Like all of Jane Austen's novels, Emma is a novel of courtship and social manners. The majority of the book focuses on the question of marriage: who will marry whom and for what reasons will they marry: love, practicality, or necessity? At the center of the narration is the title character, Emma Woodhouse, a heiress who lives with her widowed father at their estate, Hartfield. Noted for her beauty and cleverness, Emma is somewhat wasted in the small village of Highbury but takes a great deal of pride in her matchmaking skills. Unique among other women her age, she has no particular need to marry: she is in the unique situation of not needing a husband to supply her fortune.
At the beginning of the novel, Emma's governess, Miss Taylor, has just married Mr. Weston, a wealthy ma who owns Randalls, a nearby estate. Without Miss Taylor as a companion, Emma feels suddenly lonely and decides to adopt the orphan Harriet Smith as a protègè. Harriet lives at a nearby boarding school and knows nothing of her parents. Emma concludes that Harriet's father must have been a gentleman and advises the innocent Harriet in virtually all things, including her choice of society. She suggests that Harriet does not spend any more time with the Martins, a local family of farmers whose son, Robert, has paid Harriet much attention. Instead, Emma plans to play matchmaker for Harriet and Mr. Elton, the vicar of the church in Highbury.