Ah, Mrs. Elton. The perfectly-drawn portrait of a self-important female with a penchant for meddling. We know from Emma that she was in the habit of communicating regularly with her elder sister Selina, the one who, as Austen tells us, “was very well married, to a gentleman in a great way, near Bristol, who kept two carriages!”
I was thinking the other day about what her letters to her sister must have been like, and amused myself by setting down what I think she would have written when she learned of Mr. Knightley and Emma’s engagement:
My Dear Selena,
Your letter arrived just this morning with the suggestion that perhaps your friend Miss Bickle might make a suitable wife for our friend Knightley. You must know that I would be happy to do all in my power to find a husband for her, but I fear Knightley will not be the man. We heard only yesterday that he is to be married to Miss Emma Woodhouse, of whom I have told you much. It is nothing less than a tragedy.
Poor Knightley! He has been cruelly imposed upon. My caro sposo says that no doubt such a proud female as she is always meant to have him—nothing would content her but to be mistress of Donwell Abbey. And Knightley is such a kind, amiable soul that he would have no defenses against the wiles of this lady. There has been no sign of any attachment at all on his side. I always know when a man is truly in love—it shows in his eyes, in his voice, and in his bearing. Poor Knightley shows no signs at all of being in love with her.
I am very sorry to hear you will not be able to come and visit until the end of October, not least because you will be unable to meet Knightley before his marriage. I cannot think that his good qualities—for I told you he has many—will long survive such a match. I fear he will be completely altered by the time you meet him. And as for exploring parties to Donwell, which I hoped you might take part in, there will be none that I would care to join. The new Mrs. Knightley would make it all very disagreeable. It makes me quite desolated to think of it. And Knightley was all anticipation at the thought of you coming! He said he would be very happy to see you when you came—he has just that understated way of expressing himself which befits someone of his position. He expressed a very proper interest in Mr. Suckling’s estate, and I am sure he was glad to know that Donwell Abbey is in some degree to be compared with Maple Grove.
I am sorry to send you such a mournful letter; it should have black edges. And it does seem like a death, for we cannot invite Knightley to dine as we were used to—how happy it used to make him to eat at the vicarage!—and all pleasant and informal communication must be at an end.
Oh! I have almost forgotten to tell you the most shocking thing: Knightley is to give up living at the Abbey and stay at Hartfield with Miss Woodhouse and her father! You remember, of course, what happened to the Williamsons who tried such a thing a few years ago—how it was only a few months before their home-life became intolerable and they separated again. I only hope poor Knightley is not beaten down completely by being under the thumb of such proud and uncongenial people.
I am happy to hear that Mrs. Smallridge has found a governess at last. Of course, whoever it is will be much inferior to Jane Fairfax. I cannot conceal from you that I did have great pleasure in being a kind of benefactor to Mrs. S, as the one through whose agency she might have found such a treasure for her children. I have a gift, you know, for doing what I can to help others. I offered my services to Jane Fairfax in respect to wedding preparations, but she seemed to prefer the assistance of Mrs. Campbell.
I declare, with Jane Fairfax about to be married and moving to Yorkshire, I must look about me for another young woman to whom I can be patroness. I think I may say that I have a decided talent for that sort of thing. When you come, you must help me chose someone.
I must close this missive, as Miss Bates is just arrived. The maid says she is waiting for me in the drawing room. Tedious old soul—one can never contrive to get a word in as she prattles away. However, she no doubt has a letter from Jane Fairfax to read to me, and I am not averse to hearing news of my sweet Jane.