by Jane Austen
Ah, Frank. What can we say about him that hasn’t been said already? No, seriously. When Frank finally gets around to visiting his father, the town of Highbury already feels like they know all about him…because they’ve been talking so much about him that he seems almost real. The entire town knows all about him: "Mr. Frank Churchill was one of the boasts of Highbury, and a lively curiosity to see him prevailed, though the compliment was so little returned that he had never been there in his life."
Wait a second, he’s never even been to Highbury? Yup. So how does everybody know so much about him? Well, that’s one of Austen’s brilliant moves: she uses Frank to emphasize how important gossip can be in a small town. No one has ever seen Frank, but everyone’s heard about him. And really, that’s exactly the same thing. Right?
Here, for example, is Mr. Weston talking about Frank to Emma:"'…you must not be expecting such a very fine young man; you have only had my account you know; I dare say he is really nothing extraordinary:'—though his own sparkling eyes at the moment were speaking a very different conviction." OK, so we don’t really hear anything in particular about Frank, but it’s precisely this ambiguity that makes him seem so fascinating. At least, that’s what Emma thinks.
Let’s focus on the word "seems" for a second here: Frank seems to be a lot of things. He seems handsome (OK, we admit, he actually is pretty cute). He seems to be compassionate, witty, the perfect gentleman, and interested in anyone and everyone he meets. In other words, he seems perfect. And like your mother always told you, anything that seems too good to be true…probably is.
But wait – if he’s perfect, why does Emma immediately think that he’s not quite as wonderful as she imagined him to be? And, more importantly, why does Mr. Knightley hate his guts? Well, we know that Mr. Knightley might be jealous of all that young hotness, but Emma should be head over heels in love. She doesn’t even have a good reason for it herself – like she tells the Westons, it’s strange that she seems to have fallen out of love with Frank before he got engaged to Jane. Maybe this is a neat coincidence, but we’re laying bets that Austen wants us to feel the same way Emma does. If you don’t quite trust Frank, but can’t put your finger on why that’s the case, you’re in good company.
Perhaps Frank seems less than ideal because he’s totally dependent on his aunt, Mrs. Churchill, for cash. We all understand that a man needs to pay the bills, but, well, let’s face it – you can’t really respect a man who can’t be bothered to work on his own. Or maybe it’s because he drives sixteen miles (that’s a whole day on horseback, mind you) to get a haircut. Or maybe it’s because, now that we think about it, Frank is actually a lot like…Emma. Which makes you wonder why Emma is so likeable, doesn’t it? Let’s set that thought aside for a second, though, and return to Frank.
Frank is, in many ways, the perfect gentleman. He’s accomplished (meaning that he can sing with Emma and ride with Mr. Knightley) and he’s obviously smart (although he seems to be directing all those smarts at getting Jane to conceal their engagement). He’s got street smarts, too – he can charm his way into just about anything. For all that intelligence, though, he doesn’t realize how much pain he’s putting Jane through – or how flirty he may seem to everyone else. Remember Box Hill?
We suspect that Frank enjoys his own sense of humor so much that he can’t resist putting people into awkward situations. He continually feeds Emma’s witty remarks about Jane and Mr. Dixon, even though he knows that they’re completely unfounded – and that they’ll probably embarrass Emma (not to mention Jane) once the actual truth come out. In other words, if Emma contains characters which are all variations on the theme of social smarts, Frank’s the guy who’s got everything figured out…but he never seems to understand the consequences of his knowledge. Perhaps, returning to our question a few paragraphs ago, we can now propose a difference between Frank and Emma’s characters. Sure, Frank seems contrite at the very, very end, but only Emma learns that her actions can (and have) hurt others.
In the end, Frank and Jane seem happy together. We here at Shmoop agree with Emma, however – Frank totally doesn’t deserve Jane. We’re not sure why she stuck with him. Frank can only declare his love once his aunt dies. Perhaps Frank’s just a realist. Or perhaps he’s a jerk. Either way, he’s still charming. And if Emma (and Jane and Mrs. Weston) still like him, we might as well join the love-fest, right?