Emma Woodhouse has the world at her fingertips. She’s young, pretty, and smart; she also happens to be the reigning queen of her village’s social scene. Emma lives in Highbury, a small town about sixteen miles outside of London, with her aging father. Mr. Woodhouse loves Emma, but he’s utterly unable to offer her any guidance – which is perhaps why Emma doesn’t seem to have any sense of her own limitations. Life seems pretty sweet – if a bit boring – and so Emma decides to spice things up by taking on a protégé, Harriet Smith. Even though Emma’s determined never to marry herself, she immediately decides to find Harriet a husband.
Determined to make Harriet into a gentlewoman, Emma sets out to refine Harriet’s tastes – especially in men. She convinces Harriet to dump Robert Martin, the young farmer who likes her, and set her sights on the town’s clergyman, Mr. Elton. Unfortunately, Mr. Elton turns out to be in love with Emma – or at least with Emma’s money. After the Mr. Elton debacle, Emma thinks that she’s learned her lessons in matchmaking. Luckily for us (if not for Harriet), she hasn’t.
When the dashing Frank Churchill comes to town, Emma tries very hard to fall in love with him herself. She can’t seem to fall head over heels for him, but she does manage to make a good deal of mischief by flirting with him in front of Jane Fairfax, a young woman who recently returned to Highbury to live with her aunts. Meanwhile, Emma decides that Frank might just be the perfect new man for Harriet.
Emma’s exploits are watched – and commented upon – by her good friend, Mr. Knightley. Although Emma frequently ignores his advice, she cherishes his good opinion. When Mr. Knightley accuses her of belittling her poor neighbors, Emma begins to reflect upon her mistakes and even starts to change her ways.
Unfortunately, Harriet confesses that she loves Mr. Knightley, not Frank. All of a sudden, Emma’s plans crumble. She realizes that she loves Mr. Knightley too. Convinced that Mr. Knightley might be interested in Harriet, despite the fact that he practically lives with the Woodhouses, Emma crushes Mr. Knightley’s attempts to propose to her. Eventually all romantic muddles are cleared: Emma marries Mr. Knightley, and Harriet marries her farmer, Robert Martin.
Emma’s story is surrounded by side-narratives of life in Highbury, including the romance of Frank and Jane Fairfax, the marriage of Emma’s former governess, Mrs. Weston, and the escapades of the social climbers, Mr. and Mrs. Elton.