Mr Knightley > Mr Darcy. Discuss.
Let me just get this out of the way: I love Jane Austen. I’ve read all of the major novels. I’m not an expert or anything, and I haven’t read much in the way of the juvenalia or Sanditon or anything, but it’s telling that I would have a hard time ranking five of those six novels in any sort of sensible order. This one, Pride and Prejudice, and Persuasion are probably my favourites, but I don’t have an order in which I could sensibly put them. Then Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey sort of bounce around somewhere below that – they both have things I mildly dislike but I don’t think I’d go so far as to find actual fault in them. I loathe Mansfield Park but that’s down to me just plain (probably unreasonably) hating the main character.
But if I had to pick one heroine that I identify the most with, for worse and for better, it’s Emma.
I feel like she’s got a bit of that “only-child” syndrome (despite not actually being one). She’s headstrong, and self-assured, and like a lot of people, definitely thinks she could run other people’s lives better than they could. Unlike Emma, I’m not comfortably wealthy (or, at least, I wasn’t brought up wealthy). So my machinations have mainly been contained to complaining archly to my boyfriend. But, I don’t know, there’s just something about me that loves Emma’s silliness, loves how she really does think she’s doing the right thing, and how she learns to finally actually do it.
Her relationship with Mr Knightley can seem a little bit weird to a modern audience. He’s a bit older than her, and he can tend to be a bit paternalistic towards her. What I liked about their relationship, though, and why I tend to be forgiving towards it, is that it has a naturalness and, in particular, an honesty which I felt was refreshing. Mr Knightley is never double-faced to Emma (or at least not intentionally. It’s arguable that his jealousy of Frank led him to criticise him more strongly than was necessary to Emma, but I’d wager that was not consciously done, as such). He tells her what he thinks because he respects her enough to know that she can handle it. In a lot of ways, he does actually treat her as an equal – he knows the upstanding kind of person she can be and he expects her to live up to that. Mr Knightley would never be rude or sullen in the mode of a Mr Darcy.
One thing I enjoyed even more this time around was the relationship between Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill. Because I was properly watching out for it this time, I noted a lot more of the clues from before Mr Knightley airs his first suspicions of the truth. I enjoy Frank’s enthusiasms, even though they don’t always come from a place of sense. And I like Jane a lot more than I did previously. Also, this book has some of Austen’s best side characters – Mrs Elton is a particular treat. She’s so excruciating that I couldn’t help but cringe every time she opened her mouth.
Emma has had several modernisations recently, including the Austen Project one I mentioned earlier, but probably more notably the Emma Approved series brought to you by Pemberley Digital, the Youtube channel that created The Lizzie Bennet Diaries. It’s not as good as LBD – the characterisation and cast weren’t quite as on point – but it’s definitely worth a watch if you enjoy Austen and like modernisations of her work. In particular, the actors who play Emma, Mr Knightley, and Frank, are really interesting, fun interpretations of what the characters could be in a modern day setting. Harriet is a bit one note, and I had a strong dislike for their characterisation of Jane Fairfax, but I think that was mainly due to the slight change to the nature of her relationship with Emma which I felt made it deeply inappropriate for her to behave as she did.
There’s very little for me to say about this book that hasn’t been said already. I’d encourage anyone who’s read Pride and Prejudice to go here next. Emma is a deeply flawed heroine, but I think that’s why I love and identify with her so much – even the most flawed of us can come good. Even the most flawed of us can be loved.
I give Emma ten out of ten.