Summary and Analysis
Volume 1: Chapters XI-XII
The John Knightleys arrive from London with their five children for the Christmas vacation with the Woodhouses. Isabella is in interests very much like her father, except that her disposition is a little more amiable and her concerns over matters of health have a more varied outlet; she submits absolutely to her father and her lawyer husband. John, on the other hand, is more like his brother George, except that at times he is less gentle and circumspect with his frank criticism; he lacks some of George's respectful forbearance toward Mr. Woodhouse. Talk naturally turns to Mrs. Weston, over whom Mr. Woodhouse continues his unwarranted lamentations. John sees the real happiness of Mrs. Weston's situation but refrains from correcting Mr. Woodhouse, much to Emma's relief. Instead he inquires about Frank Churchill, wondering that the twenty-three-year-old son has not visited his father since the marriage. When he criticizes Mr. Weston for his easy-going giving up of his son and for enjoying society more than family, Emma almost challenges him in defense of Mr. Weston; but she forbears because she senses something honorable and valuable in John's strong domestic habits, his commitment to family: "It had a high claim to forbearance."
That evening George Knightley is to dine with them. In order to help make up with him about their argument, Emma, with good calculation, has her eight-month-old niece Emma in her arms when he arrives. He is mollified but comments that, if she "were as much guided by nature" in estimating men and women as she is with children, the two of them might always think alike. Afterward the evening is quiet and convivial for everyone. Still, primarily because of Mr. Woodhouse, every conversational subject leads back to matters of sickness or health, and Mr. Woodhouse laments that the John Knightleys' last vacation was spent at the seaside. With constant recurrence to Mr. Perry's recommendations (which are really Mr. Woodhouse's own), he finally provokes John to say that Mr. Perry "would do as well to keep his opinion till it is asked for." George comes to the rescue of the situation by changing the subject, but it requires "the soothing attentions of his daughters" to remove for Mr. Woodhouse "the present evil."
Perhaps better than any other section of the novel, these chapters demonstrate the domestic atmosphere of the book: the family and its interrelated contact with the rest of society as the foundation for the provincial community which Miss Austen is delineating and satirizing. It is important to note that Emma too accepts this governing concept, for this underlies the constant concern with the process and propriety of courtship and marriage. Even Mr. Woodhouse's trivially perpetual anxiety about health is part of it. And such a foundation is as natural as Emma's reaction, which George observes, toward children.
It is nonetheless worth noting that Emma uses this natural reaction in order to mollify George and gain her way. Emma is as much Emma as ever, but the authorial presentation of the opposite, conservative side of the contrast is doubled by the introduction of Isabella as being much like her father and of John as being much like George. The conflictive variety within the domestic setting is intensified.