Summary and Analysis
Volume 3: Chapter VII
The day for "exploring" at Box Hill is a fine one as the ladies go there by carriage and the men on horseback. But there is a lack of union among them once there, and they break into little parties, Emma with Frank and Harriet. Frank is not only dull but also silent and stupid until the entire group sits down. Then he is extremely gallant toward Emma, and the two talk quite flirtatiously while the others say little or nothing. Frank makes a game of things by saying that Emma is presiding (an idea that makes Augusta swell) and that each person is to say something entertaining: either one very clever thing "or two things moderately clever — or three things very dull indeed." When Miss Bates exclaims that she will automatically do the last thing, Emma cannot resist saying, "Ah! ma'am, but there may be a difficulty. Pardon me — but you will be limited as to number — only three at once." It takes Miss Bates a moment to catch her meaning and then blush at the pain it causes. Mr. Weston leads off with a conundrum that is a flattering compliment of Emma, after which Augusta immediately excuses herself and her husband to go off walking.
Frank comments ironically on the "Happy couple!" and makes remarks about men and women meeting in the unnatural surroundings of resorts and the ill luck that it can generate. When Jane demurs, he bows in submission and then tells Emma in a lively tone to find a wife for him: "I am in no hurry. Adopt her, educate her." Emma agrees in the same tone and thinks of Harriet, as Jane takes her aunt to join the Eltons and George soon follows.
When it is time to go, George joins Emma beside her carriage and reproaches her for being "so unfeeling to Miss Bates." She is sorry but tries to laugh it off. However, George is serious and reasons at length that, because Miss Bates is poor, she deserves compassion and forbearance. He concludes thus: "I will tell you truths while I can, satisfied with proving myself your friend by very faithful counsel, and trusting that you will some time or other do me greater justice than you can do now." He leaves while she is silent with anger at herself and then reproaches herself for not having taken leave of him. The more she thinks of it, the more she is mortified and grieved: "How could she have been so brutal, so cruel to Miss Bates!" With only a silent Harriet in the carriage with her, "Emma felt the tears running down her cheeks almost all the way home."
To realize how much of a crisis this chapter is, the reader must come back to it after finishing the book. He will then see how Frank's flirtation with Emma has double meaning, that it very much involves Jane, for under the surface is a lovers' quarrel. It is for this reason that in the beginning Frank is silent and dull, and it is also for this reason that, as the Eltons walk away, he takes the opportunity to speak disparagingly of people's meeting at resorts. The reader who comes back to the chapter will be able to view Jane's situation with sympathetic understanding, and he will be able to see Frank's actions and comments as cruel but also psychologically believable as those of a lover.
Emma's crisis involves three things. First, she is over her attachment to Frank to the point of merely flirting. Second, she gets an actual though jesting invitation from Frank to find him a wife who, except for the hazel eyes (really hers) which he mentions, sounds very much like Harriet (since he is a perceptive young man, one wonders if he has guessed Emma's scheming and deliberately puts in one confusing detail); in terms of plot this is a test of Emma's determination to be strictly passive about the scheme. Third, after many years of containment Emma publicly expresses one part of her true feeling for Miss Bates and, in thereby bringing upon herself the reproaches of George, begins to realize how much his opinion of her matters. Her tears represent her own good nature, her sense of Miss Bates' goodness, and her sense of George's concern. Her own basic balance of good sense is also represented when she answers George about Miss Bates: "I know there is not a better creature in the world: but you must allow, that what is good and what is ridiculous are most unfortunately blended in her." Except perhaps for George, this last clause could be Miss Austen's ironic summation of practically every "creature" in the novel.