I recently reread Jane Austen’s beloved classic, Emma and watched both the 1996 film adaption and the 2009 miniseries. To put it simply, I love that story. I love Emma’s character flaws, I love Harriet Smith’s gullibility, I love Mrs. Bates rambling monologues on Jane Fairfax, I love Mr. Woodhouse’s over-protective father love, and more than anything else, I love Mr. Knightley. But while I squeal and clap when he and Emma finally realize their love for each other, if I’m honest, I might not want to marry him myself.
I don’t think many modern young women would. Why? Well, because Mr. Knightley shows his love for Emma in calling her out. He doesn’t always compliment her, he chastises her as well. He doesn’t coddle her, he challenges her. He doesn’t tell her she’s enough, or that she’s a beautiful mess when she gets it wrong. I believe his own words were, “Badly done, Emma. Badly done!”
How’s that for wooing a woman?
If Mr. Knightley were a real man on today’s cultural stage, I’m afraid we’d shame him. We’d call him demeaning and rude. I imagine a lot of women would throw fits on the internet about the way he treated Emma, the high opinion he had of himself, and his lack of appreciation for the intelligence of the female population.
But if this were the case, we’d be getting it all wrong. We’d be missing the true character of Mr. Knightley, of Emma, and one of the most beautiful and poignant lessons Jane Austen wove (intentionally or not) into her beloved romance. We’d be missing out on the gift that friends like Mr. Knightley are, and what a sad thing that would be.
Mr. Knightley did not consider Emma to be stupid. Quite the contrary. He told her, “Better to be without sense than misapply it as you do.” He knows she is intelligent, charming, and winsome and that is exactly why he is concerned when she starts to use these traits to meddle in other people’s lives. Not because she lacks what it takes, but because she has it and missuses it. It’s not her intelligence he has a problem with, but her wrong application of it. This is further illustrated when he informs her that, “Men of sense do not want silly wives.” George Knightley is all about educated, intelligent, and charming women, to argue otherwise is to prove ignorance.
When he sees Emma’s misguided intentions, he doesn’t refrain from voicing his concern, and this, perhaps, is the greatest demonstration of love in any of Austen’s novels. He loves a woman, has not told anyone, and is willing to call out her faults for the betterment of her character even if it may cause her to dislike him even more. His intentions are selfless. His motives pure. His act of love one of sincerity. He is the iron sharpening iron, knowing that love is not ignorance of faults but investment in someone despite their faults.
I think though, of all the hard things to swallow, the hardest is Knightley’s wisdom and Emma’s foolishness. She argues with him, tells him he is wrong, and continues stubbornly on her own path. (Much like many modern literary or film heroines.) He warns her, encourages her to change her behavior, and is ignored. In the end though, Knightley was right and Emma was wrong. Even she agrees that it was, “Badly done, indeed.”
This is where the story differs from many contemporary ones. Rather than a female hero triumphing the mediocre male characters, we have a foolish and outspoken young woman being proved wrong by a strong, quiet man of wisdom. In case you hadn’t noticed, this isn’t a popular storyline today, but I believe it’s one we could benefit greatly from.
We’re all more like Emma than we realize. We’re prideful, stubborn, and selfish. That’s why we need Knightleys in our lives. Not just for lovers, but perhaps even more, for friends, for family, for acquaintances. For sharpening and growing. For the humbling of our character and the death of our pride. Without Mr. Knightley, Emma may never have become the lovable woman we find at the end of the story. What a shame that would have been.
My point is not that all women are Emmas and all men are Knightleys. No, my point is that all humans by nature are Emmas and the Knightleys are humble friends that come alongside to remind us that is the case. When following our own wisdom alone, misapplying our sense, and disregarding those whom our decisions and actions affect, we wind up with a “badly done” disaster.
Imagine though, if Emma had listened to her friend’s wisdom early on in the story. Harriet would not have been so lonely for so long. Mrs. Bates would not have been embarrassed and hurt. Jane Fairfax need not have endured such pain. Emma’s unwillingness to hear the humble wisdom of Mr. Knightley resulted in the pain of others. Heeding his wisdom would have shown them kindness and given her a clean conscience on which to sleep sooner.
I think we are prone to swoon over Mr. Knightley when watching or reading Emma. (At least, I for one am.) But I think we are less appreciative of the real Knightleys in our lives. The friends and family willing to call us out, sharpen our edges, and show us a love that can hurt at times. Perhaps we should take a moment, and thank the Lord for friends who don’t leave us to our faults.
Most of us don’t really want a Mr. Knightley in our lives. But, like Emma, we need one. And in the end, we’ll be better for it.
Quotations from Emma by Jane Austen