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We’ve got to admit, Mrs. Elton may be one of our favorite characters of all time. The woman is RIDICULOUS. The first thing we learn about her is that she’s got ten thousand pounds in the bank. As we get to know her better, it becomes clear that the most important thing we’ll learn about her is that she’s got ten thousand pounds in the bank. Like Emma, she’s decently wealthy.
Here’s the difference between Emma’s money and Mrs. Elton’s, however: Emma’s money has been in the family for generations. Mrs. Elton’s father made all his money recently. Gasp! That makes her rather vulgar, according to Highbury standards.
We know, we know: Mrs. Elton actually is vulgar. She’s a walking, talking cliché. She wears too much lace, talks too much about her rich brother-in-law, and fawns too much over her husband. C’mon, no one goes around talking about their "caro sposo." (That’s "sweet husband" in Italian, for all you uncultured savages.) Our gag reflexes are kicking in just thinking about it.
The fact that Austen allows her narrator to describe Mrs. Elton through Emma’s opinions of her does force us to align our opinions with Emma’s. See, for example, Emma’s first impression of the dreadful Mrs. E:
[…] the quarter of an hour quite convinced her that Mrs. Elton was a vain woman, extremely well satisfied with herself, and thinking much of her own importance; that she meant to shine and be very superior, but with manners which had been formed in a bad school, pert and familiar; that all her notions were drawn from one set of people, and one style of living; that if not foolish she was ignorant, and that her society would certainly do Mr. Elton no good.
Why should we take Emma’s word for it? Well, our narrator doesn’t give us too many other choices, does she? Fortunately, most "discriminating" characters in the novel seem to agree with Emma. Mr. Knightley can’t stand Mrs. Elton, and Jane Fairfax tries her best to run away whenever she enters the room. We almost wonder if Mrs. Elton serves as a sort of social litmus test: smart and well-mannered characters hate her. If a character is too ignorant or too blind to recognize degrees of good breeding, they won’t. Mr. Woodhouse, for example, lavishes attention on Mrs. Elton just because she’s newly-married. As he says: "Yes: but a young lady—a bride—I ought to have paid my respects to her if possible. It was being very deficient."
Mr. Weston feels pretty much the same way. A pretty woman with a new wedding ring? She’s got to be great! We wish we could agree, but Austen’s narrator seems pretty insistent on pointing out these moments as lapses in the men’s judgment, not in Emma’s.
More importantly (from a novelistic point of view, anyways), Mrs. Elton is also always mis-quoting famous authors and texts. Here’s her take on a contemporary poem:
"'For when a lady's in the case,
You know all other things give place.'
Now I say, my dear, in our case, for lady, read——mum! a word to the wise.—"
Don’t worry, you’re not supposed to know that this quotation is actually a mis-quotation. After all, that’s what we’re here for! Most of Austen’s contemporary readers, however, would catch on to Mrs. Elton’s blunders. In a novel, any character that misquotes another author has probably earned all the scorn that the author can throw at her. After all, treating literature lightly is one of the things that a good novel just can’t support!
Chattering, gossiping, scheming, and ruthless, Mrs. Elton sweeps into Highbury determined to become its "Lady Patroness." Unfortunately, just about everybody who’s anybody in Highbury (in other words, Emma and Mr. Knightley) see right through all her schemes. Emma quickly becomes outraged at Mrs. Elton’s willingness to talk trash about Mrs. Weston and even Mr. Knightley. Mr. Knightley, in his turn, actually puts up a fight when Mrs. Elton wants to control the party at Donwell Abbey. Jane Fairfax falls prey to Mrs. Elton’s "friendship" largely because she has no other choice: a poor woman can’t really decide who she’s going to hang out with. And, in case we didn’t mention it before, Mrs. Elton doesn’t take no for an answer. In fact, "she was not satisfied with expressing a natural and reasonable admiration—but without solicitation, or plea, or privilege, she must be wanting to assist and befriend her." Remember the time when she fixes up Jane’s future as a governess?
Even though Mr. Elton married her for money, Mrs. Elton actually seems to be in love with her husband. In fact, they get along perfectly – if only because they’ve both got inflated senses of their own self-worth.
Our narrator doesn’t spend too much time making fun of Mrs. Elton – perhaps because she trusts her to make a fool of herself all on her own. Even though mostly everyone despises Mrs. Elton, though, nobody ever excludes her from society or snubs her at balls. Maybe money actually does talk, after all.