Celebrating 200 years Emma
1815 - 2015
If I were able to take only one book to a desert island it would most likely be Emma. Since studying it for A level when I was 17 I must have read it about 20 times, more than any other Austen novel. I was lucky enough to have been taught by a truly inspiring teacher. One day she told us all to look at Knightley’s declaration, not because we needed to but because she loved it so much.
I have many reasons for treasuring this novel, and one is a very personal one. The therapeutic power of Austen is well documented, and Lord David Cecil’s comment about how we turn to her in times of family crisis has stayed with me. All of her novels offer happy endings of course, with characters with whom we sympathise, if not directly identify. And Emma is no exception. But none offers such a happy landscape with quite such neatly tied ends. Even the awful Eltons are actually happily married.
Perhaps it is this, therefore, which offers such consolation in time of need. It was to Emma that I turned when I needed to travel to Spain with my brother to be with my very sick father. And this novel upheld me when, on my return some days later I found that my husband had suffered a serious heart attack that very day. I was still reading it when I received the news of my father’s death a few days later. Oddly, all of this sadness has not since coloured my reading of the book; if anything it has added to its value for the way it helped to carry me through.
The central protagonists are often cited as readers’ least favourite. Emma is deemed to be spoilt and controlling, and Knightley, a middle aged prig, by some. How differently I feel from those critics. Emma is used to getting her own way of course, and her influence, certainly where Harriet is concerned, could have been downright dangerous. But Jane Austen likes her heroine and protects her from making any fatal mistakes. I confess that as a young woman I probably tried to manipulate the love lives of friends and family, and had just about the same results as Emma. If ever we are tempted to regard her as selfish and self serving we need only compare her to, for me, one of Austen’s arch villains, the utterly devious, Frank Churchill. When once confronted with her folly, and the folly which leads her to unkindness to Miss Bates, she is utterly ashamed. Emma has a good heart, but a bit too much time on her hands, and we know what the devil does with those. Luckily she is rewarded with the love of her hero and mine, Mr Knightley.
My devotion to Mr Knightley was, like Elizabeth Bennett’s for Mr Darcy, not always as strong as it now is, but always there. When I was younger, like most women my heart was with Darcy or with Wentworth, but the years have given me perspective. There is nothing dashing or obviously heroic about Knightley.
He doesn’t pine for his love and his most heroic gesture is asking a slighted girl to dance. He is more at home discussing accounts with William Larkins or crop production with Robert Martin, than riding around the countryside rescuing damsels in distress. He isn’t blind to Emma’s failings, far far from it, but he loves her in spite of everything, faultless in spite of all her faults. He isn’t given to florid protestations of love; but in fact he loves so much he finds it hard to express himself, and simply tells it like it is, sincerely and honestly. He will, without doubt, spend the rest of his life loving her, and not only that but he will manage to love and care for her most trying father. But perhaps best of all in a husband, he will always know how to fix the leaky roof and will not need to be reminded.
All rights reserved by Louise West
Former Curator, Jane Austen’s HouseMuseum, Chawton
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