Highbury, England. The first decades of the nineteenth century.
Choosing a tiny, tiny little town as the setting of Emma is not a big stretch for Jane Austen. Come to think of it, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Sense and Sensibility are all set in pretty rural areas. You could think of it as Smallville – except there’s no Superman. For Austen the use of small towns probably has something to do with the fact that there aren’t any superheroes. (OK, we don’t mean that totally literally, but stay with us for a second.) See, everybody in Highbury knows everything about everybody else. That means that all the little quirks and odd habits of each person in town are well and widely-known facts. There may not be any heroes – but because of this, Austen can show us how irritating, silly, and even lovable most ordinary people are.
Hartfield, Emma and Mr. Woodhouse’s home, functions as the geographical center of the novel. Just about any excursions away from Hartfield become Momentous Occasions (in Mr. Woodhouse’s mind, at least). Mr. Knightley walks from Donwell Abbey to Hartfield just about everyday. It’s obviously not that far away. When the rest of the characters have to trek out to the Abbey, however, it’s a huge occasion – requiring planning, picnics, and even a donkey for Mrs. Elton. Check out our thoughts on Mr. Knightley’s decision to move to Hartfield at the end of the novel in his "Character Analysis." A man moving into his wife’s house? It’s just not done! But it does reinforce our main point: Hartfield is THE house in the novel.
Oh – and a few quick notes about the nineteenth century: horses, not cars (that means travel is very, very slow); riddle books, not reality TV; balls, not shows. And no dating. At least not outside the view of every single busybody in town. Specifically, Emma takes place in a tiny decade known as the Regency. It’s named after the Prince Regent, George, who takes over for his crazy father – also named George. The Regency was a time of rollickin’ good fun for the rich folks – George liked to have a good time. It wasn’t quite that nice for the poor…but they’re not in our story, are they?