books, courtship, Emma, Fiction, friendship, Jane Austen, literature, marriage, novels, photography
In 2014, when we were celebrating 200 years of Mansfield Park, Margaret Horwitz wrote about “The Comfort of Friendship” for my blog. Today I’m happy to introduce her contribution to Emma in the Snow, a guest post on the friendship between Emma and Mr. Knightley.
Margaret has a Ph.D. in Film Studies from UCLA, and she’s a visiting professor of literature at New College Berkeley, an institute of the Graduate Theological Union. She’s a Life Member of JASNA and she’s given many talks on Jane Austen’s novels and their film and television adaptations, as well as on the prayers Austen composed. She presented at the 2004 JASNA AGM in Los Angeles and at the 2008 AGM in Chicago, and in 2008-2009 she was a travelling lecturer for JASNA’s western region.
A few of the recent posts for this series have included photos showing what the weather looks like between December and March in places other than Emma’s Highbury (or my Halifax). In keeping with that pattern, here’s the Golden Gate Bridge, photographed in December by Margaret’s husband, Arnie Horwitz. Thank you for sharing this stunning view with us, Margaret and Arnie, and thank you, Diana Birchall, for your midsummer-themed guest post on “Mrs. Elton’s Donkey” and your photo of a winter sunset in Santa Monica, which prompted me to invite contributors to send photos of scenes that complement or contrast with that half inch of snow in Highbury.
(I wish I’d thought of this idea back in December—I missed the chance to see glimpses of, for example, December in Scotland, where Nora Bartlett lives, or January in Australia, where Susannah Fullerton lives. Ah, well—we’re making it up as we go along, and that’s part of the fun of doing this as a blog series rather than as a formal collection of essays.)
Emma could not bear to give him pain. He was wishing to confide in her—perhaps to consult her;—cost her what it would, she would listen. She might assist his resolution, or reconcile him to it; she might give just praise to Harriet, or, by representing to him his own independence, relieve him from that state of indecision, which must be more intolerable than any alternative to such a mind as his.—They had reached the house.
“You are going in, I suppose,” said he.
“No”—replied Emma—quite confirmed by the depressed manner in which he still spoke—”I should like to take another turn. Mr. Perry is not gone.” And, after proceeding a few steps, she added—”I stopped you ungraciously, just now, Mr. Knightley, and, I am afraid, gave you pain.—But if you have any wish to speak openly to me as a friend, or to ask my opinion of any thing that you may have in contemplation—as a friend, indeed, you may command me.—I will hear whatever you like. I will tell you exactly what I think.”
(Volume 3, Chapter 13, from the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Emma .)
I find this passage one of the most crucial and rewarding moments in Emma. The recurring play on the word “friend” in the novel, and the increasingly significant stages of Emma’s self-awareness, converge in her conversation with Mr. Knightley, who has just returned from London. Harriet Smith’s recent revelation of an attachment to Mr. Knightley, which Harriet feels is reciprocated, has left Emma with the realization of her own love for him, but with little “hope.” In this scene set in the garden at Hartfield, Emma allays Mr. Knightley’s concerns about her response to news of Frank Churchill’s engagement to Jane Fairfax. Emma then progresses through three stages in fulfilling her “resolution,” made the prior evening, to have “better conduct.”
First of all, having noticed Mr. Knightley’s “mortification” at her refusal to let him continue speaking, Emma feels that she “could not bear to give him pain.” She imagines he wishes to “confide in her—perhaps to consult her,” and is afraid she will hear his declaration of love for her young friend and protégée, Harriet. The alliteration in “confide” and “consult” continues and strengthens the word “cost” in her commitment that, “cost her what it would, she would listen,” for the benefit of her lifelong friend, Mr. Knightley. [My italics.]
A pattern of alliteration in the next stage emphasizes Emma’s intent to “assist his resolution” to marry Harriet, or even “reconcile him to it,” in order to “relieve him,” if Mr. Knightley is hesitating because of Harriet’s low social status. Though apprehensive and making assumptions, Emma understands the character of her old friend, recognizing that a “state of indecision” would be “intolerable … to such a mind as his.” She makes a second determination in which she is “quite confirmed,” after noting, but misunderstanding, the “depressed manner” of Mr. Knightley’s comment, “You are going in, I suppose.”
In the third stage, Emma carries out her plan, reminiscent of other points in the novel where recognition of fault causes her to repent. She admits to Mr. Knightley that, “I stopped you ungraciously just now.” Her adding, “and, I am afraid, gave you pain,” returns us to her earlier response that she “could not bear to give him pain.” The repetition of this phrase discloses a movement from inner contrition to verbal confession. Emma courageously invites Mr. Knightley to say what she believes will give her the greatest pain, representing a milestone in her growth.
In fact, she encourages him to “speak openly … as a friend,” and to ask her “opinion of any thing” that he “may have in contemplation,” and repeats the phrase “as a friend,” in an acknowledgment of his privilege as a trusted confidant. Emma’s promise to “hear whatever you like,” and then to “tell you exactly what I think” suggests an increased willingness to confront a truth which she is convinced is unpleasant. Her description of the nature of their conversation indicates a new level of parity in a friendship with overtones of “sister” and older “brother,” given the marriage of their siblings and the difference in their ages.
Emma’s readiness in this passage to “give just praise to Harriet” recalls a much earlier conversation with Mr. Knightley, when she campaigns for Mr. Elton as a suitor for Harriet. In Volume 1, Chapter 8, she “playfully” argues that “such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in.” She even remarks, “Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you”—the excruciating possibility Emma believes she is now facing here in Volume 3, Chapter 13, and one she feels would be the consequence of her own misguided behavior.
Though Emma often defends Harriet, both out of affection and a desire to wield influence, her assessment is not “just,” and lacks good judgment, a quality she struggles to gain in the course of the novel. Emma’s willingness to be an advocate is at this point a much costlier act of friendship with regard to both Harriet and Mr. Knightley, since she prepares to set aside her own hopes. It is gratifying to see Emma respond sensitively during (rather than after) what is perhaps the greatest test of her integrity, a demonstration of her advancement in maturity.
Of course, just after this passage, we learn that Mr. Knightley wants to be more than a “friend” to Emma, that she will not be crushed by listening to him, nor need to say anything in support of Harriet’s claims (while having compassion for her). However, as Emma does not yet know this, her meditations and then spoken words mark an admirable resolve, and also indicate a high point in the two characters’ journey toward an even deeper and more balanced friendship in their joint humility.
While one sees a greater emphasis on Emma’s transformation as the title character, Mr. Knightley’s jealousy of Frank Churchill clouds his thinking; he misunderstands Emma’s actions, as she misconstrues those of others. In this novel, no character, however admirable, can really know the mind of another. As readers, we may infer that no human being is omniscient.
Mr. Knightley is afraid he is not the first for Emma, in the same way she fears not being first to him. Yet at this moment, they each approach the other to give solace in reference to a perceived rival. They both meet the challenge of this test by offering comfort, in place of making a claim to be the “first” to the other.
Instead of Emma having to “reconcile” Mr. Knightley to marrying Harriet, he and Emma experience a reconciliation, which began with her repentant action and his forgiving look over the events at Box Hill. These characters resume a primacy in each other’s lives, which they felt was at risk. Though Emma ultimately gives Mr. Knightley an affirmative response to his profession of love for her, the mettle they show in this passage reveals that they can now genuinely be the “friends” they have long called each other, with renewed hope from their transformation.
Seventeenth in a series of blog posts celebrating 200 years of Jane Austen’s Emma. To read more about all the posts in the series, visit Emma in the Snow. Coming soon: guest posts by Kate Scarth, Kirk Companion, and Margaret C. Sullivan.
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I love these essays – they show me how much more is in each paragraph than I’d ever imagined. The alliteration to emphasize different thoughts and feelings of Emma is brilliant – I’d never have guessed how skillfully JA is bringing us to understand all that has taken place internally with Emma. Yet, I did recognize the change and growth. How clever you are to show us how she did it!
One of the things I love most about JA’s books is the degree to which the characters grow in her books, and how understanding comes about gradually and slowly. I’ve long known that JA’s writing is very masterful – this not only confirms it, but gives me a bit of an idea of just how she does it. Thank you!
Thank you very much! I appreciate this thoughtful comment, and your pointing out the gradual process of change which can take place in Jane Austen’s characters.
Thank you for your beautiful and insightful post! I’ve always liked this scene since it’s so romantic. But you have shown that there is even more depth and beauty there than I saw before.
Thank you for your kind comment! I have always liked this scene, too, and was glad to have the opportunity to look at it more closely.
I really enjoyed this post, Margaret. Thank you for encouraging us to dwell on this scene and to be attentive to the courage that earns both characters their love.
Many thanks for your gracious response! Your comment highlights the point that both characters bring courage to their relationship.
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I’d forgotten that Emma had earlier told Mr. Knightley that Harriet was just the girl for him. Yikes! Austen can be so sly, so subtle and yet, so dramatic. That is just the kind of turn-about that Hollywood, for example, loves – what Emma has foolishly, haplessly recommended, now is the biggest threat to her happiness.
I also welcome the discussion of friendship. When I re-read Emma recently, in anticipation of this series, the friendship theme leapt out at me. Austen clearly draws the trust and like-mindedness of Emma and Mr. Knightley and they do seem peers, equals. In some ways, this is the most persuasive pairing of Austen’s, despite how enjoyable Darcy and Elizabeth are and despite how deserving Anne is of Wentworth. I mean, I can readily believe that Emma & Mr. Knightley will have a very sturdy happiness. That is probably what I like best about the book, which otherwise, I persist in not quite taking to our heroine, Emma, just as Austen predicted.
Thank you for your thoughtful response! I appreciate your comments on the two contrasting conversations, and on the importance of friendship and trust in this novel.
Thank you, Margaret, for such a delightful essay. I am somewhat ashamed to say that, though words and languages are my passion, I missed the repetition here, the alliteration! 😦 That being said, this has always been my favorite part of EMMA, when the character of Emma actually demonstrates that she has begun to learn, to correct those flaws that blind and ambush her. Thanks again.
Thank you very much for your kind response! Your perceptive comment highlights a compelling aspect of this part of the novel–that Emma is able to put into action what she has learned.