In the town of Highbury Emma Woodhouse, a handsome, clever, and rich young lady of twenty-one, is left alone with her indulgent widower father by the marriage of Miss Taylor, her governess and friend of sixteen years, to Mr. Weston. Emma's older sister Isabella is married to John Knightley, and the Knightleys live sixteen miles away in London with their five children.
At teatime the day after the marriage, Mr. Woodhouse, who has been a valetudinarian all his life and is against any kind of change, speaks of "Poor Miss Taylor!" — not because of Mr. Weston, who is a fine and wealthy man, but simply because of the fact of marriage. Emma is trying to appease him when George Knightley, John's brother, a sensible and quite wealthy man of about thirty-seven or thirty-eight who lives at his Donwell Abbey estate a mile from the Woodhouse estate of Hartfield, pays them a cheerful visit.
When Emma states that she herself made the match between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston, George says that she only guessed that it would come and Mr. Woodhouse asks her not to make any more. Emma's reply is that she will make only one more — for Mr. Elton, the twenty-six-year-old rector — to which George answers that she should "leave him to chuse his own wife."
In this chapter Jane Austen begins to set up the situation from which the story line of the novel is to come, and she does this primarily through the characterization of Emma. For the first time in her life, Emma is left to herself and her own devices. Whereas before she has always had at least one close companion, she now has only her father, and he is a lovingly accepted burden rather than a companion. No longer having a confidante, she relies upon her imagination, first realizing that she could have made the match between Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston and then stating that she did do it. George Knightley's reasonable exception to this comes as a kind of challenge that stimulates Emma's willfulness, so that she declares not only that she will make another match but who the man will be.
As a preparatory scene this chapter also sets up the opposition between imagination and reasoning, both ironically based upon realism: People do find their own mates, but likewise matches are sometimes made by third parties. Furthermore, though it is done very unobtrusively, Austen places before the reader two characters who are quite eligible for marriage: Emma and George. Equally unobtrusive is the idea of properly established social ranks. The author is careful to make Miss Taylor and Mr. Weston relatively equal in character and social standing. The short talk between Emma and her father about servants, while it confirms Mr. Woodhouse's kindness to others, also fixes the idea of a definite servant class which one enters by birth and remains in as an accepted and honorable position.
In general the chapter presents a provincial situation of established order, an order mocked slightly by the presentation of Mr. Woodhouse's exaggerated conservatism. It is an order of intimates and manners and routine, where nothing more drastic than a marriage or an unreturned call is likely to happen. It is, so to speak, a world of its own. And it is about to be threatened by change because a bright young lady has been left in "intellectual solitude." Part of the irony is that a normal social and human act (Miss Taylor's marriage) within this order leads to the disruptive element (Emma's solitary imagination). Another part of the irony will be that, after the undue human concern over the disruption, nothing in the order of things will have been changed after all. Only the aberrant Emma will change.