Emma and Harriet develop their friendship, as Harriet comes to replace Mrs. Weston as Emma’s constant companion. Harriet is not clever, but her docile and grateful disposition appeals to Emma’s vanity and suits her desire to improve Harriet.
Emma’s friendship with Harriet is rooted not only in a mutual enjoyment of each other’s company but also inequality: Emma is Harriet’s superior in social class, education, and wealth.
Emma learns with amusement and then alarm that Harriet has been spending much of her time with the Martins, a family of farmers. Emma worries that Mr. Martin and Harriet may develop feelings for each other and marry, placing her friend in what Emma considers to be an unfavorable alliance. She subtly directs Harriet’s attention to Mr. Martin’s inferior education and social standing, suggesting that Mr. Martin is of a class that Emma herself has nothing to do with: he is well-off enough to be above her charity, even as he is below her social attention as a farmer.
Despite possessing a charitable nature, Emma reveals her snobbishness in her disdain for the Martins. She ostensibly wants what is best for her friend, Harriet, but in doing so she imposes her own taste—what would make Emma happy—upon Harriet. Emma subtly prods and influences Harriet to adopt her attitude for the lower classes and consider Mr. Martin below her.
When Emma and Harriet encounter Mr. Martin on a walk, Emma assesses him as plain and ungentlemanly. She encourages Harriet to compare him with the other gentlemen that Emma has introduced to Harriet. In particular, she hastens to bring Mr. Elton to Harriet’s attention. Emma has already begun to devise a match in her mind between the two of them. She believes Mr. Elton to be an excellent match for Harriet as a respectable and well-educated gentleman.
Emma’s central critique of Mr. Martin’s “lack of gentility” is based on his social class and “coarser” manners, as opposed to any real character defects. Yet for Emma, class and character are almost inextricable in her mind: Mr. Martin’s entire person is inferior to Mr. Elton because he is from a lower class.