Emma: The Character of Frank Churchill and 'reading' the moral qualities of men in Jane Austen
One of the challenges posed by Jane Austen, of her heroine Emma Woodhouse, in the novel entitled Emma, is how Emma must learn to be a good reader of both male and female characters. The persona of Frank Churchill poses a constant series of challenges to Emma -- is Frank a rouge and a coxcomb, or is he a nice young man, worthy (and willing) as a marital prospect? This education of Emma in moral terms is illustrated by the choice eventually posed for the titular heroine, between Mr. Knightly and Frank Churchill. By becoming a better reader of the human character in general, Emma learns that Mr. Knightly is the better choice of the two male romantic prospects, and also, by extension that she has misread the female characters of Harriet Smith and Jane Fairfax throughout the novel. Frank Churchill thus functions in the novel as kind of a transition figure for Emma's moral education -- by learning to read Frank properly, Emma learns to be a better person, even if Frank is not the most moral character, by any stretch of the imagination in the novel.
That Emma begins the novel as a poor reader of the human character becomes immediately apparent in the first chapter of the book, which portrays the charming scene, whereby Mr. Knightly is seen teasing Emma, as she sits next to her invalid, hypochondriac of a father Mr. Woodhouse, by the fire late one night. Mr. Knightly notes that while Emma frequently drew up many improving reading lists for herself, while under the tutelage of her former governess, she hardly ever read the books on the lists. This indicates that Emma at the beginning of the novel is a creature of surfaces, rather than someone who knows how to look deeply into the moral text of a person's character. The moral education of Emma, and her ability to read prospective suitors better is eventually exemplified in her shifting of allegiances from the young and handsome Frank Churchill to the more staid Mr. Knightly, whom like a true knight in shining armor has been by her side all along, chiding her, and watching her grow up with a careful eye. In contrast, Frank is only alluded to through most of the first part of the novel, like a shadowy prince whom is hardly real.
It is interesting to note that Emma alone, of all of Austen's mature novels, is the only one that bears the female protagonist's name, rather than that of a home (Northanger Abbey or Mansfield Park), or the pairing of two virtues (like Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice), or simply one virtue, as was to cumulate in Persuasion. The moral education of Emma as a reader of character drives the plot arc and the narrative energy of the entire novel. The novel is framed as a dilemma between the two men, and the different paths open to Emma, that of the superficial person who begins the book -- famously, the novel begins, "Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her" -- and the steadfast qualities embodied by Mr. Knightly. (http://www.austen.com/emma/ch1.htm) Only after subsequent 'vexation' after realizing where the true affections and true character of Frank Churchill lies, can Emma emerge as a fully-fledged human moral entity.
This superficiality of Emma's ability to read people is most evident in her dealings with Harriet Smith. Emma is attempting to improve the character of Harriet Smith, much in the same way that she attempted to improve her own younger self through reading lists. Emma refuses to see Harriet, as she actually is, a young and penniless young woman lacking in most of the social graces needed to succeed even in provincial English society. She is characterized as such by Mr. Knightly, although he does allow that her association with Emma has improved her eventually, when Harriet rebuffs (under Emma's watchful eye) the marriage proposal of an up and coming farmer favored by Knightly.
Typically, Emma thinks much of Harriet simply because Harriet thinks much of Emma, "seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense and deserve encouragement." (http://www.austen.com/emma/vol1ch3.htm)" Harriet "certainly was not clever, but she had a sweet, docile, grateful disposition; was totally free from conceit; and only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to." http://www.austen.com/emma/vol1ch4.htm) Harriet's compliance and lack of talent inspires Emma's kindness, unlike the musically gifted, though equally poor Jane Fairfax, whom Emma misreads as cool and aloof because she does not seem friendly and warm to Emma's ministrations and interferences like Harriet.
In actuality, Jane is concealing a secret romance from the rest of the world, the reason for her apparent standoffishness and discomfort. Unlike Harriet, and indeed unlike Emma herself, Jane is of a mature and rational temperament. "Jane remained with them, sharing, as another daughter, in all the rational pleasures of an elegant society, and a judicious mixture of home and amusement, with only the drawback of the future, the sobering suggestions of her own good understanding to remind her that all this might soon be over." (http://www.austen.com/emma/vol2ch02.htm)
Instead, Emma decides that someone along the lines of the clergyman Mr. Elton would be much more suitable for Harriet. But, again misreading men as well as women, Emma unwittingly woos Elton for herself, even though she intends Elton merely for Harriet. But Elton sees Harriet as beneath him, just as Emma, when pressed, sees the clergyman beneath her. This sense of misreading of society and individuals' true affections thus becomes progressively heightened over the course of the novel, finally cumulating in Emma's misreading of society's perceptions of Miss Bates at the Box Hill picnic and her misreading of her own marital prospects in regards to the hand of Frank Churchill.
Instead of Mr. Elton -- or Mr. Knightly at first, Emma sets her own marital 'cap' with an eye upon the young, roguish Frank Churchill, whom she has heard so much about, for so long, as an object of gossip throughout the town. To the reader, although not to Emma, Frank is first characterized in the traditional mode of a cad and a dandy, or a young man about town who gets his hair cut in London. The standards by which society judges him, by his youth and his handsomeness, are not the qualities by which one would judge a truly moral individual, suggests Austen in the novel. He is young, as opposed to "seven or eight-and-thirty" like Mr. Knightly. (http://www.austen.com/emma/ch1.htm) He enjoys the physical pleasures of life and indulges in his own sensual gratification; through sport and ministering to his own appearance, unlike Mr. Knightly more mature responsibilities.
Emma at first finds this charming, although she is somewhat taken aback by some of Frank's excesses. "Emma's very good opinion of Frank Churchill was a little shaken the following day, by hearing that he was gone off to London, merely to have his hair cut. A sudden freak seemed to have seized him at breakfast, and he had sent for a chaise and set off, intending to return to dinner, but with no more important view that appeared than having his hair cut. There was certainly no harm in his traveling sixteen miles twice over on such an errand; but there was an air of foppery and nonsense in it which she could not approve." (http://www.austen.com/emma/vol2ch07.htm) But the mystery that has surrounded Frank's persona, in its absence from the community, followed by such a long period of thwarted anticipation, for so long, draws her in -- again, she is drawn into misreading the apparent mystery, seeing only what she wants, in the absence of complete information about the full truth of Mr. Churchill's character.
But really, Mr. Churchill, despite his apparent dandy-like and carefree air, and his indulgence in expensive gloves and haircuts, loves the penniless potential governess and orphan Jane Fairfax. This is belied by his initial impressions, as manifested in the haircut that "did not accord with the rationality of plan, the moderation in expense, or even the unselfish warmth of heart which she had believed herself to discern in him yesterday. Vanity, extravagance, love of change, restlessness of temper, which must be doing something, good or bad; heedlessness as to the pleasure of his father and Mrs. Weston, indifference as to how his conduct might appear in general; he became liable to all these charges. His father only called him a coxcomb, and thought it a very good story; but that Mrs. Weston did not like it, was clear enough, by her passing…