The following chronology (and many of the notes) is (are) based upon R.W. Chapman's Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen, Vol. IV.
Emma Chronology & Settings
Chronology of Events in the Story
Chapman suggests that the story is meant to "take place in the present," during the year (1813-)1814, when the author began writing it. Also see Ellen Moody's Chronology.
Late September/Early October - Weston Marriage, Frank's letter dated September 28 (page 96).
Mid December - Emma's "broken lace" and the walk to the vicarage, the home of Mr. Elton. (page 83).
December 24 - The Westons' Christmas party at Randalls, the John Knightleys at Hartfield for the Holidays (page 108).
January/early February - Jane Fairfax arrives (most likely in conjunction with Frank's intended arrival, sometime in January - see page 120) (Vol. I, chapter 18; Vol. II, chapters 1 and 2).
February - Frank's Visit (also, delivery of the mysterious pianoforte to the Bates,' the Coles' party, and the original date of the Crown Inn Ball) (page 309).
Mid-march - Mrs. Elton's arrival and Emma's visit (page 270).
May - The Churchills take a house at Richmond, Frank returns to Highbury (page 317), Ball at the Crown Inn (page 319). Harriet's encounter with the gipsies, the day after the ball (332-334).
June 23 - Harriet's birthday (page 30) and the Strawberry Outing at Donwell Abbey ("almost midsummer," with Midsummer's Eve being June 23) (page 357).
June 24 - Box Hill Picnic, Frank returns to Richmond (pages 377 and 383).
June 25 - Emma calls upon Miss Bates; reconciliation, and the news of Jane's new positions with the Smallridges (page 377 and 380); Mr. Knightley departs for London (page 385).
June 26 - Mrs. Churchill dies (pages 387 and 440).
July 6 (approximately) - Frank comes to Randalls to inform the Westons of his engagement (pages 392 and 394).
July 7 (the next day) - Mrs. Weston informs Emma (page 417); the afternoon storm (page 421); Emma tries to explain Frank's engagement to Harriet, who gives Emma her rude awakening (Vol. III, chapter 11).
July 8 - The weather clears (page 424); Mr. Knightley returns; the proposal (Vol. III, chapter 13).
July 9 (two days after the news of the engagement) - Emma reads Frank's letter (page 436), Mr. Knightley comes to Hartfield and reads it (page 444).
July 10 (the next day ?) - Emma visits Jane (pages 452 and 456).September, October, and November - The weddings of the Martins, the Knightleys, and the Churchills, respectively (pages 482 and 483).
Set in the fictional village of Highbury (page 7), and at Box Hill, north Surrey, England. Highbury is sixteen miles from London, 9 from Richmond, and 7 from Box Hill (page 521).
Bits and Pieces on the Thematic Value of Emma's Settings
Settings in Emma often reinforce the themes of the novel in general, reflecting the tone of the action. The plot takes place within the stifling confines of Highbury, which parallels what's going on in Emma's head. She's not only literally captive to her Highbury lifestyle, she's figuratively captive to her own delusions and presumptions. When she finally ventures out of her obvious comfort zone to Box Hill, the revelations begin - she realizes that she doesn't have everything figured out after all. Both physically and figuratively, Box Hill serves as the peak - or climax - of the novel.
Also, I think it's important to note that in contrast to her distinct inability to reconcile herself to the realities presented at Box Hill (I daresay she didn't understand the half of what was really going on there!), at the Donwell Strawberry party - which is essentially the same exact crowd - everything works. Emma does and feels right here. She's nice to Jane Fairfax, she pins Frank down at every careless word, and she realizes how important both the Abbey and the Knightleys (esp. George, though she doesn't realize it yet!) are to her. She's in her element here - her proper place literally and figuratively (those words again...!).
Caroline Evans on Highbury in Fiction, Film, and Reality
When Jane Austen created Highbury, she didn't base it on one particular place. If you try and pinpoint a location fifteen miles from London, nine miles from Richmond, and seven miles from Box Hill, you will realise it's an impossibility. The closest you will get is somewher near Epsom, and Epsom in Georgian times was way too exciting to be sleepy Highbury! Some published works have suggested that she might have had Cobham or Leatherhead in mind, but really it seems as if she took the basic elements of all the Surrey villages she knew and created a new one based on those ideas. So I'm going to do the same in detailing what Highbury looked like and how it functioned.
Many of the locations in Emma2 were very unauthentic. The cultivated-looking strawberries at Box Hill are an example of one of the most irritating things about this film for me - the geography is all wrong! Highbury village looks like no English village I have ever seen! This Highbury looks like a patchwork of villages from all over Dorsetshire, which is exactly what it is! Very pretty, but unreal! The Emma3 Highbury is far better, IMHO. They managed to make "Highbury" look like a cohesive English village from the home counties of England. When I saw Lacock Village [that's the National Trust Lackock page; there's a good photo resource located here], Wiltshire, dressed up in Emma3, it was one of those yess!!! moments. The location and costruction crews did an absolutely superb job, IMHO, and Sue Quinn's comments in Chapter 3 of The Making of Emma are absolutely spot-on! One thing she says:
"Highbury to me should be an overgrown village, with quite a few shops. Most small towns would have been linear, just one long street. More than one main street and it would have been seen as a big town for the period."
In the book , JA mentions a few lanes coming off the main street , like Vicarage Lane, where Emma dallies to tie her shoe, and also a Donwell Road, presumably at one end of the town. The kind of things which would be down these lanes would be cottages, the vicarage (but not the church), perhaps a smithy, a cordwainer, the butcher, and the village lock-up. On the main street there would be the haberdasher, apothecary, perhaps a tailor/draper, a bakery, a lawyer's office, and mixed in with them would be houses. The church and the school would also be on the main street. There really wouldn't be a clearly marked "business sector", just a place where the buildings would be very close together, and probably two and a half stories high instead of one and a half . Around the town there would be outlying farms, and the larger houses.
The appearance of the Lacock buildings is absolutely right. Most of the buidings would look like houses, as shops would just be adapted houses, or almost identical in outward appearance. Shops were rarely specially-built buildings, and when they are, they are usually in large cities, not small places like Highbury. They would be timber framed, many faced with locally made bricks and clay tiles. The bricks are a rosy-red mottled variety, rather smaller than modern bricks, and not laid in very fancy patterns. The fake front made for the Bates's house is a bit ornate, really, but I'm nitpicking here. The tiled roofs are a Surrey speciality, but it would also be alright to have a few thatched ones. The two houses chosen for Randalls and Highbury are also very "Surrey", being of brick. There would be few stone houses, unless there was a source of good building stone in the parish (and that's not the norm in Surrey, as it is in, say, the Cotswold region). The exception would be the Abbey, which would have been built originally in imported stone, and re-modelled when the monastic buildings were converted into a house under Henry VIII.
There would be at least one hill, in the area (or it wouldn't be called Highbury, and Donwell wouldn't have upper and lower gardens). However, much of the land would have been low-lying clay.
The town would be largely self-sufficient, but there would be some trade further afield. Most would be of farm produce to London. I am sure some of the Donwell fruit, Hartfield pigs and Abbey Mill cows were destined for the city, also wheat, barley and flax (possibly) Likewise, there would be itinerant traders who would bring in cloth, lace, ribbons, and small manufacured goods in a back-pack, or on a packhorse. The word "gypsy" is often synonymous with "tinker" and the band that frightens Harriet could well be part of this trade. There might be some passing trade attached to coach routes, but to be honest , I doubt it (one of Emma's problems is that she never meets any new people). Jane Austen makes a point of telling us that Highbury is a healthy spot, or something similar, which I take to mean that there were no evil marshes or noxious industries nearby, not that it was a health spa like Bath. But there might have been a brick works, a tannery, and almost certainly, seasonal charcoal burning.
The community would be run by the four main families in the book. Mssrs. Knightley, Elton, Weston, and Woodhouse would between them look after parish concerns as landowners and, in Mr. Elton's case, as a spiritual leader. Mr. Knightley mentions having received "a few lines " about parish business from Mr. Weston - perhaps something to do with poor relief, road upkeep, or minor crime (chicken rustling?). Mr. Knightley is a magistrate, i.e. the equivalent of a local sherriff and judge. Emma, Mrs. Weston and Mrs. Elton would be expected to "do good" as the ranking females in the homes of their community-leading husbands and fathers. They would look after the poor (a responsibility Emma carries out in December with the dubious help of Harriet), the incapacitated, and in the case if the Bates's, the downfallen. There would also be the tradespeople - some "new money,' like the Coxes - and the farmers - like the Martins - who would not mix much with the four families. There would also be a whole class of labourers, a few homeless, and some workless. The agricultural and industrial revolutions, and the economic depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic wars in the 'teens left a great many itinerants looking for work.
Almost all the population would attend the (Anglican ) church. Methodism and Catholicism did exist, but would have been rare in this part of England. Social activities would have been based around the church and farming calendars. Emma 3's harvest supper would have been a most important community event. The town wouldn't be big enough to have assemblies or a twice-yearly agricultural/hiring fairs, but there would probably be traditional "calendar" days, like Mayday and Plough Monday, which would involve the whole village. Otherwise, people made their own entertainment to assuage the boredom of a small town, which partially explains why Emma feels the need to meddle in the business of others.
Caroline's Sources of information
Most of what I know about Surrey villages comes from work I did at university. There is very little published that isn't in obscure local history society papers or university texts, so it is difficult to give direct references that anyone can follow up. However, two books that I found very interesting which might be available today are:
The Pattern of English Building by Alec Clifton-Taylor,1970.
Victoria County History of Surrey. This enormous tome was one of a series produced in Victoria's reign covering every county in England. They detailed a great deal of local history, including the development of local industries, growth of settlements, and descriptions of larger houses. I also used a great many old documents like hearth tax returns, probate inventories, old maps, artists illustrations and architect's notes, most of which were housed in the Surrey County Records Office in Kingston, Surrey.