Harriet Smith is a 17-year-old girl who boards at Mrs. Goddard’s girl’s school in Emma’s town of Highbury. Her parents have basically given up custody of their daughter to the school and remain anonymous to Harriet and the rest of the town, although they provide her with regular financial assistance. The mystery of Harriet’s parentage and her physical beauty cause Emma to take an interest in her. Charmed by Harriet’s sweetness and prettiness, Emma fantasizes that Harriet is the daughter of a wealthy man and deserves a gentlewoman’s upbringing rather than the middle-class education she’s receiving at Mrs. Goddard’s. Emma believes that, if she teaches Harriet all the manners of the upper class, she can help Harriet find a rich husband.

Emma’s ability to easily manipulate Harriet’s situation – including causing Harriet to shun a man she is genuinely interested in in the hope of a “better” match – is proof of Harriet’s naivety and submissiveness. Harriet is a few years younger than Emma and looks up to Emma’s confidence and wealth, and she easily acquiesces to Emma’s whims and plans. At first, Harriet’s docile nature is pleasing to Emma, as it means she can pull the strings of Harriet’s life with ease, but it soon becomes clear that Emma’s influence is having a bad effect on Harriet. Not only is Harriet heartbroken by the rejection of Mr. Elton, whom both she and Emma had been certain had affection for Harriet, but she begins to believe she’d have the chance of coupling with Mr. Knightley, a man so far above her in class status that it would have been an incredible scandal for him to pursue her romantically. While Emma didn’t intend to create such negative consequences, Harriet’s gullibility mixed with Emma’s delusions surrounding Harriet’s class mobility cause Harriet endless disappointment and almost ruins her chance of marrying the excellent Mr. Martin.

Harriet does not possess the intelligence or wit that Emma does – evidenced in part by her complete inability to grasp Mr. Elton’s simple riddle – and she is easily swayed and manipulated, but if she’s surrounded by good people who aren’t attempting to meddle in her life, she has enough smarts and sense to live a happy life. In many ways, as Emma often admits, she is superior to Emma in that she is content with the people and things in her life. She’s easily impressed, not only by wealth but by kindness. Before Emma warps Harriet’s mind with delusions of grandeur and classism, Harriet is in love with the Martin family, not just for their beautiful farm property but because she feels welcomed and cherished by every member, whether that be her suitor, Mr. Martin, or his three kind sisters. It takes Emma a lot of time and many lessons to learn how to appreciate the kindness and goodness of people that she doesn’t deem rich enough to be worthy of her. What Harriet lacks in sharp intellect or confidence she makes up in kindness and humility.

The main characters of Emma often misunderstand Harriet, projecting their own biases onto her, which makes the truth of her character a bit difficult to read. Emma overestimates Harriet, believing her to be a gentleman’s daughter despite having no evidence of any such parentage, and Mr. Knightley underestimates her, believing her to be rather silly and not equal to his friend Mr. Martin. By the end of the novel, both have learned to see Harriet in a more realistic light: Emma now understands that no amount of prettiness or manners on Harriet’s part will allow her to magically transcend into an upper-class gentlewoman, and Mr. Knightley realizes that Harriet has more depth and intelligence than he first assumed. Once Emma and Mr. Knightley learn to see Harriet for who she is, letting go of their delusions or preconceptions, all parties are content with her marriage to Mr. Martin and the life path that is laid before her, including Harriet herself. To further prove that Emma is finally seeing Harriet clearly, it is revealed that Harriet’s father was a merchant all along. Emma’s fantasies of secretly wealthy parents were indeed fantasies, and Harriet is decidedly middle class.