At seventeen, Harriet Smith is the star pupil of Mrs. Goddard’s academy. It makes us wonder what they taught in schools in those days. She’s the daughter of "somebody" – which is another way of saying that she’s been dropped off at the school, but no one’s publicly claiming her as their daughter. She’s recently been made a parlour border (which means her father, who turns out to be a merchant, paid more for her to have a nicer room at school). Luckily, Emma doesn’t know who her father is – and so she’s free to build lots of castles in the air about Harriet’s past…and Harriet’s future.
Harriet’s pretty and humble and completely without any imagination whatsoever. She loves Emma like a little puppy loves its mother. We’re not saying Emma is Harriet’s mother. That would be weird. We’re just saying that Emma becomes a friend-sister-advisor-wedding planner and life organizer for Harriet. It’s complicated.
Harriet seems utterly unable to think a full thought – or even finish a full sentence. Luckily, she has Emma to do both for her. Here, for example, is Harriet’s attempt to get Emma’s help when Mr. Martin proposes:
Oh! no, I am sure you are a great deal too kind to—but if you would just advise me what I had best do—No, no, I do not mean that—As you say, one's mind ought to be quite made up—One should not be hesitating—It is a very serious thing.—It will be safer to say "No" perhaps.—Do you think I had better say "No?"
Emma convinces her to fall in love with Mr. Elton. You’ve got to give the girl credit, though – she may fall in love too easily, but she doesn’t fall out of it. Austen’s narrator manages to use this moment to poke a few jabs at Harriet’s character as a whole: "[Emma] had talked her into love; but, alas! she was not so easily to be talked out of it. The charm of an object to occupy the many vacancies of Harriet's mind was not to be talked away."
Long after Mr. Elton is happily married, Harriet continues to save the "treasures" she collected from their time together. We recommend you read this chapter. It’s hilarious.
Emma also manages to convince Harriet to refuse the one man who actually seems to love her for who she is – silliness and all. Robert Martin, the farmer, fell in love with Harriet last summer. He loves her enough to name one of his cows after her. And that’s saying something. As soon as Emma and Mr. Knightley get engaged, Harriet and Robert seem to find each other as if by magic. Or fate. Or a bit of match-making on Mr. Knightley’s part. We have a pretty good hunch which one it was, but we’re not telling.
Interestingly, we probably learn more about Harriet through listening in on others’ opinions of her (and her friendship with Emma) than we do from Harriet’s own thoughts and actions. (That’s because she doesn’t have many thoughts and actions, you say? Shame on you! A girl can’t help being a bit shallow.) Actually, Emma has some pretty witty things to say about that. She argues that men don’t actually look for intelligent women – they’re too busy trying to marry a girl with a pretty face. Until men change, she says, there’s really no need to make Harriet more than she is. It’s actually a pretty biting comment on the nature of society, huh? Unfortunately, it takes Emma – and not Harriet – to figure this out. Come to think of it, Emma’s conversations with Harriet tend to bring out more about Emma’s thoughts and character than Harriet’s. Take, for example, their conversation about marriage. We establish that Harriet wants to get hitched (but we knew that anyway, didn’t we?), and then Austen allows Emma to spend a good deal of time unraveling her own theories of marriage and the single life. In other words, we interrupt Harriet’s character history to bring you…Emma.
Which brings us to Harriet’s own intelligence. Austen’s narrator gives us lots of clues about Harriet’s bad judgment – or, more precisely, lack of judgment. She’s terrified that Mr. Martin’s proposal might not be quite the thing because…well...it’s so…short. Never mind the fact that it’s well-written and honest and loving and wonderful. Or that she happens to love Mr. Martin. Here’s Austen’s account of the scene: "It was short, but expressed good sense, warm attachment, liberality, propriety, even delicacy of feeling. [Emma] paused over it, while Harriet stood anxiously watching for her opinion, with a "Well, well," and was at last forced to add, "Is it a good letter? or is it too short?"
Hmm. We’re not saying that for Harriet, size is all that matters. Actually, no, that’s exactly what we’re saying. And it’s probably a sign of Harriet’s poor taste.
We’d like to interrupt this analysis for a brief but brilliant literary hint: anytime a novel mentions writing, books, riddles, poems, or – you guessed it – letters, there’s a 99.9999999% chance that it’s a prime meta-critical moment. Here’s what we mean: characters talk about reading and writing. Literary critics talk about reading and writing. Anytime a character talks about reading and writing, therefore, it’s a good opportunity for an author to reference or express her (or his) views on the literary process.
It’s pretty laughable that Harriet dismisses Robert Martin’s letter just because it’s short – never mind that it’s brilliant. Interestingly, Austen’s novels are also pretty slim. OK, OK, we know: Emma’s a whopping 500 pages. But Emma is easily Austen’s longest novel. Compared to Austen’s contemporaries, she was churning out wee baby novels. Sir Walter Scott, for example, often wrote novels that topped 1,000 pages. When Harriet dismisses literary brilliance just because it’s not long enough for her tastes, then, we can almost see Austen taking a stab at her critics. Don’t like Emma because it’s too short? That makes you like...Harriet. So there.
Since we’re talking about Harriet’s poor judgment, let’s just mention that she gets trounced by a bunch of gypsy children. Children. Seriously.
Harriet does, however, manage to realize one good thing when she sees it. She falls in love with Mr. Knightley. It’s awkward when Emma finds this out (Emma being in love with Mr. Knightley herself and all), but interestingly, Harriet doesn’t put up much of a fight when Emma gives her the cold shoulder. She depends too much on Emma’s opinion to ever believe that Emma could hurt or mislead her. We’d feel sorry for her, but Austen’s narrator doesn’t really let that happen. After all, we’re worried about Emma, not Harriet, right?