After Emma rejects Mr. Elton’s proposal, Mr. Elton immediately leaves for London, where he stays for several weeks to court a new bride, Augusta Hawkins, who quickly becomes Mrs. Elton. Emma, and much of her social group, immediately takes a dislike to Mrs. Elton. Mrs. Elton is far too familiar with the wealthy class of Highbury for what the rules of Victorian decorum would have allowed – before she makes friends with or is accepted by the town, she forces her way into their circles, wanting to start music clubs, calling Mr. Knightley by only his last name, and bragging about the superiority of her brother and her hometown friends in comparison to the people of rural Highbury. Emma is a novel that is very much concerned with class, and Mrs. Elton represents a new addition to the complex hierarchy of wealth: new money.

Unlike the Woodhouses and Knightleys, who can boast a long ancestry of wealth, Mrs. Elton’s father’s money is a recent acquisition. Mrs. Elton’s wealth means that she must be tolerated and included by the upper class of Highbury, but her lack of a high-class upbringing or family history is made obvious by her vulgar manners – a common stereotype of new money individuals that Emma does nothing to repudiate. Regardless of the complexities of class biases, Mrs. Elton is undoubtedly a difficult person. She is an unthinking and unempathetic woman who easily offends others and expects to always be the center of attention. Emma, who is already completely disenchanted by Mr. Elton, is more disgusted by Mrs. Elton than most of her group, and the two quickly become passive-aggressive enemies.

While Mrs. Elton is certainly egotistical, crass, and snobbish, there is a reason why Emma in particular cannot stand her. Mrs. Elton acts as a mirror for Emma – Mrs. Elton’s faults are incredibly similar to Emma’s, and through Mrs. Elton, Emma sees the truth of how repugnant her own behavior has been. Like Emma, Mrs. Elton is obsessed with the difference in classes and sees people of an even slightly lower class as targets for insults, rude jokes, and condescending comments. While Mrs. Elton is far meaner than Emma ever was, the similarities between Mrs. Elton’s classism and Emma’s are unmissable. While neither Emma nor the narrator voices it aloud, Mrs. Elton’s behavior teaches Emma a lot about her own, and she realizes that her distasteful comments and mindsets about lower-class and middle-class families in Highbury were just as embarrassing and rude as Mrs. Elton’s. Another important similarity between the two is their interest in making a project out of lower-status women in their community. For Emma, the project is Harriet Smith. For Mrs. Elton, the project is Jane Fairfax. When Mrs. Elton proposes to Emma that she intends to help Jane Fairfax by introducing her to more high-society activities, with the express hope of matching her with a wealthy man, Emma realizes just how unbecoming it is to play with people and their lives as if they were puppets. She immediately understands that Mrs. Elton’s interest in Jane is not selfless – Mrs. Elton does not care about Jane’s situation, but rather sees the opportunity to increase Jane’s status as a way to reflect positively back on her own self. Her match-making intentions are self-aggrandizing, and not at all about Jane’s happiness. Although Emma’s intentions for Harriet were positive, they too came from a place of selfishness. Emma’s meddling keeps Harriet from accepting the proposal of a good and loving man, and instead sends her down a path of heartbreak and delusions about her class standing.

Mrs. Elton and her smarmy husband mainly serve a comedic role in the novel, inviting the reader to laugh at their ridiculousness and misplaced superiority complex. But they also serve as a warning. There is a meanness and meagerness in Mr. Elton that also resides in Mrs. Elton, making them the perfect miserable couple. But the fact that Mr. Elton thought he had a chance of marrying Emma implies that he might have sensed a similar quality in her – the awful Mrs. Elton is who Emma might have become if she had allowed her worst instincts to guide her, and had she not had good-hearted role models like Mrs. Weston and Mr. Knightley in her life to learn kindness from.