Why Mr. Knightley Loves Emma Woodhouse

She may not allow anyone to tell her what to do, but, whether she realizes it or not, Emma allows Mr. Knightley to act as her conscience.

Unlike many of Jane Austen’s heroines, Emma Woodhouse has neither reason nor intention to marry. Her father’s nervous condition, her mother’s early death, and the marriage of her older sister Isabella, left Emma to be mistress of Hartfield at quite a young age. In her opinion, she has all the benefits of matrimony, minus a husband who would likely reign in much of the freedom she enjoys living with her father. But until she sees “somebody very superior to anyone [she has] seen yet,” Emma tells Harriet Smith, she could not be induced to marry and “would rather not be tempted.” Her position at Hartfield increases her sense of vanity in regard to her judgment. Emma believes her judgment is superior to everyone else’s–except Mr. Knightley’s. She may not allow anyone to tell her what to do, but, whether she realizes it or not, Emma allows Mr. Knightley to act as her conscience.

Mr. Knightley has always been anxious for how Emma will turn out. “There is an anxiety, a curiosity in what one feels for Emma,” he tells the new Mrs. Weston. Unlike everyone else in Highbury who sees little or no fault in Emma, Mr. Knightley recognizes a sense of superiority she has that leads her to believe she can read people’s desires and urge them to act according to her will. He takes it upon himself to be the one person in her life who does not spoil or compliment her for everything. Quite the reverse: he scolds and lectures her when it’s warranted. Mr. Knightley doesn’t lecture Emma because he thinks she is a spoiled brat who needs to be punished, but because he knows she has good, reasonable judgment that sometimes needs to be appealed to for her to make the right choices.

Allowing Emma to believe she could bring about successful matches–like Mr. Weston and Miss Taylor–and to have an intimacy with Miss Harriet Smith (called the dumbest character in all fiction by Professor John Mullan at 2015’s Hay Festival) would lead to nothing good indeed! Harriet’s weak head and character make it very easy for Emma to mold her into what she is looking for in a female companion, sans cleverness and wit. Before she met Emma, Harriet was most likely in love with Robert Martin–or as close to being in love as someone as dimwitted as Harriet can be–but Emma is able to persuade her that a farmer isn’t a proper suitor. Convinced that Harriet must be a “gentleman’s daughter,” Emma sees nothing wrong with encouraging her dear friend to set her sights higher, so when Harriet comes to her with a letter of Robert Martin’s proposal, she cleverly uses the doubt she implanted in Harriet’s head to suggest that she refuse him.

Romola Garai as Emma Woodhouse in the 2009 BBC adaptation of Emma.

There is no reason for Emma to dwell on encouraging her friend to refuse Robert Martin’s proposal, until Mr. Knightley learns of her role. Mr. Knightley respects Mr. Martin and feels that his marrying Harriet would be marrying beneath him. Harriet’s lack of sense and the questions surrounding her birth limit her chances of securing a formidable match, and the fact that Mr. Martin is so in love with her surprises Mr. Knightley. But Emma doesn’t see his point. “A girl with such loveliness as Harriet,” she says, “has a certainty of being admired and sought after, of having the power of choosing from among many.” In this scene where Emma and Mr. Knightley argue over a woman’s right to refuse a man’s proposal, Mr. Knightley is astonished, disappointed, vexed by Emma’s poor judgment. He knows she has allowed herself to be blinded by vanity. “Better to be without sense, than misapply it as you do,” he argues, believing she is “abusing the reason” she has.

Emma never intentionally upsets Mr. Knightley, as “she [does] not always feel so satisfied with herself so entirely convinced that her opinions [are] right and adversary’s wrong, as [he is].” In the matter of Harriet and Robert Martin, she believes she is the better judge, but she “[has] a sort of habitual respect for [Mr. Knightley’s] judgment in general, which [makes] her dislike having it so loudly against her.” Since Mr. Knightley is her conscience, she desires his thoughts to be aligned with her own. Or she at least wants them to remain friends, so she plots to get him alone in a room while she is holding her newborn niece, knowing they both think and feel the same about their nephews and nieces. While Mr. Knightley sees through her scheme to get them to make up, he concedes to it because he wants to be friends again just as much as she does. He cannot help but put their quarrel behind him.

Emma is always trying to improve her conduct and her mind, only “she will never submit to anything requiring industry and patience, and a subjection of the fancy to the understanding.” When being lectured by Mr. Knightley and knowing that he disagrees with her, she feels sorry for her actions, but she doesn’t really take any steps to improve her character. She resolves never to play matchmaker again after the pain she causes Harriet in attempting to match her with Mr. Elton. But Emma only feels torture when she’s in Harriet’s presence, and then it’s only because she feels guilty about what she’s done, not out of any real compassion for Harriet’s sake. “Your allowing yourself to be so occupied and so unhappy about Mr. Elton’s marrying, Harriet, is the strongest reproach you can make me,” she says in an effort to get Harriet to think of other things. “Deceived myself, I did very miserably deceive you–and it will be a painful reflection to me forever. Do not imagine me in danger of forgetting it.”

One great fault of Emma’s is a lack of sincerity and a willingness to always be happy and carefree. She cannot be made to fret or dwell on a mistake of her own or the misfortune of others–as we see with Harriet, she is willfully blind to Harriet’s unfortunate position. The greatest and most sincere change in Emma comes after Mr. Knightley scolds her at Box Hill for her unfeeling behavior toward Miss Bates. He was holding up a mirror to her, showing her what she was: “…I would not quarrel with you for any liberties of manner. Were she your equal in situation–but, Emma, consider how far this is from the case…Her situation should secure your compassion. It was badly done indeed!” With these words, Emma truly feels wretched. Not only did she wound Miss Bates with her carelessness, but also Mr. Knightley.

Although Emma only declares she’s in love with Mr. Knightley after Harriet professes her feelings for him, she would not have come to that conclusion if Mr. Knightley had not forced her to see herself, and her behavior, in a new light. She does not become a new Emma Woodhouse, but rather an Emma Woodhouse with an open mind and heart. It was an Emma Mr. Knightley knew she would become, but not because of his lectures. “I do not believe I did you any good,” he tells her. “The good was all to myself, by making you an object of the tenderest affection to me. I could not think about you so much without doting on you, faults and all.” He does Emma the justice of saying, in the end, that she could have ignored every lecture he ever gave her, but she chose to listen to every one.

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