Rich, independent and kind-spirited, Emma Woodhouse has no need to marry, but nothing delights her more than matchmaking those around her. Once she has married off her close companions, she alights upon the pretty Harriet Smith to fashion into her new playmate and ally. She persuades Harriet that she is too good for her suitor, the farmer Robert Martin, and encourages her to set her sights higher. But close family friend Mr Knightley warns Emma that her meddling will cause great pain - to both Robert and Harriet. Emma refuses to listen, and Mr Knightley is furious at Emma's stubbornness.
Emma continues her attempts to marry off Harriet and Mr Elton, vicar of Highbury. Although uninterested in marriage herself, she is intrigued by the mysterious and elusive Frank Churchill, who she hopes to meet for the first time at a village Christmas party. Frank does not arrive, and instead Emma becomes the subject of unwanted and embarrassing attention from Mr Elton. A few weeks later, village gossip and speculation focuses on the arrival of young Jane Fairfax and a large piano she has been sent by a mystery admirer. Emma refuses to believe that Mr Knightley could be the secret admirer. He couldn't be, could he?
Emma teases Mr Knightley about Jane, but he remains tight-lipped. Meanwhile, Frank and Emma plan a ball, and Emma wonders whether she might be in love with him. Despite having a wonderful time at a village ball, she decides not. With her matchmaking officially abandoned, Emma feels cooped up and bored, so Mr Knightley suggests a day trip to Box Hill for a change of scene and some temporary escape. He also tells Emma that he suspects Frank and Jane to be secretly in love. Emma rebuffs the suggestion - she can personally vouch for Frank's indifference to Jane - which leaves Knightley feeling hurt at Emma's indifference towards him.
A picnic is held at Box hill where Emma and Frank get very flirtatious. Emma also scores cheap points at Miss Bates' expense, wounding her,and George gives her a severe telling-off for being insensitive and snobbish. Frank's bullying aunt, who has always been his patron rather than Mr. Weston, dies and Frank reveals that he and Jane have been engaged for several months but kept it secret for fear of the aunt's disapproval. Emma is shocked at Frank's deceit.She also sees the error of her ways in organizing others' lives and encourages Harriet to go after her first love, Robert Martin, preparing herself for a life as a singleton and feeling alone when George goes to London "to learn to be indifferent." However he returns, admitting it was the wrong place to forget Emma and proposes to her. She accepts, and even her neurotic old father is won over.