Emma takes place entirely in the fictional village of Highbury, England, with a short excursion to the nearby Box Hill in North Surrey. Highbury is described at the beginning of the novel as “the large and populous village almost amounting to a town,” Austen’s tongue-in-cheek way of communicating that Highbury is in a rural part of the country. The novel is also set during the Napoleonic Wars, the period between 1797–1815 when England was at war with France. Though Austen does not reference the war directly, she includes references to characters who have passed away in war (like Jane’s father).
More specifically, much of the novel takes place at Hartfield, the large estate where Emma lives with her father, Mr. Woodhouse. Despite growing up wealthy, Emma has never left Highbury, and more “worldly” characters like Mrs. Elton subtly mock her for this. In this way, the novel communicates that social class is both about wealth and also about having the privilege of traveling and seeing the world.
As a novel of manners, Austen focuses on the subtle social class dynamics between all of the characters, specifically between landed gentry (like Emma, Knightley, and Frank) and slightly lower-class characters (like Jane and Harriet). Though Austen includes servants and coachmen in the novel, they are not central to the plot. In Emma, she is telling the specific story of tensions between middle-class and wealthy people in rural England.
At this point in England’s history, women were not only bound by their class position but also severely limited by their gender. Emma is wealthy yet spends her days making lists of books she hopes to one day read and meddling in other people’s affairs because she does not have the opportunity to seek employment or follow her passions (beyond painting portraits of her friends and family). Jane, on the other hand, does not have access to wealth and therefore must seek employment, but her only option is to become a governess (or live-in tutor for children)—a job that she does not want to do and knows will lead to meager wages. Her only way out of this unfortunate situation is to marry a wealthy man, which (fortunately for her) she is able to do.