Jane Austen’s Emma

What do matchmakers know that eludes the common man? What does the common man know that escapes the matchmakers? Austen’s novel shows that true romance originates from equality of social background and education, compatibility of temperaments, similarity of moral ideals and manners, natural attraction based on reason and feeling, and mutual admiration. Matchmaking ignores these facts and truths on which good marriages are founded, exaggerating the role of the feelings and ignoring the importance of the mind, moral character, and the virtue of prudence in marital choices. Matchmaking imagines sentiments that do not exist and does not let love follow its natural course in which like is attracted to like.

When Miss Taylor, Emma’s former governess, marries the widowed Mr. Weston, Emma takes considerable pride in her role as matchmaker, boasting to Mr. Knightley, “I made the match, you know, four years ago; and to have it take place, and be proved in the right, when so many said Mr. Weston would never marry again, may comfort me for anything.” Knightley, however, is not impressed and retorts that Emma’s fortune telling was merely “a lucky guess” that required no special talent. Emma insists that her invitations to the home and her encouragement of Weston’s visits made all the difference in the world. Without her major role in this affair no happy marriage would have followed. Knightley again is not convinced, stating forthrightly, “A straight-forward, open-hearted man, like Weston, and a rational unaffected woman, like Miss Taylor, may be safely left to manage their own concerns.” Emma dismisses Knightley’s objection that her interference in the matters of the heart bodes more harm than good and determines to make another match to add to her triumphs.

Noticing that Mr. Elton, the young Anglican clergyman, is a most eligible bachelor and that her new acquaintance, Harriet Smith, needs an introduction into “good society” to escape from her “coarse and unpolished” acquaintances, Emma makes Harriet her protégé, encourages her to make frequent visits and invites her to be a daily walking companion. When Emma learns of a budding romance between Harriet, an orphan with no family connections, and Robert Martin, a simple farmer of modest income and no social distinction, Emma fixes on matching Harriet with Mr. Elton. Imagining all of Mr. Elton’s marks of civil behavior to her as telltale signs of being in love in Harriet when they are in each other’s company, Emma flatters Harriet into ending her relationship with Mr. Martin with the assumption that she will receive a proposal from Mr. Elton and rise socially into elegant society. Harriet deserves “well educated, well bred men” with air and gentility, not a common “completely gross, vulgar farmer—totally inattentive to appearances, and thinking of nothing but profit and loss.” Because of Emma’s matchmaking and flattering of Harriet’s vanity, Harriet refuses the marriage proposal of Robert Martin as she anticipates the offer of Mr. Elton.

Again Knightley chastises Emma for her presumptuous interference in the matters of romance.  In Knightley’s estimation Martin’s proposal honors and compliments a woman of Harriet’s humble background and meager accomplishments: “What are Harriet’s claims either of birth, nature, or education, to any connection higher than Robert Martin?” Without any dowry, family connections, sophistication, or elegance Harriet, according to Knightley, is the real beneficiary in such a match: “The advantage of the match I felt to be all on his side.” But Emma insists that a woman has no obligation to accept the first marriage she receives and that Harriet’s beauty deserves the right to be fastidious, the privilege of “being admired and sought after, of having the power of choosing from among many.” As Harriet’s mentor, Emma will make her friend an elegant lady of fashion and taste, presuming to recreate Harriet in her own image and defy Mother Nature.

As Knightley and Emma argue about Emma’s matchmaking, Emma’s brother-in-law remarks to Emma that Mr. Elton “seems to have a great deal of good will towards you”; he observes, “I think your manners to him encouraging.” Emma’s amiability and graciousness to Elton on behalf of Harriet have been misconstrued by the clergyman as signs of interest on her part. Indeed as Elton and Emma travel in a carriage together after a dinner party, “Mr. Elton, the lover of Harriet, was professing himself her lover.” Pressing her hand and attempting to make love, Elton finds it incomprehensible that Emma should imagine him to be courting Harriet: “Miss Smith!—I never thought of Miss Smith in the whole course of my existence—never paid her attention, but as your friend…. Miss Woodhouse! Who can think of Miss Smith, when Miss Woodhouse is near!” Emma’s matchmaking, then, ignored common sense. A man of Elton’s social rank and worldly sophistication does not deign to court a young woman of simple tastes and unpolished manners. Emma’s meddlesomeness and illusions about love have spoiled Harriet’s romance with Martin and subjected her to Elton’s contempt.

Emma’s fantasies about love do not stop there. For a brief interlude she imagines herself in love with Frank Churchill, a man of “elegant, agreeable manners” who belongs to her social class and bears all the marks of gentility. But Churchill merely flirts with Emma to stir the jealousy of his fiancée, Jane Fairfax, who temporarily has changed her mind about their marriage. Churchill’s duplicity, procrastination in fulfilling his obligations, and spoiled self-indulgence do not inspire Emma’s respect or admiration. The young man described by Knightley as “proud, luxurious, and selfish” and as one always “consulting expediency” rather than duty is no match for the kind, dutiful daughter who always puts her father’s comfort and happiness above her own pleasure. The moral dimension of marriage requires that man and woman assent to the same moral standards to govern their lives so that the two become one.

Emma even entertains the idea of Churchill being in love with Harriet when she sprains an ankle on a walk and needs to be carried home in the arms of Churchill: “a fine young man and a lovely young woman thrown together in such a way, could hardly fail to suggest certain ideas in the coldest heart and the steadiest brain.” Even though Emma does not actively scheme to encourage this match, the coincidence leads Emma to “wish” for a romance because “It certainly was very extraordinary!” Harriet too jumps to conclusions about a possible romance with Knightley when he asks her to dance in an awkward moment at the ball when she remains the only woman without a partner because Elton with “unpardonable rudeness” and “littleness” scorns to be associated with her in any way. When Emma later speaks to Harriet about her feelings for a certain man they have agreed will remain nameless, Emma of course is thinking of Churchill’s rescue of the damsel in distress while Harriet has been romanticizing about Mr. Knightley’s chivalry at the ball: “I hope I have a better taste than to think of Mr. Frank Churchill, who is like nobody by his side.” These revelations sober Emma into realizing that “Mr. Knightley must marry not one but herself!”—not Harriet. Just as Churchill and Harriet have nothing in common, Knightley (a man of the world and the epitome of good sense) and Harriet (a naïve young lady with no sophistication) do not occupy the same intellectual level.

Emma and Knightley fall in love naturally without the benefit of any matchmaker. Knightley, who confesses he seeks “the open temper which a man would wish for in a wife,” finds this quality in Emma. Emma, who praises “upright integrity, that strict adherence to truth and principle, that disdain of trick and littleness” as her ideal of manhood, finds these virtues in Knightley. Once Emma acknowledges the folly of her matchmaking, she and Knightley experience a moral congruence that complements their social and intellectual equality and enhances the harmony of their temperaments. Their falling in love comes as a surprise, not as the result of a scheme. Once Emma stops imagining the marriages of others and honestly reads her own heart, she confesses that “her happiness depended on being first with Mr. Knightley, first in interest and affection.”  As Emma learns, like is attracted to like in true love for good reasons, but matchmaking blindly joins incompatible opposites.


Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children's Literature.

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