What Does Mr Knightley see in Emma?





Emma is possibly Jane Austen’s least-liked heroine, vying only with Fanny Price for the title. Readers who dislike her cite her arrogance and busybody tendencies, and some see her as nothing more than a spoiled young adult who hurts innocent characters like Miss Bates and Harriet Smith. Even Jane Austen said she thought no one but her would like Emma. And over and over I’ve heard readers comment, “What on earth does Mr. Knightley see in Emma?”

The usual answer to this is that Emma does have a kind heart, both toward her father and toward the poor (the text specifically says, “Emma was very compassionate”). Furthermore, she shows herself capable of remorse and change. But I think there’s a further reason that Mr. Knightley loves her: they have more in common than just their socioeconomic level and the community they live in.

From various interchanges throughout the book, we see that they share a sense of humour. Can anyone argue the Emma would not be the most amused of the group in Miss Bates’ parlour when Miss Bates praises Emma and Churchill’s dancing to Mr. Knightley, who is outside the window:

“Oh! very delightful indeed; I can say nothing less, for I suppose Miss Woodhouse and Mr. Frank Churchill are hearing every thing that passes. And (raising his voice still more) I do not see why Miss Fairfax should not be mentioned too. I think Miss Fairfax dances very well; and Mrs. Weston is the very best country-dance player, without exception, in England. Now, if your friends have any gratitude, they will say something pretty loud about you and me in return; but I cannot stay to hear it.” (Chapter 28)

Emma and Mr. Knightley also share intelligence, and often comprehend what the other is thinking.

    “No,” said Mr. Knightley, nearly at the same time; “you are not often deficient; not often deficient either in manner or comprehension. I think you understand me, therefore.”

    An arch look expressed — “I understand you well enough;” (Chapter 21)

* * *

“There is my news: — I thought it would interest you,” said Mr. Knightley, with a smile which implied a conviction of some part of what had passed between them. (Chapter 21)

* * *

Furthermore, Emma and Mr. Knightley work together in social situations to help keep others calm and prevent turmoil. In Chapter 12 of Emma, Emma’s sister and brother-in-law come to Hartfield and Mr. Knightley joins them for dinner. As Mr. Woodhouse, Isabella and John converse, Emma and Mr. Knightley take turns tactfully steering the conversation away from dangerous subjects that will alarm Mr. Woodhouse or raise the ire of John.

And then there’s this overlooked scene: when the Westons give their dinner party on Christmas Eve, the group is thrown into chaos by the threat of bad weather.

…while the others were variously arguing and recommending, Mr. Knightley and Emma settled it in a few brief sentences: thus —

    “Your father will not be easy; why do not you go?”

    “I am ready, if the others are.”

    “Shall I ring the bell?”

    “Yes, do.”

(Chapter 15)

It’s a quick moment—one that I didn’t really notice until I wrote the scene from Mr. Knightley’s perspective in Charity Envieth Not. Then it struck me how well the two of them work together. I thought I’d share with you the way I imagined Mr. Knightley experienced that dinner party at Randalls—the one where Mr. Elton’s are finally revealed to Emma and where Mr. Woodhouse is terrified by the appearance of snow.

* * *

When the ladies had withdrawn after dinner, John and Elton moved from the further end of the table to join the other men.

“I looked at that bridge today, Elton,” said Knightley when the port had been distributed. “And I concur with the good people of Highbury: the crack in the bridge is worse.”

Elton sighed. “Is it unsafe, then?”

“Not yet. But if will be soon if the crack continues to grow.”

Elton made a wry face. “Then I shall have to prepare myself for another onslaught of complaints from everyone in the parish about the incompetence of workmen and the inconvenience of having to take the other road through Aston. As if I didn’t hear enough grumbling about the river that Freeman is blocking up with his peat.”

“Has William Cox been able to find out anything about laws preventing the fouling of rivers?” asked Knightley.

“I don’t believe he has,” said Weston, “But perhaps Mr. John Knightley could give us his opinion.”

“My dear Mr. Weston,” interjected Mr. Woodhouse, “You will not take it amiss, I hope, if I excuse myself to join the ladies?”

“By no means,” said Mr. Weston. “The fire in the drawing room is much warmer, and the chairs are without doubt more comfortable.”

“Thank you, Mr. Weston. I believe I had better have my cup of tea now—late hours do not agree with me. No, I thank you, Mr. Knightley, you need not accompany me—I would not take you away from your friends.”

Mr. Woodhouse bowed and made his way out of the dining room, leaving the men to talk about parish business for another quarter of an hour, until Weston observed that this was not a meeting at the Crown, but a dinner party—and moreover it was Christmas Eve. “We ought to be able to put aside these matters for a few hours, at least,” he said. “And Mr. John Knightley must find it all extremely dull.”

“Not at all, sir,” said John. “I have a keen interest in everything that relates to Donwell and Highbury. But as we have changed the topic, I may observe that wedlock seems to suit you very well. I don’t know when I’ve seen you look so flourishing.”

“Yes indeed, matrimony is splendid physic! Never felt better in my life.”

“I am surprised,” John went on, “that with such an example before them our two bachelors here have not been convinced to change their state as well.”

Knightley scowled at John, who grinned impudently back at him.

“Oh, everyone knows that Knightley will be a bachelor to the end of time,” said Elton dismissively. “On the other hand, I would like nothing better than to try marriage for myself.”

“Ha!” said Weston. “Got a lady in mind already, I’ll warrant. Well, what I say is, don’t hesitate if your mind is made up. A fine, well-set-up young man like yourself need have no reason for delay. You’ll amaze us all next week, I daresay, with an announcement. That would be a surprise for Highbury, now, wouldn’t it?”

John nudged Knightley and murmured, “Nothing would surprise me more.”

“What’s that you say?” said Weston, turning his gaze from Elton’s flushed and happy face to query John.

“I was merely agreeing with you, sir, that it would be a surprise,” said John. “A great and lasting one, if I am any judge.”

“Well, what do you say to rejoining the ladies?” said Weston, downing the last of his wine.

The men moved out of the dining room into the hall, and were about to enter the drawing room when John paused outside the door.

“I believe I will step outside for a moment and look at the weather,” said John.

“By all means,” said Weston, and followed Elton into the drawing room.

“How very droll Weston is,” said John to Knightley, who had stayed behind in the hall with him. “He wants Elton to marry Emma, then?”

“No, I am quite sure he does not. His perception in the matter of other people’s tender feelings is about the same as Emma’s.”

“Oh, that acute, is he? So he has no idea that Elton…Hmph. He merely wants everyone to be married—on principle, as it were. Well, he ought to have held his tongue.”

“You introduced the subject.”

“I don’t think everyone ought to get married. Only you.”

Knightley’s patience gave out. The topic of matrimony had become intolerable, and he refused to banter with John about it any more.

“Enough,” he said coldly and walked into the drawing room. The scene that met his eyes there was hardly likely to improve his temper: Elton was sitting on a sofa between Emma and Mrs. Weston, talking earnestly to Emma again. This time, however, there was no look of affable politeness—actual or assumed—on Emma’s face. She looked nothing but astonished. Knightley turned away; once he would have been amused by the scene, but now it was merely painful.

He moved to the table in the corner where coffee was being served and accepted a steaming cup from the servant. His eyes wandered back to the group on the sofa; he could only see the back of Emma from where he was, but her posture was rigid and tense. Perhaps he ought to intervene. But would it really do any good to forestall the inevitable?

All at once, Emma got up from the sofa and walked over to the empty chair beside Isabella. It could mean only one thing: Emma meant to give Elton a set-down. But Elton looked perplexed, not dejected; Emma’s reproof was quite lost on him. She was talking to Isabella now with an intensity that matched Elton’s—a sign that she meant to ignore him for the rest of the evening. Knightley had little hope that such a hint would be understood by Elton, but at least now Emma’s eyes were opened.

John came in then and said in a voice that all could hear, “Well! The ground is covered in snow, there is more snow falling fast, and the wind is blowing hard. This will prove a spirited beginning of your winter engagements, sir,” he said, turning to Mr. Woodhouse, “—something new for your coachman and horses to be making their way through a storm of snow.”

There was a moment of silence and then a volley of exclamations. Mr. Woodhouse’s face showed his complete alarm, and Knightley muttered an imprecation against John for being so unfeeling. There was only one thing for it—check the weather himself. Otherwise there would be no hope of calming Mr. Woodhouse or anyone else.

He walked out, relieved to be alone and feeling that the cold air would clear his head. It took only a moment to discover that John had been exaggerating. The snow was not in the least deep, barely covering the ground in most places. He walked all the way out to the Highbury road and a little distance along it, and it was the same all the way along. There were a few flakes of snow drifting down from the sky, but he could see some stars between the clouds, and it was evident that there would be no more snow falling that night. The wind was blowing, but not strongly, and there was certainly nothing to fear in travelling home.

John could be the most exasperating man! It was one thing to needle his brother about marriage, but quite another to intentionally stir up the fears of his father-in-law, and Isabella, too. He suspected that his own bad humour had contributed to John’s, but that did not excuse him. Altogether it had been a most aggravating evening and he would be very pleased to get home again.

To further allay any fears on the score of safety, he found the coachmen and asked them if they thought there was any cause for worry about the journey home. None at all, they said. He walked back into the drawing room—how very hot the room was!—and gave his report to the company.

The relief on Isabella’s face repaid him for his exertions, and the agitation of Mr. Woodhouse was greatly reduced. It did not vanish, however, and he asked Knightley several times if he was quite sure that there was not more snow piling up on the roads at that very moment. Knightley assured him that there was not, and Emma did her best to pacify her father, but Knightley knew that nothing would make him really tranquil as long as he remained at Randalls. He took a few steps behind Mr. Woodhouse’s chair and beckoned Emma with a small movement of his head.

She came over to him, and he said quietly, “Your father will not be easy; why do not you go?”

She nodded and matched his quiet tone as she said, “I am ready, if the others are.”

“Shall I ring the bell?”

“Yes, do.”

It was the shortest conversation he had had all evening, but it soothed his irritated feelings remarkably. For a moment it was as if he and Emma were the only adults present—the only ones with sense and compassion, who knew what ought to be done and were able to do it without hesitation. The others were like children, who lacked either the wit or the confidence to do what they ought.

It was only a few minutes until the carriages came, and Knightley and Weston escorted Mr. Woodhouse to his.

“Oh, there is indeed snow!” exclaimed Mr. Woodhouse. “And the night is fearfully dark! I am afraid we shall have a very bad drive. Poor Isabella will not like it. And poor Emma will be in the carriage behind. I do not know what we had best do—we must keep as much together as we can. Where is the coachman? James! Ah, James, you must go very slow and wait for the other carriage. Very slow. And wait for the other carriage. Yes. Thank you, Mr. Weston. Yes, the blanket is here; thank you, Mr. Knightley.”

John had conducted Isabella to the carriage, and when she was safely inside, he got in after her and the door was shut. Knightley and Weston were going back into the house when they passed Elton escorting Emma to her carriage. It took a few seconds for Knightley to realize what had happened. John ought not to be with Isabella and Mr. Woodhouse; he ought to be with Emma and Elton.

Oh mercy, thought Knightley. Emma and Elton shut up together all the way back to the vicarage. Elton will probably think this is the perfect opportunity… He sighed. Poor Emma.

7 responses to “What Does Mr Knightley see in Emma?”

  1. Amanda Kai Avatar
    Amanda Kai

    Great story! I love Emma fanfics, but there aren’t too many of them.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Thanks! Yes, there aren’t very many fanfics … it’s kind of lonely here on team Knightley. 🙂

  2. Laura Hile Avatar

    Yours are some of my favorites, Barbara. Thank you for a lovely article. Team Knightley!

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Aw, thanks, Laura! 🙂

  3. Stephanie Mudd Carrico Avatar
    Stephanie Mudd Carrico

    I am an Emma fan. I think she is judged too harshly. All of Austen’s heroines are human, that is one of her greatest talents in portraying our human foibles. These many years later and her characters are still relatable. I love your Knightley series too.

    1. Barbara Cornthwaite Avatar

      Thank you, Stephanie!

  4. cindie snyder Avatar
    cindie snyder

    Awesome post! I like other Austen characters stories too! Team Knightley too! Emma is not perfect she is only human.

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