An Offer of Marriage
Emma Woodhouse was beautiful, clever and rich. She lived sixteen miles from London in the village of Highbury and at nearly twenty-one years old she thought her life was perfect. But nothing stays the same for ever and even the most perfect life must sometimes change.
Emma was the younger of two daughters but only she lived with her father at the family home. Her sister Isabella lived in London with her husband and five children.
Emma’s mother died when she was only five, and so her father found Miss Taylor to live with them at Hartfield and look after his two daughters. Miss Taylor became their teacher and friend and, even after Emma had grown up and didn’t need Miss Taylor as a teacher any longer, she continued to live with them and was part of the family.
But Emma’s comfortable life changed when Miss Taylor decided to get married to Mr Weston. Although his house — called ‘Randalls’ — was very near Emma’s, she soon realised there would be a great difference between a Miss Taylor at Hartfield and a Mrs Weston half a mile from Hartfield. And so Emma and her father were left alone together, both wishing that Miss Taylor was still there too.
‘What a pity Mr Weston ever thought of Miss Taylor,’ said Mr Woodhouse, sadly.
‘I cannot agree, Papa. They are very happy together, and I am happy for them. And we shall see them often. They will come here to Hartfield and we shall visit them at Mr Weston’s house. We shall always be meeting.’
But although Emma tried to make her father feel happier, she was just as sad as him.
As they sat together playing cards on the evening after Miss Taylor’s wedding, their friend Mr Knightley came to visit them. His brother John was Isabella’s husband and he had just returned from their home in London.
‘How was the wedding? Who cried the most?’
‘Everybody was on time and looked their best,’ said Emma, ‘And there were no tears.’
‘But I know how sad you must feel, Emma,’ said Mr Knightley.
‘Yes, but I am happy that I made the match myself, four years ago. People said Mr Weston would never marry again, but I saw the possibility of love,’ said Emma.
‘And now Miss Taylor has left us,’ said Mr Woodhouse. ‘So please do not make any more matches that might break up our circle of friends and family, Emma.’
Mr Knightley did not agree with Emma.
‘I cannot see why you think you succeeded. It was no more than a lucky guess,’ he said.
But Emma would not listen. She was sure it was because of her help that Miss Taylor had married Mr Weston, and now she had the idea of making another match.
‘Mr Elton, the vicar — he is such a good and handsome man, everybody says so. And today, in the church, I could see that he would like it very much if it was his wedding. I wish I could help to find him a wife.’
‘Leave him to choose his own wife,’ laughed Mr Knightley. ‘He is twenty-seven and can take care of himself.’
Mr Woodhouse often invited his neighbours to Hartfield for an evening spent playing cards. Emma was happy to entertain their friends, although many of them were closer in age to her father than to her. But on one of these evenings Emma was luckier because one of their neighbours brought a young friend with her. Seventeen-year-old Harriet Smith had been a pupil at the school in Highbury and was still living there with the head teacher because she had no living family. Harriet was very pretty and she and Emma immediately became friends. Harriet was very impressed. She thought Emma was wonderful and the surroundings of Hartfield were much better than she was used to. Emma liked Harriet a lot and wanted to introduce her into good society, but first she would have to help by teaching Harriet a few things. She decided this was a very kind and thoughtful plan.
After that evening, Harriet spent a lot of time at Hartfield and she and Emma were often together. Harriet told Emma about her schoolfriend Elizabeth Martin and her family, who she had stayed with in the summer. Emma heard about the Martins’ farm and as she listened she began to realise that Mr Robert Martin was not the father of the family, but the son. And he was single.
‘Tell me about Mr Robert Martin,’ Emma said and Harriet did tell her.
‘He was kind and clever,’ she said, and she liked him a lot. Emma thought a farmer was a most unsuitable friend for Harriet and knew Mr Elton, the vicar, would be a much better husband. She turned their conversation away from Robert Martin.
‘If you compare him to other young men you will certainly see a difference. For example, Mr Elton is a perfect gentleman. Did I tell you what he said about you the other day?’ she asked, and told Harriet how beautiful he thought she was. Harriet was very pleased and suddenly seemed to want to talk less about Mr Martin.
‘I think Mr Elton likes you a lot. Remember how he wanted me to paint a picture of you? And how he sighed over it when I had finished?’
The painting had been Emma’s idea at first but when he heard about it, Mr Elton was immediately enthusiastic and thought it a very good suggestion. Emma painted Harriet in the garden and Mr Elton wanted to watch. But he walked about so much and asked so many questions that it became difficult for Emma to think about painting and for Harriet to think about standing still. Finally, Emma asked him to sit down and read something to them.