Mr. Woodhouse enjoys small evening parties that Emma arranges with their neighborhood friends, preferring them to large gatherings because of his nervous disposition. Among their inner circle are the Westons, Mr. Knightley, and Mr. Elton. Their second set includes the widow Mrs. Bates and her plain daughter, Miss Bates. Miss Bates is single, middle-class, and middle-aged, yet her pleasant and chatty nature make her well-liked despite these disadvantages. Miss Goddard, a schoolmistress, is also included in this second set.
Social class is central to the relationships in the novel. Those at the top of the hierarchy dictate the invitations. The Woodhouses’ inner circle consists of people who share either comparable levels of wealth and familial prestige, or who have long-standing ties of affection. Their second circle consists of a more miscellaneous and subservient group of women who are always ready to accept their invitations.
Emma invites these friends to dine with them one evening. Miss Goddard brings Harriet Smith, one of her boarders with unknown parentage. Emma takes an immediate liking to Harriet because of the girl’s sweet-looking beauty, her pleasant demeanor, and her admiration for Emma herself. Emma decides to adopt Harriet as her little friend in a spirit of good will and vanity, resolving to introduce Harriet to high society and to improve her opinions and manners.
Just as the high class Emma controls who is invited to their estate, she also has the prerogative to initiate friendships with those of lower class. Emma’s decision to take Harriet under her wing is influenced by both charity and vanity—she wants to help Harriet, and she likes to see herself as someone willing to help a lower class woman—which are two traits connected to the privilege of her high class and to Emma's own personal character.