Emma by Jane Austen
Austen introduces most of the major characters in Volume 1, with the exceptions of Jane Fairfax, Frank Churchill, and Mrs. Elton. Since Jane and Frank are the nucleus around which the central mystery revolves, and yet, since neither character is meant to outshine the hero and heroine (Emma Woodhouse and Mr. George Knightley), it makes good literary sense to save them for Volume 2 and the middle section in which the mystery unfolds and deepens. The book opens with the focus on Emma Woodhouse, whom we find has everything to recommend her as an eighteenth century heroine: She is "handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition." However, Austen makes it clear at the outset that Emma, and indeed all the characters, will take shape not as they appear in and of themselves, but in how they relate to others. Their mannerisms and habits, their allegiance to propriety, their wit and intelligence, and their compassion will mark them as either elegant or common.
Emma is motherless and has been educated by Miss Taylor, her governess of 16 years. "Poor Miss Taylor," as Emma's father calls her (projecting his own loss onto her) has just married Mr. Weston, their close neighbor and friend, and while they will continue to see her everyday, Emma is conscious of her approaching "intellectual solitude." Emma's "evil" character flaw, "a disposition to think a little too well of herself," has ample room for exercise when she meets Harriet Smith. Harriet has neither merit nor birth to urge a friendship between herself and Emma (she is a boarder at Mrs. Goddard's school for girls and her parents are unknown), and yet Emma decides to practice on her, to make for her the perfect romantic match and along the way improve her mind. Mr. Knightley, the novel's paragon of virtue and reason, is skeptical of the friendship. Prophetically, he sees that both must lose by the friendship. No one listens, least of all Emma,...