“Emma could not resist.” This sentence marks the most dramatic pause of the novel. In the next line Emma affronts Miss Bates and earns for herself the reprimand that propels Emma’s most earnest effort at self-reflection. Why couldn’t she resist? Had she endured all the good humor and tedium she could manage? Or was the problem with Emma something subtler? What preceded this moment that made her incapable of thinking of Miss Bates’s vulnerability or her own responsibility to an old friend? What precipitates this breakdown in Emma’s usually unfailing sense of decorum? Perhaps the answers begin with the disharmony that mars the day at Box Hill. High expectations for a day of exploring quickly give way to disappointment and tension between the various groups. When Frank Churchill tries to counteract the general “languor” of the party, he leads Emma into a display of careless self-aggrandizement that makes a mockery of marriage and affronts the other members of the party. In the course of two hours we watch Emma chafe under the restrictions of the roles she is assigned, in jest as well as in earnest. We see her play with the idea of her own power and the image of herself as Romantic heroine before falling into error through a growing fear of the future she faces.
Emma styles herself an “imaginist” for her interest in shaping plots from the lives of the people around her. While she imagines Romance and intrigue for her friends, her thoughts are never far from her wishes for herself. Her crafting of roles for Harriet and others has a direct correlation in her own self-fashioning. Characteristic of Jane Austen, the social environment of Highbury village provides the site for this activity. As Emma carefully watches others, she is consistently aware of them watching her. We see this at the Coles’ party. As Emma watches Mr. Knightley mingle and interact, she imagines the elegance with which he must dance. She sees that she was right when he takes Harriet to the floor. When she is, at last, his partner, her pleasure in his dancing is enhanced by her sense of others’ pleasure in the figure he and she offer (230).
Emma’s self-fashioning is perhaps most clearly revealed through her relationship to Harriet Smith. Harriet, thrilled and grateful for every attention Emma bestows, holds an unreflectively positive opinion of her mentor. As Mr. Knightley rightly perceives, “‘She knows nothing herself, and looks upon Emma as knowing every thing’” (38). With Harriet, Emma can speak of herself without fear of being questioned or contradicted. It is to Harriet that Emma offers her image of independent spinsterhood, a fantasy future of security and importance.
This projection offers the novel’s most complete picture of Emma’s desires for her future. The picture she draws is surprisingly negative. She justifies her choice of a single life through what she does not lack and does not need:
“I have none of the usual inducements of women to marry. Were I to fall in love, indeed, it would be a different thing! but I never have been in love; it is not my way, or my nature; and I do not think I ever shall. And, without love, I am sure I should be a fool to change such a situation as mine. Fortune I do not want; employment I do not want; consequence I do not want: I believe few married women are half as much mistress of their husband’s house as I am Hartfield; and never, never could I expect to be so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right in any man’s eyes as I am in my father’s.” (emphasis added, 84)
The commingling of desire and negation reveals deep-seated doubts. Emma sees her future in terms of absences despite her assertions of autonomy and confidence.
With Miss Taylor recently married, Emma does not possess a role model for the single life she imagines. Instead she offers what she will not be; she will not be like Miss Bates. Her effort to distance herself from that image leads her to exclaim, “‘[I]f I thought I should ever be like Miss Bates . . . I would marry to-morrow. But between us, I am convinced there never can be any likeness, except in being unmarried’” (84-85). The impoverished spinster and the spinster of means are very different, she insists. Poverty creates constriction of mind and means, which, in turn, leads to narrowness of thought and bad humor. This is why the state of singleness is not more highly regarded. She assures Harriet that “‘a single woman, of good fortune, is always respectable, and may be as sensible and pleasant as anybody else’” (85). This may be Emma’s dearest wish, but the conflicted discourse she offers leaves the impression that Emma has very little confidence in the future she creates in this passage. In the months between this conversation and the outing at Box Hill, Emma watches as her efforts to craft such futures for others lead to disappointed hopes and wounded hearts. By midsummer her confidence in her ability to shape her own future must have been further weakened.
When the anticipation that precedes the Box Hill picnic is converted to disappointment, and the participants separate into smaller groups, Emma finds herself matched with Harriet and Frank. This was hardly the plan for the picnic. It was supposed to be a day of “exploring” with the prospect of escaping routine. The fine views and open landscape should create a sense of greater space, of larger possibilities. The opposite occurs. The groups refuse to mingle and Emma spends her day with Harriet and Frank, the two who amuse Emma most and consistently offer her a flattering image of herself. But there is a sense of confinement in the arrangement that becomes apparent in the judgment Emma passes on her companions. Frank is unusually silent and stupid. He offers only pat answers and no real diversion. Harriet is deemed equally dull. The relationships that Emma has nurtured in the past several months, in the light of the midsummer sun, appear vacuous and severely limited. Emma experiences an increased sense of being hemmed in, confined. The morning’s diversions will leave Emma longing to be with anyone other than her chosen companions and eager to put this day behind her.
When the entire group is seated, Frank makes Emma the focus of everyone’s attention with an unexpected show of gallantry. With Frank, Emma has attempted the fantasy of Romantic heroine, determining before she met him that they were perfectly suited to each other, in part because the people of Highbury expected the match. Privately Emma realized somewhat quickly that she was not in love with Frank and believes that he harbors no genuine interest in her. They continue to enjoy each other’s company as well as the attention they generate within the Highbury set. The two offer the picture of young lovers for their own diversion as well as the amusement of the others gathered on the hill.
But the tensions at work are revealed in the complicated turn the dialogue takes early on. Emma reprimands Frank for having been in a bad humor the previous day at Donwell Abbey. He should be more self-controlled, according to Emma. When Frank courteously offers, “‘You order me, whether you speak or not,’” she clarifies the distinction between control and self-control (369). If he had been under her control the previous day, he would have conducted himself more appropriately. Further, she charges him with having “broken bounds” the previous day and losing his self-control. The exchange foregrounds the issues of control and self-control, issues close to Emma’s heart. Emma struggles to believe herself in control of her destiny, though her situation shows little evidence of it. In fact, the present excursion is a reminder of just how little real control Emma commands. She originally planned the outing with Mr. Weston as a small gathering separate from the Elton picnic. Yet, in this, as in the Crown ball, Emma’s sense of decorum requires that she allow the presumptuous Mrs. Elton the role of patroness and organizer. Her self-control, despite the confidence with which she recommends it to Frank, is equally tenuous.
Even as Emma accepts the attentions Frank offers, she realizes the hollowness of his flattery. We are told repeatedly that Emma has no intentions toward Frank and that his gallantry means nothing. Their behavior “had such an appearance as no English word but flirtation could very well describe” (368). The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb form as “to play at courtship” or “to make love without serious intention.” Emma and Frank flirt to counteract the tedium of the outing. Their words carry no real emotional fervency. Rather, Emma is “gay and thoughtless” because “she felt less happy than she expected” (368). Her laughter is a product of her disappointment. Her disingenuousness is reinforced when she laughs “as carelessly as she could” (369). She judges his attentions “judicious,” relegating them to the well chosen rather than the sincere or unaffected. Although he seems to care for nothing but her amusement, both Frank and Emma know this is not the case. Both enjoy the attention of the larger group. They flirt to pass their afternoon and to pretend, briefly, to believe in the illusion of themselves as Highbury’s most notable couple. What appears as mirth is actually pride and affectation.
In the couple’s banter we see Emma’s self-objectification magnified. She is generally conscious of how others perceive her, particularly in relation to Frank. Even before meeting him, we are told, she took “a sort of pleasure in the idea of their being coupled in their friends’ imaginations” (119). As the two play with Romance, Emma moves beyond assuming the image of herself as heroine in the minds of others to actually invoicing others: “‘Mr. Frank Churchill and Miss Woodhouse flirted together excessively.’ They were laying themselves open to that very phrase–and to having it sent off in a letter to Maple Grove by one lady, to Ireland by another” (368). Emma writes a line for Mrs. Elton and Jane Fairfax to use when reporting this day to their extended relations. The passage is important because it reveals Emma’s heightened concentration on herself as the object of other people’s attentions. With Harriet Emma crafts the picture of herself she wishes Harriet to accept. Here, she separates herself from the immediate attention of Frank’s repartee in order to enjoy the image of herself spread far beyond this hill, past Highbury and its environs, to Maple Grove, and as far, even, as Ireland. Emma’s sense of confinement is evident in her desire to “mean something” beyond the borders of this village. She longs to make some imprint, even the one line of reproof, offered by “ladies” she does not consider her social equals.
When Emma warns Frank that they are making too much of a show for the others, Frank engages the entire group in his attentions toward Emma. He plays the part of a courtier who enacts the submission to Emma’s control he had joked about earlier. In a tone of mock-courtesy, he establishes a court in which cleverness is a virtue and Emma “presides.” As Frank becomes increasingly aggressive, “attacking,” “demanding,” and “requiring” the others to respond, Emma in turn becomes more cautious. Oblivious to the offensiveness of his behavior, Frank insists, in Emma’s name, that Emma be told exactly what each person is presently thinking. After a couple of muffled responses, Mr. Knightley inquires if she would really like to know what he is thinking. With an effort to appear nonchalant, Emma responds, “‘Upon no account in the world. It is the very last thing I could stand the brunt of just now’” (369-70).
The combination of disappointment and self-absorption has left Emma out of sorts and vulnerable. She is weakened by her growing recognition of the vacuity of the game she has played with Frank. His attentions, ostensibly to her, are only for himself. He has played her, in ways she does not yet understand, to divert attention away from his relationship to Jane Fairfax. But Emma may be beginning to realize at this point that his attentions toward her have little to do with genuine preferment or intention. She is for him what he has been to her, a mirror that returns a pleasing image, no more. She has been the Harriet to his Emma. He himself presides over the game at Box Hill. Emma is merely the object of the game. She is set in a place where she is admired and flattered, but she does not set the rules of the game or the tenor of the proceedings. She is bound more closely by the attentions paid her. When Miss Bates presents herself, even more vulnerable, with “good-humoured dependence on every body’s assent, ” Emma gives way to a baser instinct, one she is too weakened to withstand (370).
But why is Miss Bates the object of Emma’s ire? Mrs. Elton seems a more likely target, with her obvious efforts to replace Emma as the prime figure of the Highbury social scene. The answer may be in Emma’s early projection of herself as a respected single woman. Much has happened in the intervening months. Emma has completely misread Mr. Elton, labeling his advances toward her the actions of a man in love with Harriet. She has toyed with the idea of being in love with Frank, only to realize that agreeable manners and community expectations do not lead to love, only the appearance of love. Her confidence in her ability to read the landscape is shaken, and with it, the confidence with which she envisions the future. She regards Miss Bates as dependent and ridiculous, the negative of her most fervent projection. In this moment Emma fears she will become the Miss Bates of the next generation, herself the object of derision and dismissal. Her fortune and her quick wit have not protected her from blunder in the relationships she had developed the past few months. She is seated with Harriet and Frank; her errors are at hand. Miss Bates is before her. Her sense of decorum abruptly gives way to aggression. In attacking Miss Bates Emma rejects this possible future for herself.
Before Mr. Knightley engages to correct her error, Emma has already wished herself separated from her chosen companions, preferring to take the views of Box Hill “almost alone, and quite unattended to” (374). She has seen the limitations of the relationships she has nurtured and realized her need to look elsewhere for approval and direction. When Mr. Knightley arrives with a greater sense of the grievousness of her affront, Emma’s heart is prepared to accept the reproof.
Austen, Jane. Emma. Ed. R. W. Chapman. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP, 1988.