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Saturday, 20 February 2016

Jane Austen's 'Emma': Emma's feelings for Mr. Knightley

The grounds at Donwell - Mr. Knightley's home.
Did Emma Woodhouse really love Mr. Knightley all along?

Emma had said she would never marry; or, if she did, her husband would be the renowned Frank Churchill. Such was her self-deception even before she met Frank. Yet, it is Knightley's opinions that always concern her. When she disagrees with him (about Robert Martin), she is made uncomfortable by his criticism, for she has a 'habitual respect' for his judgement. She likes to have him on her side, to be friends with her, and willingly resorts to feminine wiles to gain reconciliation: ...she hoped it might rather assist the restoration of friendship, that when he came into the room she had one of the children with her... very happy to be danced about in her aunt's arms.

Always conscious of Knightley, Emma has a thorough understanding and appreciation of him. When he provides his carriage to take Jane and Miss Bates to the dinner with the Coles, Emma says: I know no man more likely than Mr. Knightley to do the sort of thing – to do anything really good-natured, useful, considerate or benevolent. He is not a gallant man, but he is a very humane one. Similarly, while others are baffled, she can be sure it was not Mr. Knightley who sent the piano to Jane. She knows he does nothing mysteriously.

Whenever he frankly points out Emma's faults, she is affected. As her 'education' progresses, she acts increasingly upon his criticisms. Emma makes efforts to please him. 'Conscience-stricken', she invites Jane Fairfax to dinner. After the Box Hill picnic, in which Knightley's criticism of her rudeness to Miss Bates reduces her to tears, she goes through a period of repentance and emerges a transformed person - as kind and considerate to others as Mr. Knightley himself - and, inspired by him, dedicates herself to a life of compassion and generosity towards Miss Bates and Jane.

Her tears at Box Hill are those of a woman whose body is telling her what her mind has not caught up with. Her flirtation with Frank prevents her from realising Knightley's worth. During the ball at The Crown, even while dancing with Frank, she admires Mr. Knightley - His tall, firm, upright figure - and when he generously invites the unfortunate Harriet to dance, Emma is all pleasure and gratitude... and longed to be thanking him. She catches his eye, her looks conveying much.

On this occasion, Emma is pleased to spend a large part of the rest of the evening dancing with him. She assumes a proprietorial interest in him.

Jane Austen cleverly reveals another symptom of Emma's interest in him. When Harriet recalls how she obtained Mr. Elton's old pencil six months earlier for her 'Most Precious Treasures' collection, she naturally remembers the details of Mr. Elton's speech and behaviour, but Emma has a vivid recollection only of Mr. Knightley: Talking about spruce beer... Mr. Knightley and I both saying we liked it... Mr. Knightley was standing just here...

Emma's lack of success in sketching and Knightley's criticism tell us much about their characters and their relationship. Emma had attempted portraits before Harriet's but not one of them had ever been finished.

'You have made her too tall, Emma,' said Mr. Knightley. Emma knew that she had, but would not own it, and Mr. Elton warmly added, 'Oh, no! certainly not too tall...'.

There is a moment so close to a love-scene that, although Emma has not yet discovered 'with the speed of an arrow' that he must marry nobody but herself, one word more from Knightley would surely make her do so. She has returned home from her penitent visit to Miss Bates, to find Knightley with her father. He is pleased by her act of charity and she is thrilled to have his good opinion restored. The passage is charged with deep but controlled emotion. He looks at her lovingly and takes her hand (or does she offer it to him?):

He took her hand – whether she had not herself made the first motion she could not say – she might, perhaps, have rather offered it – but he took her hand, pressed it and certainly was on the point of carrying it to his lips – when, from some fancy or other, he suddenly let go.

He has remembered that Emma probably loves Frank Churchill. Jane Austen cannot resist a touch of irony in reviewing Emma's thoughts at this moment. It was a pity she had not come back earlier!

When Emma hears later that some astounding news has broken, she does not think first, as Mr. Weston expects, of his son Frank, but says, Something has happened in Brunswick Square. I know it has. Tell me, I charge you tell me this moment what it is. Brunswick Square is where Mr. Knightley is staying at the time!

Emma's impatience for news recalls those moments near the end of Pride and Prejudice when Elizabeth Bennet is desperate for news of Darcy's involvement in Lydia's wedding. Elizabeth begs for information from Mrs. Gardiner; Emma from Mr. Weston.

Emma and Mr. Knightley are friends, free and blunt with each other, happy in each other's company and glad of each other's affection. Knightley's natural reticence, coupled with his reluctance to meddle in her emotions, restrain him when she appears to be attached to Frank. At the beginning of the novel their relationship has the intellectual intimacy of marriage (just as Elizabeth and Darcy's soon acquires) but emotional involvement has yet to be recognized, at least on her side. Through her mistakes and blunders, Emma has to discover that her deepest emotional relationship is also with Mr. Knightley.

When Mr. Knightley proposes, there are still six chapters to come in the novel - the earliest point at which an Austen heroine receives a proposal. All the other novels end fairly close to the proposal and acceptance. If the reader succeeds eventually in loving Emma, it probably dates from her behaviour when it seems Mr. Knightley is going to tell her he loves Harriet: Emma could not bear to give him pain.

She thinks he is on the edge of destroying her life by saying he loves Harriet, and yet she courageously realises that, even if that is true, she must stick by him. Even if he had admitted that at thirty-seven he had fallen for a schoolgirl, Emma would have sided with them both against Highbury and the sniggering world.