given Miss Smith all that she required,” said he: “you have made her graceful and easy. She was a beautiful creature when she came to you; but in my opinion, the attractions you have added are infinitely superior to what she received from nature.”
“I am glad you think I have been of useful to her; but Harriet only wanted drawing out…I have, perhaps, given her a little more decision of character,—which taught her to think on points which had not been in her way before.”
“Exactly so; that is what principally strikes me. So much superadded decision of character! Skilful has been the hand.”
Not being idiots, we can immediately see that Mr. Elton is falling all over himself to compliment Emma and her influence, not Harriet and her improvement. And when he reiterates his praise, “with a sort of sighing animation which had a vast deal of the lover,” Emma just takes it for granted that the object of the sighs is Harriet. So Mr. Knightley is correct, and she isn’t vain about her own beauty; but her vanity is on titanic display here all the same—because she’s just blithely presuming that the various human beings around her will easily bend and twist themselves to her will.
Emma continues what she considers a flirtation by proxy with Mr. Elton—unaware that he considers it a flirtation front-and-center—by saying how much she’d like to have a good picture of Harriet in all her improvement. “I would give any money for it. I almost long to attempt her likeness myself.” Which is all Mr. Elton has to hear before he’s down on one knee entreating her to please, please, oh pretty-pretty-super-please take on the project. “I know what your drawings are. How could you suppose me ignorant? Is not this room rich in specimens of your landscapes and flowers? and has not Mrs. Weston some inimitable figure-pieces in her drawing-room at Randalls?” Emma allows the compliment, but wonders “what has all that to do with taking likenesses?” Really, a blow to the back of her head couldn’t make her any stupider than she is right here.
Mr. Elton dances around her some more, beseeching her in the kind of fawning language that makes Mr. Collins’s spectacular ass-kissing of Lady Catherine de Bourgh sound almost half-hearted. Emma rewards him by fetching her old portfolio, which contains all her previous attempts at portraiture, before she let the habit lapse—the way, we’re told, she’s let every serious attempt at mastering any accomplishment wither away. “She played and sang, and drew in almost every style; but steadiness had always been wanting…She was not much deceived as to her own skill, either as an artist or a musician; but she was not unwilling to have others deceived,” as witness how she clearly doesn’t mind Mr. Elton’s gasps of admiration now.
“There was merit in every drawing,” Austen concedes—adding pointedly, “in the least finished, perhaps the most.” Yet Emma spends an entire page taking Mr. Elton through every single likeness, elaborately explaining whose it is and how she came to do it and why she ultimately gave it up and what the weather was that day and what shoes she had on and when she broke for tea and whether she had biscuits or cake, and Mr. Elton can scarcely draw a breath, so spellbound is he by the entire narration. Emma could conclude by setting the whole portfolio on fire and beating him about the shoulders with it, and his raptures wouldn’t diminish one bit.
Finally—as if there were any doubt—Emma decides to end her long abandonment of the painter’s muse and take up her brushes again. “[For] Harriet’s sake, or rather for my own, and as there are no husbands and wives in the case at present, I will break my resolution now.” Mr. Elton latches onto that “No husbands and wives in the case at present” bit and repeats it just often enough, and with enough implied meaning, to make Emma go all smug about her mutant matchmaking powers again.
Before long she’s sketching away, with Harriet posing before her “smiling and blushing”, and with Mr. Elton hovering over her shoulder and letting out little chirps and twitters of delight. Emma “gave him credit for stationing himself where he might gaze and gaze again [at Harriet] without offense; but was really obliged to put an end to it, and request him to place himself elsewhere.” When the picture is finally finished and presented to the family, “Mr. Elton was in continual raptures, and defended it through every criticism”—as when Mr. Knightley dares to suggest that Emma has made Harriet too tall.
“Oh, no—certainly not too tall—not in the least too tall. Consider she is sitting down, which naturally presents a different—which in short gives exactly the idea;—and the proportions must be preserved, you know. Proportions, fore-shortening:—oh no; it gives one exactly the idea of such a height as Miss Smith’s;—exactly so indeed.”
Perhaps sensing that his role as the novel’s resident one-note gasbag is being usurped, Mr. Woodhouse interjects that while he likes the picture, Harriet “seems to be sitting out doors with only a little shawl over her shoulders; and it makes one think she must catch a cold.”
“But, my dear papa, it is supposed to be summer; a warm day in summer. Look at the tree.”
“But it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”
At which Mr. Elton vaults back into the fray, proclaiming “the placing Miss Smith out of doors, and the tree is touched with such inimitable spirit! Any other situation would have been much less in character”, and yadda yadda yadda until Emma must feel tempted to go fetch her paintbox and revise the whole background with a good thick blanket of snow.
The next item of business is to have the thing framed, and only a London framer will do, and only Mr. Elton is to be considered, at his own insistence, for the near-sacred duty of taking possession of the canvas and escorting it to town and seeing it done, to the point at which he really seems “fearful of not being incommoded enough.”
“What a precious deposit!” said he, with a tender sigh, as he received it.
At which point even Emma has to roll her eyes. “This man is almost too gallant to be in love,” she thinks. In fact, she’s not a big fan of his; “he does sigh and languish, and study for compliments rather more than I could endure as a principal.” No, in fact, if she were the object of all his gushy moistness, she'd have to roll up a newspaper and swat him repeatedly on the nose with it. But for Harriet’s sake, she’ll put up with anything.
Anything, that is, except Harriet deciding for herself who she is and whom to love. And frankly, that’s a lesson it’s going to take more than the coming Mr. Elton meltdown to drive home.