Mrs. Elton arrives, and Emma resolves to pay her respects with Harriet. The visit results in unpleasant recollections and awkwardness from Mr. Elton, but Emma refrains from judging Mrs. Elton too soon, though she leaves with the impression that Mrs. Elton is unimpressive.
Emma, with somewhat surprising fairness, reserves her judgment the first time that she meets Mrs. Elton.
Mrs. Elton’s following visit to Hartfield, however, convinces Emma that the new bride is a vain and self-important woman. Mrs. Elton displays many of the gauche superficialities of the nouveau-riche. Mrs. Elton’s over-familiarity particularly offends Emma; Mrs. Elton proposes they start a musical club together as though they were already intimate friends, and she further provokes Emma by presumptively referring to Mr. Knightley as “Knightley.” Emma also finds Mrs. Elton’s offer to help her make social connections outrageous.
Mrs. Elton quickly gains Emma’s ill-opinion, however, by not only displaying her own self-importance but also offending Emma’s. By presuming such familiarity with Emma and the neighbors, Mrs. Elton behaves as though she were on equal footing with Emma and Mr. Knightley. Indeed, Mrs. Elton’s offer to socially introduce Emma to her friends presumes that she possesses certain advantages over Emma, which is both presumptuous and false.
Emma concludes that Mrs. Elton is insufferable and vulgar, with many pretensions but little real grace. She feels Harriet, for all her lack of refinement, is much her superior. Mr. Woodhouse, however, only complacently observes that Mrs. Elton seems a nice young lady. He remarks that a bride holds a particularly special rank in society, the “first in company.”
Exactly what marks any given individual at the top of the social ladder can be quite confusing. Social connections and wealth, manners and virtue . . . there seems a fine line between real elegance and pretentious airs, and it requires considerable discernment to mark out real superiority.